Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Manic Street Preachers Grow Old Gracefully

In the 1990s British music scene there were hardly any bands faster and more furious than The Manic Street Preachers. Leading the charge of Welsh guitar bands in the period, the Manics were also among the most radical of them, both musically and politically.

Then of course, there was James Dean Bradfield’s voice: searing; hugely powerful; completely idiosyncratic.

Most of all their story – enduring the (presumed) death of guitarist Richey Edwards, and still managing to produce very successful, sweeping musical anthems in the aftermath – was a narrative as moving as that of New Order’s birth out of Joy Division. We wanted them to win, out of such adversity, and they did.

The Manics, then...

...and now

This year’s new release from the band though, “Journal for Plague Lovers,” really retains only one of these three elements, which had commanded our interest. The album is still marked by Bradfield’s almost operatic singing. The Manics have become something I think they would have been horrified by a decade ago though: tame.

There are a lot of similarities with this story of gentle decline and that of Supergrass’s, another 90s act whose first album, ‘I should coco,’ had an energy that even admittedly engaging later work could never match. Supergrass had a great voice to lead it too, and an incredible force that has now dissipated.

At fault I think is over-production that evens out both bands’ music to the point where it is just too clear and digestible, and has had the jagged thrall of energy that I feel sure they could still muster hammered out of it. After all, it seems unfair to assume age is the issue alone. There are plenty of older bands that keep up the pace (even much older – I saw the Buzzcocks a little while ago storm through a set at the old Axis). This over-polished production is remarkable, because no less a studio master than Steve Albini was responsible for it.

I suppose The Manics shouldn’t be expected to produce endless, increasingly worn-out parodies of their initial work. What we have from The Manics this time around though is a pale version of their early stuff, and it doesn’t offer a new kind of sound to replace what’s missing of the old one.

“Journal for Plague Lovers” is not a terrible album – it’s ‘solid,’ even ‘dependable.’ A band that has produced such powerful work in the past though, can hardly be satisfied with that.