When the fourth Manic Street Preachers album, ‘Everything Must Go’ came out in 1996, it marked a turning point for the band. The first album recorded without lyricist Richey James Edwards (although a chunk of the albums lyrics came from notebooks he left prior to his 1995 disappearance), the album brought the Manics a far bigger audience, courtesy of the huge hit single ‘A Design For Life’. When its follow-up, ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ was released in 1998, I hated it. Although they were a great rock band, this style “Manic Street Preachers with a safety net” weren’t the same. They just weren’t. From then, I kept my distance from the band, proclaiming (to the tune of their then recent hit, ‘If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next’) “If he tolerates this, then old Richey must be dead”.
Almost a decade later, while in my local branch of Fopp, I heard the Manics’ 2007 album ‘Send Away The Tigers’. While not as edgy as the Manics at their ferocious best, something seemed to be an improvement. I still couldn’t tell you what, though. Maybe it showed the “poppy” Manics in a better light then the previous post-Richey records, or just maybe I’d finally accepted there wouldn’t be another ‘Holy Bible’ ever again. I bought the album and really enjoyed it, and continue to do so (I also went back and bought the couple of albums I’d avoided, to find they really weren’t all that bad; they were just a bit too safe). Then, in 2009, using more of Richey’s notebook scribblings, the Manics released ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ – an angry collection of songs produced by Steve Albini – which was arguably their best album for some years. It was exciting to hear James Dean Bradfield yelping out previously unheard lyrics written by Richey. It was a sharp kick; proof that the band could still cut it – and a reminder why I loved the Manics in the early 90s, and why I still tell people I’m a fan, despite my criticism of huge chunks of their back-cat.
With two decent albums under their belts following nearly a decade of disappointment, my expectations were fairly high for ‘Postcards For a Young Man’. Those expectations for more anger a la ‘Plague Lovers’ were kicked to the kerb fairly swiftly, after hearing the choir of vocals slapped across the opening track. In a reaction to the harshness and old-school Manics approach its immediate predecessor, ‘Postcards’ is it’s polar opposite, much in the same way ‘The Holy Bible’ had been followed with the hugely commercial ‘Everything Must Go’. Released as a single, that opening track, ‘(It’s Not War) It’s Just the End of Love’ features a decent chorus and vocal arrangement from James Dean Bradfield. The ringing guitar on the verses coupled with Sean Moore’s good time-keeping during the verses ranks it among the better, post-96, softer-edged Manics material. If anything, it would have sounded better without the strings…but it’s a track which gets better with every play.
The title track appears to be an attempt at re-creating something anthemic; something in the vein of ‘A Design For Life’. It’s partly successful and the piano part is pleasing, but as the track draws to a close, there’s just a little too much going on and I’m reminded of the choir of vocals at the end of Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love’. A brave attempt – and it’s easy to see what the band were going for here, but sadly, for all of its potential, it sounds like a composite of a couple of older Manics songs (with a heavy influence from ‘A Design For Life’) and comes off worse for that. The only track with lyrics written by Bradfield, ‘I Think I’ve Found It’ is a quirky pop/rock workout, driven by mandolin. Matching a decent guitar riff under-pinned by Hammond organ, this is sunny and upbeat – and interestingly, one of the only tracks which doesn’t feel like its commercial edge was forced. Maybe Nicky Wire ought to leave more of the song writing duties to his creative counterpart…
‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ is rockier than at least half of the album – not edgy especially, but in keeping with the slightly punchier end of the commercial styled Manics. James Dean Bradfield’s guitar solos are spiky (and not always completely in tune), Sean Moore’s drumming is solid and – guesting on bass – ex-Guns N’ Roses man Duff McKagan does a great job of holding everything together. It’s not a particularly distinctive bass line and I’m sure Nicky Wire could have played it just as easily. I’m pretty sure that around the time of their second album ‘Gold Against The Soul’ the Manics had expressed a liking of G N’ R, so, with that in mind, the fact that Duff stepped in to help is cool. With an intro which sounds like a badly played Rolling Stones riff, ‘The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever’ is one of those tracks your skip button was invented for. Nicky Wire steps up for a lead vocal – an extremely flat one at that – while drummer Sean Moore contributes some equally tuneless trumpet work. It would have been bad enough, but once the choir chimes in, their harmony work only serves to make Wire sound even worse.
Drenched in strings and a guitar which sounds multi-tracked, ‘Hazelton Avenue’ is by far the best of the lighter material here. Bradfield’s performance is one of the album’s best, during a song which sounds instantly familiar. The mid-section features strings playing an eastern motif, though it’s no more than a fleeting moment, as if it were an afterthought. ‘Some Kind of Nothingness’ would have fallen into the category of nothingness, but is saved somewhat by the presence of Echo & The Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch, who shares lead vocal. McCulloch’s Scouse-tinged lower register is a good contrast to Bradfield’s higher belting voice, and the end result is decent, even if not as striking as Bradfield’s duet with Nina Persson on the Manics’ 2007 hit, ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’. Sadly, although the appearance of McCulloch provides plenty of interest, the choir on the chorus is just too heavy handed and kills the song. I appreciate the Manics are attempting to grab your attention with the lavish production, strings and choirs, but sometimes less is more, y’know?
‘Auto-Intoxication’ features another guest performer – this time fellow Welshman and legend John Cale – whom, you have to wonder why, isn’t in the producer’s chair – and whose contribution here is limited to a few keyboards and some electronic noise. Like Duff McKagan’s guest spot, it’s an unassuming role which blends in well. Since John Cale was happy enough to lend his skills, it’s such a shame the band didn’t give him more to do. With or without Cale, the track is a decent rock number, with slightly more edge than a lot of ‘Postcards From a Young Man’. There are echoes of old style Manics here and there, especially as Bradfield hits the shoutier end of his performance, but it’s still more in keeping with the noisier moments of ‘Send Away The Tigers’ than anything from ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’.
‘Postcards From a Young Man’ is a mostly slick, well put together album which, from so many other “alternative” bands may have been a minor masterpiece. For the Manics, it’s a deliberate attempt at creating an album with huge appeal beyond their fan base, with both Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield claiming it “one last shot at mass communication”. Listening to the overly-shined safe rock music on the album, with the help of producer Dave Eringa they’ve certainly created something very commercial, but it’s a far cry from the Manics most edgy works.
If you were a late convert and were attracted to the band via songs like ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ then this album is for you. If you’re an old-school fan who wants to be challenged by provacative slogan-style lyrics, there’s not too much for you here. Okay, so some of the songs have a bit of social commentary at their roots (for example, ‘Golden Platitudes’ regards Labour’s empty promises and their subsequent downfall and ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ concerns itself with the selling off of Cadbury’s and Britain’s decline), but as expected, none of Nicky Wire’s lyrics have the same venomous bite as anything Richey Edwards left behind (and anything with any real edge is ultimately washed out by the aforementioned choirs and strings anyway).
‘Postcards From a Young Man’ is an album destined get played once in a while and enjoyed for the well-crafted rock record it ultimately is…but once it’s over, some of you will still find yourselves reaching for ‘Generation Terrorists’, ‘The Holy Bible’ and ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’. Still, it’s the push and pull between chorus driven accessible material and angry sloganeering that have kept this band so vibrant over so long a period. Not bad for a bunch of guys who originally set out to release one album and disappear into the ether…