After the mysterious disappearance of guitarist Richey Edwards in February 1995, the Manics regrouped and entered a period of critical and commercial success. Everything Must Go (1996) was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, and was snapped up by the growing lad culture, who presumably missed the irony of the line We don't talk about love/ We only wanna get drunk in 'A Design For Life'. The follow-up, This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours (1998), contained the No.1 single 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next', written about the Spanish Civil War. The band recorded their second No. 1 with 'The Masses Against The Classes' in 2000. After this great crest of popularity, the band's work grew more inconsistent, with both Know Your Enemy (2001) and Lifeblood (2004) being written off as insipid and inconsistent. Following a two-year break to focus on solo projects - including James Dean Bradfield's The Great Western (2006) - the band returned to the studio to regroup.
We kick off with the title track, and it's instantly clear how far this band have come. Don't be put off by the 1970s organ opening, this a beautiful combination of their punk and metal roots dressed up in the dignity of alterative rock. The lyrics may not be especially compelling, especially well they've been coated in some annoying reverb. But the drums are straight and true, and the guitar is deep and menacing, especially at the end of the choruses. Most impressive of all, though, is Bradfield's voice. It remains as rich and politicised as the glory days of the band in the late-1990s.
With 'Underdogs', the mood temporarily switches to toned-down indie, with all its squashed snare work and near-whispered lyrics. But before this becomes even remotely irritating, the whole mix explodes in a ball of socialist fire. The chorus follows the punk formula of short, loud and simple; it's the formula that made them famous and it still works today, producing a cocktail of passion, angst and violence designed to blow your head to smithereens.
'Your Love Alone Is Not Enough' can came across as perturbing. The vocals are shared with Nina Persson, lead singer of Swedish pop group The Cardigans, hardly the most credible force in music today. And the song pattern is more pop than punk, with its frequent breaks and light refrains. You even have overworked lyrics, which reference both Pink Floyd - trade all your heroes in for ghosts - and the band's past glories - you stole the sun straight from my heart. But if you can overlook all of these, hard as it may seem, you have a good midsummery number. It might be a little forgettable, but the feel of the piece just about redeems it.
Enough being generous. 'Indian Summer' doesn't need to pass on feel, it's good in its own right. Bradfield isn't singing at his clearest, but the way in which this is put together feels tighter than before. The lead-in to the chorus showcases the talent of Sean Moore on drums, as he plays with both tightness and brio. The guitars sound good and everything is crisply produced, preventing it from dragging at all. 'The Second Great Depression' isn't all that bad either. If anything, its overtly political nature marks it out an improvement. This feels like an old-school Manics song, though not quite along the same lines as 'The Masses Against The Classes'. The slower tempo means that it is also nowhere near as good, but still packing a fair punch.
It is from this point onwards that we get into dodgier territory. 'Rendition' may be political in image, but the punch is slipping away, being replaced by everything noisy and obnoxious that makes punk such a difficult genre (something that was, perhaps, designed to be). This is too chaotic, too frenetic and without anything to tie their rage down. Like Green Day's most recent work, it comes across sound and fury, signifying very little than hadsn't already been said by better musicians and writers.
Having tossed up such a turkey, we somehow get 'Autumnsong'. And it sounds like a whole different band, as if in a single song the band had gone forward ten years in experience and talent. The opening chords are sublime, screechingly high and yet so easy on the ease. The lyrics are better too - wear your love like it is made of hate is one of the most skillfully crafted lines of 2007. This may be a summery song, in both title and subject, but it blows everything else of this category out of the water. It may be just as simple as 'Your Love Alone Is Not Enough', but here, without stupid extra vocals and with a lot more substance, you get your money's worth. This is the Manics at the best, taking the angst-ridden rawness of the band members' emotions and chanelling through the music to create something which never drags or rushes, never bores, and always thrills.
'I'm Just A Patsy' is political - the title comes from Lee Harvey Oswald - and it may sounds like a riot. But again the punch, the climax never comes. Listening to this song is a bit like driving an Aston Martin V8 Vantage - it sounds amazing, it looks good, but when you put your foot down and demand speed, it never really comes, and you are left ever so slightly empty, and out of pocket. It's a good thing, then, that 'Imperial Bodybags' is a real belter. This is the first track on the album on which the political content properly works. The reason is simple: it's more subtle, tinged with suggestion and irony amid the metallic rhythm guitar and dark thump of the bass. The chorus is reminiscent of 'A Design For Life', and the result is that this album is completely back on track.
The closer is a double whammy, with 'Winterlovers' and a cover of John Lennon's 'Working Class Hero'. The former, with its Na na naa footballers' opening, is a sure-fire anthem. The chorus is catchy, and although, like most of the album, it is written in 4/4, the result does not come across as even slightly tedious. To call it that would be to do it a disservice. 'Working Class Hero', which is in itself an good-to-average song, is given a kick up a backside to produce a punk anthem. To use the car analogy again, this is like taking a moped engine and fitting it with a supercharger and active exhuasts. It's a great way to finish.
Although it marks a return to the glory days for the Manic Street Preachers, in terms of critical acclaim and commercial success, it seems strange to compare it to any of their previous work. Not because it is in any way a massive departure; to put it harshly, it could be described as a return to the formula which made them famous. Instead, this is the first Manics album of recent years in which they appear content in their position within the industry. This doesn't sound like a middle-aged rock album, but you get the sense that all talk of burning out and disappearing is gone, completely. The band are no longer kidding themselves that they are now an established and successful act, and they seem to be content with that. And with the quality of material they have produced here, let's hope that this continues to be the case for a long time to come.
3.90 out of 5
¹ 'Manic Street Preachers', http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manic_Street_Preachers. Accessed on May 22 2008.