Manic Street Preachers
Bill Cummings 12/05/2007
The Manic Street Preachers are a band that have always lurched from success to defeat, from fleeting genius to tragedy. Despite their obvious and over emphasised faults they are essentially a band with a sense of their own history; even in their mid-thirties James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean More have a passion and intellect that is sadly lacking in most of the current crop of indie hopefuls. That they enter Cardiff's Great Hall tonight still with something to prove to many people is a shame - their last two albums have been a bit muted, there's a sense that Know Your Enemy was overly rushed and overly long, while 2005's Lifeblood was too mid paced for many, the rather bland production hampering what was a mixed set of songs. Their new album Send Away the Tigers is an attempt to reconnect with what made them such firebrands in the first place, an attempt to mix the political punk rock of their debut Generation Terrorists with the emotional stadium rock melodies of their most commercial album Everything Must Go. It's an album that produces mixed results but is, at least, up in energy and decibel levels from their recent efforts, and therefore I was eager to see whether they could maintain this spirit live: could the Manics shake off the inertia of the “we're just going through the motions” performances of 2005?
Kicking off with the fan baiting “You Love Us” is a wise move, fat crunching power chords kick you in the guts and a big shouty chorus is the perfect beginning, but following that up so closely with one of their best songs “Motorcycle Emptiness” is surely a mistake, as half the crowd hadn't warmed up properly for “that” guitar line, and its achingly alienated, anthemic chorus. It's clear from the opening songs that the bands have upped their energy levels again live, freed from the shackles of much of the more sedate material from Lifeblood. James and Nicky buzz off each other live, almost like days of yore, scissor kicking and jumping in unison upon every scatter gun drum beat, and every thudding bass line. They seem to be having fun too, at one point James reaches into the crowd and dons a military hat to go with his fatigues.
Some people focus too much on the negative sides of the Manics' musical output, painting them out to be pretentious merely because they dare to broach political subject, but what some have always missed is their sense of humour: Generation Terrorists track “Born To End” is a case in point: bringing a broad smile to my face, it's a big Guns and Roses style rocker that contains the insanely naïvely political lines like “H-bomb the only thing that will bring a freedom to life” and the sing-along chorus of new Coalition baiting rocker “Rendition” whose big chugging riffs are stamped all over by James' rasping vocals, the chorus ending with the quip “Christ I sound like a Liberal!”
The new album's title track (that takes its name from a Tony Hancock saying) sounds great, with its Lennon style vocals and shimmering guitar led melodies: Sean's drums stutter into wave after wave of melody: it's kind of apt that in the week that Blair announced he was to leave office that a song lyric partly about the coalition leaving Iraq (“The zoo's been overrun in Baghdad/tiger claws still in my back"). Later another new track “The Second Great Depression” makes the hairs on my neck stand on end, a song that's lyrics reminisce about days of yore when “I've thought about it a million times/When you maintained nothing but smile/Remember all those days” tonight it brings the memory of missing in action Manic Richey Edwards to many people's minds, it's got the same heart on its sleeve brilliance that defines many of their most poignant moments. (Little Baby Nothing, Motorcycle Emptiness, Door to the River et al).
Bassist Nicky Wire loves performing, coming back on stage in a skirt and heavy eye liner he bathes in the adoration, there's a flash of that Cheshire cat smile as he delivers a witty line about his recent involvement in XFM securing a South Wales License: “I'm going to the Chairman of XFM board and I'll be playing nothing but Hanoi Rocks and McCarthy.”
The tumbling menacing rhythm of The Holy Bible's “Die in the Summertime” is jarringly followed up by the call and return pop chorus of “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”, lapped up and sung back by an eager audience, James growling his vocal parts with a bended knee to stoop over a cocked microphone stand. Personally, try as I might, I still can't get into this new single, its lyrics too self-consciously referencing the Manics' back catalogue: its melody line that on record features the under used Cardigan's Nina Pearson is just too simple and repetitive.
The highlight for me comes with James' acoustic segue feature the caustically brilliant song about prostitution, “Yes”. I for one was front and centre shouting, fist pumping and barking out every word (“Hes a boy, you want a girl so tear off his cock/Tie his hair in bunches/fuck him/ call him Rita if you want”), the wonderfully wistful “No Surface but All feeling” that begins with a glimpse of the Smashing Pumpkins 1979 in its opening plucked out notes…. It shows off James' voice that has clearly aged like fine wine: he effortlessly floats from rasping growl to heart quivering falsetto in an instant. Probable next single “Autumnsong” starts nicely enough with another neat Guns and Roses-esque riff, but it's still hamstrung by a chorus that lacks the Manics' usual lyrical depth, it may be a “summery” song about Richey or Nicky Wire's wife but I simply can't get a handle on a chorus that simply repeats the line “what have you done to your hair?” ad infinitum, but one suspects its simplicity will be its strength commercially.
Only occasionally does a track really stand out from the constant intensity: the simple strumming of James' tribute to his mother in “Ocean Spray” sounds trite and out of place amongst the blood sweat and tears of the power chords. Then there's the reaffirmation of “Motown Junk” a song that's still sounds as rebelious as it did when it was originally released, only James' reluctance to sing some of the songs more controversial lines (“I laughed when Lennon got shot!”) disappoints me. Ending traditionally with perhaps their definitive statement “A Design For Life” and its waltzing guitars, it's a call to arms anthem for the working class that inspires football terrace style singing to go with a sea of clapping hands.
I may criticize them for some of their lyrics in recent years, the paleness of some of their recent output: sometimes I even wonder why they're still producing music eight albums into a career that was supposed to end at one, but it never dims my fondness for a band that can produce a performance like this, in these freeze wrapped musical times, a band that can rage, rage against the fading and failing of the light as hard as this, a band that still has so much to stay and still stands out; still a mess of contradictions after all these years: these are the Manic Street Preachers.