It is customary for all Manics-related reviews and interviews to begin with the same piece of recycled information, that as idealistic youngsters the Welsh rockers planned to release one great double album, become bigger than Jesus and then implode in spectacular fashion. It never happened and it’s not entirely clear why people keep bringing it up.
The truth is that for all of their invented mythology, the Manic Street Preachers have always been a fairly ordinary rock band, albeit one with the handy knack of achieving true greatness every now and again. Postcards from a Young Man is the latest in a line of fairly predictable Manics-type albums that have only marginally erred from the formula established on their first post-Richey James album (and mainstream breakthrough) Everything Must Go.
Last year’s Journal for Plague Lovers flirted with the bleak post-punk that made The Holy Bible such an unusual and iconic album (Lifeblood was just a mistake) but for the most part the group have stayed on a steady course of bombastic pop rock with loud guitars, dramatic strings and soaring choruses. With 15 years of practice, they’ve become rather good at it; but where 2007’s Send Away the Tigers was strong from start to finish, Postcards from a Young Man is as patchy an album as the Manics have released in their two-decade career.
Lead single ‘It’s Not War (Just the End of Love)’ is a perfect example of the form, echoing ‘A Design for Life’ with clean picked guitar chords and an overbearing string section that lifts the chorus from merely melodic to stadium-sized. ‘Postcards from a Young Man’ is a little more distinctive, beginning with bluesy guitar bends and meandering piano before reverting to type – i.e. loud strings – for the chorus. It’s a nice way to start an album but Manics fans have become accustomed to bombastic openers and it’s hard not to conclude that, in previous years, neither song would have made the cut.
‘The Descent (Pages 1 & 2)’ injects a little bit of ‘60s pop melody into the mix (though James Dean Bradfield is the spit of Ted Leo on the raspy chorus) and ‘Some Kind of Nothingness’ recalls the carefree elegance of the Stones’ classic ‘Out of Time,’ which the Manics covered on a Warchild compilation a few years back. ‘I Think I’ve Found It’ makes use of a mandolin in searching for a middle ground between classic pop and glam rock. ‘Auto Intoxication’ is reminiscent of Generation Terrorists, switching up glammy electric guitars with a breezy acoustic interlude, while ‘A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun’ is balls-out rock with a guest spot from consummate punk rocker Duff McKagan, ex- of Guns N’ Roses.
What’s most notable though, for a seasoned Manics fan at least, is how little an impact the lyrics have. Even when they were scraping the barrel in the early ‘00s, there was always a social or political statement underneath all the bluster, even if it wasn’t particularly palatable. On Postcards from a Young Man, the commentary barely registers. ‘Auto Intoxication’ mutters about being “buried in debt,” ‘A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun’ moans that people are slaves to their computers and ‘Hazelton Avenue’ smugly derides the “happy consumer,” but very little of it is memorable and none is even remotely challenging.
Clouds and silver linings, though: Manics fans (this one at least) can take comfort in the fact the band have been this bland before and come back. Remember ‘Know Your Enemy’?