It should be noted that 2009’s duly acclaimed Journal for Plague Lovers was something of an anomaly amid the Manic Street Preachers’s canon, consisting solely of posthumous lyrics taken from the scrapbooks of missing (and presumed deceased) guitarist Richard Edwards, with the music written to suit his enthralling, if often enigmatic, prose. The results were edgy, tracks fuelled by angst and spiked with potent social commentary, revisiting the dark and aggressive agenda of the band’s early years. This 10th album from the Welsh trio, though, should be taken as a sequel to Send Away the Tigers, 2007’s collection of buoyant guitar-driven anthems that set the wheels in motion for a resurgence in the band’s post-millennial output.
Having used Journal for Plague Lovers as an exorcism of sorts, the group is now free to enjoy themselves on their latest outing. Nicky Wire, Manic Street Preachers’s bassist and unofficial mouthpiece, has called Postcards from a Young Man “one last shot at mass communication,” and so singer and songwriter-in-chief James Bradfield has seen fit to stuff their latest with full orchestral arrangements, gospel choirs, and sleek power-chord riffs. Typifying the sound of the entire album, lead single “(It’s Not War) Just the End of Love” is a bout of unashamed arena-rock bathed in extravagant strings, a suitably epic ELO tribute. Similarly, the title track and “The Descent (Pages 1 & 2)” marry Bradfield’s marathon guitar solos—losing their subtlety in these more grandiose surroundings, perhaps—with lavish string arrangements, forming a sleek, polished rock format that should fit comfortably on daytime radio.
Thematically, though, Postcards from a Young Man is a far more stringent affair. Wire’s lyrics are a raging critique on a host of contemporary political issues, constantly bemoaning the decline in British culture and industry while damning the advent of mind-numbing entertainment. This “shot at mass communication” is afforded more significance with this loaded prose, using the overtly radio-friendly format to fire a volley of pertinent commentary. “A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun” and “Don’t Be Evil” (a Google diss track, you could say) take aim at the Internet, with Bradfield’s throaty wails the perfect vessel for barbed lines like “Who needs patience anymore/When all our pleasure’s virtual?” These issues seem to be growing concerns among the most socially aware of today’s musicians, with Wire and Bradfield’s no-holds-barred attack supported by deft use of the album’s cover art: a rough black-and-white image, where actor Tim Roth wields an analog camera serving to distance Manic Street Preachers from the “digital age” even further.
Unfortunately, one suspects the band’s rallying may fall on deaf ears: For all the furious posturing, the message is veneered too neatly with streamlined riffs and swamped too deep in nice-as-pie orchestral melodies. Seething rants seem to pack more of a punch when the product is less polished, and tend to get lost when bookended with excessively opulent trappings. This is rock music, after all.