First impressions: Manic Street Preachers – Rewind the Film
Or why Manic Street Preachers‘ eleventh studio album is a sign of a new lease on the band’s life and a new, fruitful chapter that finally fills some of the promises they’ve been making over the past few years.
Even as a self-admitted and highly biased super fan, I don’t think it’s a particularly damning or untruthful thing to say that the Manic Street Preachers have been coasting on past glories for over half a decade now. For a long time one of their defining stylistic trademarks was that they always reacted very bluntly to whatever they had done before: most of their albums can be seen as strong reactions and antithesises to the themes and sounds of the ones that preceded them, often to the point that made it seem like the band actively began to dislike most of what they had produced roughly ten minutes after it had been recorded. Nonetheless, they were always breaking new ground for themselves, testing their own borders unafraid of any reactions other than their own.
That all began to change after the mid-00s. 2007’s Send Away the Tigers was a reaction like most of the albums before it, a deliberately commercial-sounding return to rock after Lifeblood‘s (2004) introspective elegiac pop. But this time they were actively referencing their own, attempting to bring back the sound of their commercial heydays. It was followed by Journal for Plague Lovers, an album that once again sounded like nothing before it but which was tied so tightly to the band’s own history and the legends surrounding their former guitarist Richey Edwards, utilising his leftover lyrics, that it felt like the hardcore fan equivalent of Tigers’s commercial angle. 2010’s Postcards from a Young Man then rehashed the rehash, taking the commercial rock angle and taking it even further. While at parts inspired and generally a very enjoyable album, certainly moreso than the very autopiloted Tigers, it also bore the feel of a band making music not for themselves, but for some unknown part of the audience that the band believed was not only tangible and real, but the most vital part of their existence. In short, they had fallen into the same rut that many longrunner bands end up falling into – doing the same old typical things over and over again, rather than sounding as inspired and creative as they had been before. It’s not to say that those three albums were bad – even the career nadir Tigers is listenable and has a few highlights that make it worthwhile – but it was hard to get truly excited by them.
Postcards was touted as the “last shot at mass communication”. Should it have failed to make the band into serious hitmakers once more, it’d signal the last time they tried to achieve the same. It failed, of course – this is not the 1990s anymore and mainstream success has largely sailed past aging rock bands. The only thing left for the band to do was to actually make true of their promise: for a band notorious of never keeping their word, there wasn’t much optimism left around for the supposed change in wind.
That is why Rewind the Film is the most exciting Manics album since Lifeblood. Bradfield, Wire and Moore actually kept their promise and decided to create something different. There’s a new sound: an acoustic approach that they had been hinting at for years but never had the guts to pull through. There’s breaking their own barriers: James Dean Bradfield has greatly reduced his role as The Voice of the band, with three different guest vocalists making appearances alongside bandmate Wire doing his now-traditional solo spot, with some tracks carrying neither of the familiar Manics voices. There’s even amending past mistakes: Bradfield has been avoiding writing songs that go past a certain length for years now and it has resulted in great many tunes that feel forcedly finished halfway through. Here, there are no track length limits, with each song getting exactly as much airtime as it needs (it’s sort of shocking that you actually have to find it a surprising thing for a band to have a five-minute song on their album). It’s the first Manics album in a long, long while that feels like something truly new and breathes the band’s old spirit without directly stealing it.
As a musical achievement, the results are slightly more mixed. Rewind the Film is a good album and at places genuinely gorgeous, be it when it’s sparser (“This Sullen Welsh Heart”, “Builder of Routines”, “Running Out of Fantasy”) or fuller (the cinematically swooping, Richard Hawley-featuring title track, the electronic flutter of “Tokyo Skyline”). In many places it’s downright arresting and the band’s new creative freedom leads to tangible results, the music sounding like they’re truly having fun in studio again despite the everpresent melancholy. Even Wire’s lyrical pen has sharpened once more. The almost parodically Wire-esque empty platitudes that have been plaguing the always lyrically minded band’s songs have been swooped away and replaced with a far more sharper and evocative touch. Wire is at his best whenever he’s at his most introspective and Rewind the Film’s bittersweet nostalgia and simultaneous ruthless tearing of the writer’s own legacy and past are some of Wire’s best work in years.
The downside to Rewind the Film is that when the album slips, it’s even more noticeable than normally. Surprisingly, most of these slipups come from the hands of Wire. For the past few albums, Wire’s been contributing more and more material musically to the Manics repertoire and often his songs – whether sung by James or by himself – have been among the best parts of their respective albums, largely due to not adhering to the same set of restrictions as James’ songwriting. Here, Wire just gets clumsy. “4 Lonely Roads” sounds like the most average Nicky Wire b-side track you could possibly imagine (and Cate le Bon’s vocals do not really lift it any higher), while the mandatory Richey ballad “As Holy as the Soil” sounds like an amateur song you’d have a singalong to on a kids’ summer camp, with lyrical quality to match. On an album otherwise very full of finesse and a smooth, subtle touch, they come off as way too clunky and awkward. Not that James comes off as completely spotless either. Both “Show Me the Wonder” and “Anthem for a Lost Cause” sound like such an obvious attempts at writing a key single that they fight against the rest of the album’s mood and spirit: the former actually has a great set of verses but also features a messy racket of a chorus, whilst the latter sounds like a Postcards leftover that would have probably found a better home on that album than this.
And yet, even with its flaws, Rewind the Film keeps impressing. It sounds different to the rest of the band’s works, contains some very fine moments and hints at new paths not yet fully taken but which you can almost glance at on the horizon. In other words, much like the band’s works prior to their years of trying to vie for others’ affection intentionally. It is an album that sounds like it was made for the people who play on it, a work of inspired love for music and creating something without any worries about whether it’ll please demographic X or Y. With another album already looming on the horizon – the apparently more “European”, aggressive and edgier Futurology appearing early next year – Rewind the Film feels very much unlike its title. Unlike its most recent predecessors, it’s not reliving already-experienced stories: it’s starting up a new chapter.
Rewind the Film