James Dean Bradfield has famously called Postcards From A Young Man – the 10th Manic Street Preachers studio album – the group’s “last attempt at mass communication.”
Since their first album, 1992’s Generation Terrorists, Bradfield and the Manics have been flirting with and subverting pop sensibilities and radio play with sociopolitical lyrics veiled under heavy gauze layers of impossibly catchy hooks and melody.
Postcards From A Young Man continues their long-term pattern of attack. Indeed, 10 albums in, Bradfield and company once again approach things with the utmost radio-friendliness in mind. The album is replete with big, arena-filling hooks and indelibly poppy production, thick with strings, gospel choirs, and an overall slick, polished quality.
Musically, Postcards is high drama, harkening back to Bradfield’s most obvious influence, ELO. Everything here feels bigger than it ought to be, and to the album’s credit, this aesthetic consistently overlays the whole thing; the curtain is never pushed aside to reveal the tangled mess of pulleys and disinterested stagehands in the wings. To its detriment, though, the album’s overall sound feels a bit removed from its time – indeed, a wayward postcard from a much younger version of a band existing several decades ago, recently discovered collecting dust in the office of dead letters.
This sort of glamour and theatricality is far from in style today, in an age of recession-depression and avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll slackery. Its sound smacks of a big arena tour with complex and expensive set pieces and lighting arrays, and ticket prices that reflect the cost, with top-shelf booze and accommodations for the added weight of a gospel choir and string section. But there’s something endearing about a band willing to sound so un-coolly out of vogue; they’ve got to mean it, and their intensity of purpose comes through resplendently in the final product.
It opens with the anthemic lead single (It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love, which sets the fist-pumping scene for the album’s epic arc with big strings and a guitar solo whose tone is warmly reminiscent of Brian May. The title track sweeps in a half-time swoon that sounds like it could have come from a Crazy-era Aerosmith session. “This life, it sucks your principles away,” Bradfield sings. “You have to fight against it every single day.”
Some Kind Of Nothingness features a gravelly, telltale guest vocal by Ian McCulloch, who sounds a bit bemused to be crowded out by a gospel choir and a wall-of-sound string orchestra. The whole thing reveals itself as an anthem worthy of U2 after a few listens, and its melody catches in the ear; but the effect of its catchiness is more uplifting than annoying.
That Brian May guitar tone resurfaces on Hazelton Avenue, which has a sort of Motown bounce and a puzzling social consciousness (Bradfield sings: “Yes, I worship at the altar. I am a happy consumer.”) Things slow down for I Think I’ve Found It, which brings what sounds like a whole army of mandolins into the mix. All We Make Is Entertainment is perhaps the standout track; the guitar work is feverish and wonderful, challenging even the most cynical listener to fight the urge to mime along.
Overall, Postcards finds Manic Street Preachers at the top of their game, even 22 years after their first single. It’s not for everyone – though pop radio will undoubtedly spin several of these tracks hourly for the foreseeable future – but longtime Manics fans will likely find plenty to love in this polished, grandiose “last attempt at mass communication” from an enigmatic rock ‘n’ roll institution.