Manic Street Preachers

Postcards from a Young Man

(Columbia; 2010)

By David M. Goldstein | 21 October 2010

In this day and age, you have to seriously try to be completely oblivious to a release date for an album from a band as ubiquitous (overseas at least) as the Manic Street Preachers. Yet, I had no prior knowledge of Postcards from a Young Man‘ s existence before seeing it written up within a fellow online publication. The surprise makes sense in context; no one outside of the band would have any reason to believe another Manics record was forthcoming when their last record, Journal For Plague Lovers (2009), was released just under a year and a half ago. Such ’70s Neil Young turnaround time is virtually unheard of these days.

Now recall that Journal was their Albini-helmed work, the one with the creepy cover art where the lyrics were constructed from bits of unearthed prose from deceased band member/junkie legend Richey Edwards. Journal purposely downplayed the squeaky-clean overproduction of the post-Edwards era in favor of a return to savage rock, and it was universally acclaimed as the Manics’ best album in over a decade. It was also my favorite album of 2009.

But about that awesome new rock sound capable of demolishing the European city blocks surrounding the football stadiums where these guys play? Postcards screams a resounding, “Just kidding!” Now it seems as if the band was treating Journal For Plague Lovers like a one-off art project; they were dying to go back to those artificial string sections all along. Sigh: the ‘Meh’-nics are whussing it up again.

Not that there’s immediately anything wrong with that. Nicky Wire has stated in interviews that Postcards is a conscious grab for (British) radio play, and it’s an exceedingly well constructed mainstream rock album whose only real crimes are that it isn’t nearly as fun as Journal and it overdoses on production touches that the band has no chance of replicating onstage. Everything sounds crisp and bright. I guess there’s something to be said for the band’s continued willingness to intelligently rock arenas without resorting to mookery. It truly is a dying art.

Fortunately, the majority of Postcards steers clear of the “woe is me” melodrama favored on back catalog slogs like This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours (1998) and Lifeblood (2004) in favor of cheery anthems like “It’s Not War, Just the End of Love” and the title track, which notably jacks both the rhythm and cadence from the band’s biggest hit to date, 1996’s “A Design For Life.” Both acoustic guitars and beds of strings are in abundance, and the band sounds positively giddy at points (“I Think I’ve Found It”). Good taste generally prevails, the glaring exception being “Some Kind of Nothingness,” a maudlin train wreck featuring a gospel choir and Ian McCulloch on vocals. It fitfully resembles a cross between recent crap Bunnymen and Mike & the Mechanics’ ’90s tearjerker “The Living Years.”

Really, everything is in its proper place, but save “Auto-Intoxication” and the (barely audible) Duff McKagan-assisted “A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun,” there’s a disturbing lack of crankage here. Chasing Journal, Postcards from a Young Man is just too damn polite, a solitary Bic lighter to Journal‘s propane weapon. It sounds like a Manic Street Preachers album, which alone renders it still better than all of the similar arena rock you can name. But, when just one year ago they’d proven they’re capable of completely re-energizing their brand with a blast of take-no-prisoners rawk, why are they so eager to retreat to the middle of the road? I have to think these guys want to aspire to a little more than being the Welsh equivalent of the Foo Fighters.

:: myspace.com/manics