Sunday, December 12, 2010
Manic Street Preachers
"Postcards From A Young Man"
Columbia Records, 2010
"I'm no longer preaching to the converted, that congregation has long ago deserted"-- Manic Street Preachers, "All We Make Is Entertainment"
Truer words have never been spoken.
Usually as bands age, they lose that fire that they once had. It's inevitable. It's easy to lose perspective of what made you great in the first place, because your life changes, and usually as we age, our perspective of the world changes. Sometimes it's for the better, sometimes it's for the worse. Maybe becoming a parent mellows you out a bit. Maybe there's certain events that happen that make you realize that maybe you can win the battles, but not the war. But I guess that the idea is that there's progression, and/ or that the younger version of you was naive and asked all the questions, but didn't necessarily have all the answers. But you can go more wrong in answering the question than you can in questioning the answer.
Some artists and musicians look back on their early careers with disdain and contempt; citing naivety or youth as cause for the disowning and embarrassment. In most of those cases, I don't really understand why they're that put off by their works.....those songs are still crowd and fan favorites. Sometimes those bands throw out one or two of those songs from those whole periods in a setlist, to satisfy people, while there's numerous "album classics" that aren't necessarily singles on the classic rock radio rotation, but still are favoured by diehard fans. The Stones follow their template a bit too well--you know they'll play "Paint It Black" and "Brown Sugar", but they'll never play "Let It Loose" or "Monkey Man" (I guess you can only play one epic song from an album; "Gimme Shelter" is the obvious choice, but I like "Monkey Man" as much). When I saw AC/DC on their "Black Ice" tour last year in 2009, they'd got it right--several album classic cuts like "Dog Eat Dog" had the crowd curiously baffled, and they probably played about half of their new disc, which was about equally as baffling to the audience.
Needless to say, sometimes it's hard to recapture that earlier spirit, and when you try too hard to revisit that after an extended period of making albums that strayed from the audience's expected formula, sometimes it's welcomed as a "return to form", and other times, it simply doesn't ring true. In some cases, you wonder if a band wouldn't just be better off issuing an official greatest hits album, rather than a half baked attempt to recapture what they did best. Some bands like Blue Cheer, I like the early stuff more, because they didn't have alot of time to overanalyze things or worry about what's "right".....those things that you do because maybe you can't do them exactly like other bands, forms the nucleus of what makes you different and great and gives you your own style. It's when you try to get someone else's style down pat that you almost become a cover band. Mick will tell you that the new Stones album is the "best since 'Exile On Main St'", but you know the guy doesn't actually like hardly any of that album anyways....so the words don't have an honesty to them. It's a sales pitch. But i'd wager that most of my favorite bands made their best music early on in their career and then called it a day before they got too stale, to even worry about issuing such statements. Sometimes as a band, your main competition and nemesis is yourself and your own history.
Some bands have or had overstayed their welcome....and the Manics sometimes leaned dangerously close to that line. As is the case with any political band, the Manics never had lost a political presence, but after awhile, perhaps, there's only so long that you can revisit the same themes and atone that with your experience in life, in that maybe there's small hypocrisies that arise. I dig the nihilism of punk and the idea that you have your ideals intact and that you can question what the world gives you, but as soon as you release any music, it becomes a product. Whether it's "That's Show Business", or the Jam's "That's Entertainment", it's correct to a certain extent. You can rail about the system, but eventually you're part of it, digested and spat out. Punk itself has gone through numerous changes--the transition into post punk from the late 70's to early 80's wherein bands like Joy Division, Magazine, The Saints, The Damned all had undergone pretty radical changes in their sound from the one that they'd started out as.
All topic related prefacing aside, originally, and getting to the bulk of the core topic here, I wanted to do this writeup as a lone "best album of 2010" feature, but thought that it would fit into the Flash Metal Suicide category for a variety of reasons. Normally I don't consider something an instant classic, and in some ways, writing about an album that you're sure to be a later classic isn't maybe the best idea. We've all had bands and records that we were sure was the "greatest ever", upon looking back in hindsight in question of what we were thinking. All I know is that i've listened to this record a zillion times already, and that sometimes all we have is the moment right now, anyways--we're not guaranteed another day here. But one reason for this writeup is that I can't see them following this one up--even the weakest tracks on here would be most other bands' best material, and if at the very worst in future days upon my own reflection, this writeup can function if nothing else as a salute to the bands' later career as the third in a trio of great albums that display a revitalized band that normally isn't seen for bands as late into their career as the Manics are.
