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Postcards review from a young man

18/09/2010

From the early threats of selling a gazillion albums and breaking up, Manic Street Preachers have always wanted to be big and popular. Amusingly they’ve succeeded doing just that whenever they didn’t even aim for it – their largest hit period falls over the post-Richey hangover melancholy of Everything Must Go that carried its bittersweet sadness on large sweeping choruses and its introverted successor This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours which saw the band explore the innards of their souls while still retaining enough of a hit sensibility to produce four big hits. After that they destroyed their popularity willingly by a series of uncommercial (by nature or by lack of desire to promote) albums and when they felt like returning to the spotlight again, they created Send Away the Tigers to achieve just that. Doing something by desire rather than coincidence kicked against it and Tigers was an album where the band walked around on autopilot most of the time, performing songs so typically Manicsy it felt like the first original album by a cover band; effectively their career nadir. It gave them a singular hit but not very much follow-up momentum, and 2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers was a personal, decidedly non-commercially aimed project which didn’t particularly help them gain public ground. While Journal was their largest critical success in several years, the band sees it as a sidestep from the greater path.

And here we have the end of that path. Postcards From a Young Man is the self-described “last shot at mass communication”. An attempt to hit it big once more and if that doesn’t succeed then, well, we don’t know yet. Something less commercially aimed? But Postcards’ battle statement reads loud and clear. This is an album made to produce hits and sell copies, to show up in the spotlight once more. It’s made to be a big album and it doesn’t try to hide it. Big rock anthems with a big sound: not only the familiar string orchestras but this time also choirs to back up the huge choruses. If it wasn’t so clear about its objects this’d be the album all the naysayers would finally point out as a sell-out moment: as it is, such a claim would be absolutely pointless to make because the band hasn’t been particularly shy about its goal.

But while Journal for Plague Lovers killed the public light they had fleetingly achieved with Tigers’ lead single, recording it seems to have done them a world of good and showed them something. The atmosphere on Journal was one of a loose and relaxed band having fun in the studio regardless of the darkness of the music. Perhaps going into Postcards so soon after that helped them to keep that spirit, because despite its intentional desire to be a hit single gold mine it has no trace of autopilot or accidentally self-deprecating musical stylisms in sight. If anything, Postcards is Send Away the Tigers done right. It’s a big rock album with a commercial twist – and this time it sounds like the band’s fully behind it.

A commercial twist isn’t inherently evil in itself despite how many see it in that light. At the end of the day James Dean Bradfield and co are fantastic songwriters who’ve given us countless songs with brilliant hooks and everlasting melodies. To emphasise those parts isn’t a recipe for instant failure. So much is apparent on Postcards as well: from the vintage Manics of the title track to the instantly memorable “Hazleton Avenue” which gives another classic signature guitar line, it’s clear that this band knows how to pull off a big pop-driven single moment rather excellently and with the new reneved spree of inspiration courtesy of the Journal period, they’ve made it all sound so fun. Postcards is the most joyous Manics album to date and occasionally that factoid makes it sound highly refreshing, like with the irresistable sunshine nugget “I Think I’ve Found It” that’s destined to become an underspoken hidden treasure in the back catalogue and the lead single “(It’s Not War) Just the End of Love” that covers its typical Manics maneuverisms with such joy that it’s pretty hard not to like it and sing along with it. The choirs and string sections (live strings, delightfully) sound right at home and completely natural, in some cases proving to shelter some of the songs’ best moments.

Appropriately considering that point, the main flaw of Postcards is that the moments where it sheds away with those tendencies altogether also prove to be its weakest by a long mile. “Auto-Intoxication”, “A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun” and “All We Make Is Entertainment” are more straightforward rockers, relying more on the typical Manics guitarisms than anything else on the album. Which isn’t all that bad at all in theory but with being typical comes a hint of an uninspired nature. They make a lot of sound, probably work the easiest in a live setting and have a furious heart to express the band’s (once again self-described) continuously angry nature but only serve to distract from the album’s more memorable moments in their big-fuss-over-nothing nature. Even more annoyingly most of them are cluttered together near the end together with the somewhat fun but very b-sidey “Don’t Be Evil” that does a terrible job at ending the album, and as a whole the clutter gives what is essentially a good album a rather poor aftertaste.

Another slight point of criticism, albeit one disguised in optimistic shades, is that while most of Postcards is an enjoyable listen with several very good songs, it only hosts two that have the chance to become big highlights in the whole catalogue. “The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever” does the unlikely and turns the oft-controversial Nicky Wire lead vocal spots into a definite standout moment: backed by an infectious drum beat, Sean’s trumpet and a choir, Wire abandons his usual low-key roughness and presents an almost groovy guitar pop anthem that’s one of the single most infectious ones on the album. On top of everything stands “Some Kind of Nothingness”, easily one of the very best Manics moments in the past few albums: every single design element of the album comes together into one massive moment, an achingly bittersweet anthem that during its final minute explodes into a bombast of choirs, strings and guitar walls that pretty much proves immediately how a direction like this could result in something mindblowingly fantastic. The rest of the album can’t keep up with it sadly but if anything, Postcards is a welcome addition to the discography only to have it introduce Nothingness.

Fortunately Postcards does offer a fair bit more than just those two songs, even if only occasionally peeks at the greatness that it could have been in another reality. There’s not much mindblowingly great material on it, but on the other hand the general vibe after the album is a positive one and several of the songs touch upon something that makes them special in their own little ways. It doesn’t really break borders in the Manics history and its unique stand-out point is its optimistic feeling rather than anything from a musical perspective, but while one could nitpick things about it those points never stop the album from being enjoyable. It’s a very base-good album: in the hands of this band still worth a listen even if not a discography essential. It may not offer enlightement, but it puts a smile on the face while listening to it. In short, Postcards is good: nothing more, and definitely nothing less.


Some Kind of Nothingness (feat. Ian McCullough)

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