Was it really only a year ago that the Manic Street Preachers released Journal for Plague Lovers? Damn. Time flies. That was the first Manic Street Preachers album I’d ever heard and it walked such a fine line between hair metal, punk, and pop, that I just had to love it. The album featured some of the last lyrics Richey Edwards (vanished in 1995, presumed dead in 2008) ever wrote, which left some critics to wonder where James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire, and Sean Moore would go next.
Probably nobody predicted that they’d make the best Queen album recorded since Freddie Mercury’s death. But that is indeed what Postcards from a Young Man is – like its predecessor (and a lot of their music, from what I’ve heard), the new Manic Street Preachers record dances gingerly along the fine line between Awesome in a 1970s Way and Shitty in an 1980s Way. That’s due in part to the lyrics – even when they’re backed by a gospel choir, they replace “Don’t Stop Me Now” with the more defiant (and, maybe, a little more butch) “This world will not impose its will on us.” You also have to credit the Manic Street Preachers for the wonderful way they embody the first word of their name. They rock out so unabashedly that it’s hard to dismiss them, even when they’re tag-teaming you with a gospel choir and an orchestra. Or, as singer/guitarist Bradfield (one of the finest vocalists in rock at the moment) puts it, “We’re at our best when we’re fifty percent dumb and fifty percent lofty pretension.” Young musicians, pay attention: that’s a good formula for awesome rock music.
Somehow, the dumb pretension of having an orchestra on nearly every track and a gospel choir on a fistful of them (plus a duet! It would be more fitting if the duet was with Elton John, but it’s with Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch) is balanced perfectly with the soaring melodies that made Journal For Plague Lovers so catchy. By embracing all the stuff that usually signifies bloated creative stagnation in a rock band, the Manic Street Preachers have made a record that is almost certainly calculated to dominate rock radio; the miracle is that it pretty much deserves to do so. It’s certainly the poppiest Manics record I’ve heard (I’m no expert, though. I’ve only got the three albums: The Holy Bible, Journal for Plague Lovers, and Postcards from a Young Man) and even its dark lyrical moments (which are many – they’re still the Manic Street Preachers) are presented over a glam rock sheen. It’s a very positive record too, despite songs about death (“Some Kind of Nothingness”, according to the band, is about “the importance of grief” but it’s hard for me not to hear it as a farewell to Richey Edwards), disillusionment with one’s chosen political party (“Golden Platitudes,” which was written about New Labour in the U.K. but could also serve American Democrats who are ashamed of their party for, say, totally wussing out over closing Guantanamo), and permanent wage slavery (“Auto-Intoxication”).
Given a song like the fucking incredible “All We Make is Entertainment”, it might be easy to assume the string arrangements and gospel choirs are an ironic comment on rock ‘n’ roll excess. But that assumption would misread the entire, beautiful mission of the Manic Street Preachers. They mean everything they say. Everything. Even if – no, especially if – they contradict themselves. Some people want to immediately dismiss a person who contradicts him-or-herself, but I think that’s a dishonest move. People are contradictory creatures – I hate pretty much everything about commercial cattle farms but I love cheeseburgers. On “Hazelton Avenue,” the Manic Street Preachers imagine (and furtively embrace) a consumerist Heaven. What’s so great about that? Record stores. Book stores. Pubs. You can be as anti-corporate and “fuck-the-man” as you want, but if you’ve ever purchased…um…anything, you’ve bought into the system (unless you’ve never ever even remotely enjoyed anything you’ve purchased, in which case you’re a fucking liar). That doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) oppose its worst habits. Every time you drive on a highway or check a book out from the library, you’re benefiting from government – but that doesn’t mean you should let the TSA grab your genitals just so you can fly home for the holidays. The Manics spend a lot of time contradicting and explicitly condemning (see “Don’t Be Evil” for examples of this) the position they take on “Hazelton Avenue” and it’s not because of some rhetorical weakness – it’s because they both love record shops and hate consumer culture in general. The Clash contradicted themselves constantly, but that doesn’t invalidate a single word they wrote (and I would argue that Joe Strummer worked very hard not to contradict his edict that “punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human beings.” I’m not saying the dude was perfect – no one is – but he seemed to bust his ass to be a good person, and that matters a whole lot more to me than… well, just about anything else). I guess what I’m really saying is that if you try to actually say something with your art, you run a greater risk of contradicting yourself because substance is a fickle mistress. But the alternative is on American Idol every season and if you’re anything approaching a loyal Bollocks! reader, I think it’s safe to assume you’ll join me in saying, “Fuck that noise.”
Lyrical content aside (I realize that lyrics are more important to me than they are to other people – I’ve been accused of liking them more than I like melody but that’s the sort of untrue thing you can’t ever disprove to people once they’ve made up their mind about you), Postcards from a Young Man is still impressive. The fact that the orchestral arrangements mostly compliment (as opposed to “overpower”) the songs is no mean feat – the cellos that open “Hazelton Avenue” actually rock, which is something that cellos, fine instruments that they are, don’t get to do much. The strings don’t feel all that indulgent (The choir does though. Any time you have a gospel choir in a rock song it is indulgent. However, this does not exclude it from being awesome) and there’s still plenty of the fiery guitars and pounding drums you expect from the Manic Street Preachers. It’s just that, this time, they went with about seventy percent “lofty pretension” and still came up with some kickass tunes.