But needless to say, some fans and critics aren't impressed with this album.....and if the band is phoning in faux inspiration that's supposedly dwarfed by past accolades with the exact same template, then dammit, i'm fooled. Guilty. But great music is usually part fantasy anyways, so as long as that attempt at a fantastic, magical adventure is there, i'm usually game for it. Speaking as someone who plays and writes music and can appreciate the smaller nuances of things that maybe get lost in the shuffle, the playing and songwriting are nothing less than top notch on this record. My reasoning is that at least you attempted greatness. That's the best that you can ask. Whether or not you achieved it doesn't necessarily matter as much as the attempt, the intention of greatness. There's no denying that from the strings and backing choirs, that it's still an attempt at an overblown, over the top rock album. That sort of thing these days ain't exactly in large supply, especially with the industry's budgets for albums shrinking all the time.
Pepsi had already wrote a FMS about the earlier days of the band (which I can't seem to find right now), so I thought that another one from later on in their career would be fitting, too. And also--as of the time of this writing and not being able to predict the future--this album seems like the band's trump card, that they've exhausted every card in the deck and had put all their chips in for one last gamble. Or in other words, you could say that the band's statement for this album, something like "one last shot at mass communication", may preface my speculations and point towards this being that last gamble at trying to unify everyone that they wished to. In fairness to the Manics, it's hard to combine politics and rock music, because rock music has typically been about simplicity and things that are easy to comprehend. It's usually been more about making noises that fit to the music---most people, when they sing along, just sort of make noises that fit, even if they don't know the words. The Manics have been an anomaly, because they've always wanted you to know the words.......and admittedly, sometimes rock n' roll just functions best on a primal level where you're inspired more by the overall sound, than what the message is. And to the Manics' credit, alot of bands have failed at properly getting audiences into some sort of proactive, social or political awareness. But sometimes it's as important to question the answers, and the Manics have never been ones to shy away from questioning what they've been told was right to accept.
It makes it all the more astonishing for the Manics that any band at about 20 years into their existence can make an album like this that flat out pulses with inspiration and invigoration. In some ways, it was the record that they were always destined to make, from their earlier glam rock days, through the harrowing darkness of "The Holy Bible", to the "Everything Must Go"/ "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" days, through the albums of varying quality since then. I have to give credit to the Manics, because most bands break up before they embrace a proper synopsis of their previous greatness that is informed by enough of a similarly weary but different world view. "Send Away The Tigers" is an amazing return to form for a band that was considered to be finished--albums like "Lifeblood" didn't do much to convince diehard fans that the band was on cruise control. "Journal For Plague Lovers" is a pretty good return to "The Holy Bible" type sound, and a good closing of the Richey chapter. Most of the tracks on this one have that huge, bombastic Queen/ ELO/ Beatles grandeur to 'em, slathered in strings and while that may be pretty cliche for them, when it's done well--as in the case of this record-- it always still has that magical quality to it.
The album starts off with "It's Not War Just The End Of Love", a huge majestic rocker that ascends to all the expected heights with the choruses and a massive James Dean Bradfield guitar solo in the middle, then feeds into the album's title track (which is probably this album's version of "A Design For Life"), closing out on the refrain with Bradfield reassuring us that he "...won't betray your confidence, this world will not impose it's will, I will not give up and I will not give in". "Some Kind Of Nothingness" is a more upbeat song--a duet with Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCullough (the first of two big guests on the album, the second being Duff McKagen on bass in "A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun"); eventually ending off in a repeated sunnier choral crescendo of strings and choir vocals. Highlights later in the album are "Auto Intoxication" with it's Neu! styled art rock emphasis (and excellent chorus with a shift into a slower tempo and more melancholy vibe with some space-y effects), and the aforementioned "All We Make Is Entertainment"--an excellent rocker closed out by a huge Brian May type guitar solo, with a more mellow verse, along with the Manics' atonement with themselves that maybe, in the end, they are primarily entertainers rather than political activists.
All the other tracks are great too, but with the risk of sounding redundant, it's safe to say that they're appropriately rocking, melancholic, or majestically inspiring in some way or another. Nothing detracts from the previous song, but they all move the album along well in pace and flow. You won't find anything quite as arena rocking as the "Generation Terrorists" or "Gold Against The Soul", though the rocker type songs do have a renewed ferocity to them that enhances the slower, feeling songs, without sounding too out of place or forced (something that "Send Away The Tigers" also does well, yet "Journal For Plague Lovers" sometimes sounds like they're trying to be a bit too aggressive or intimidating for the sake of intimidation). The early Manics' rock power sometimes dwarfed their slower songs, although they were always adept at combining the two extremes even then, and agreeing on something like "Motorcycle Emptiness".
Or you know, when I think of it, when we're talking about simplicity, perhaps Eddie Spaghetti and the Supersuckers summed being a rock band up best in "My Kickass Life", reflecting upon things about ten years into their career, on their version of an equally as revitalized album in "The Evil Powers Of Rock n' Roll":
"Through it all, I can see through the smoke and these lights....it's all bullshit baby, but I do it night after night after night after night, ah yeah"