There are two distinct strains of Manic Street Preachers album: the grandiose agit-rock ones designed to force-feed arena crowds the sorts of philosophical ruminations they won't encounter at school; and the more hermetic, astringent exercises like The Holy Bible.
Postcards From A Young Man represents a swing back to the band's more expansive, epic style after last year's rather austere settings of Richey Edwards' final writings, Journal For Plague Lovers. The contrast couldn't be more pronounced: compared with that album's fraught introspection, this one seems oddly optimistic, even when Nicky Wire is railing against the manifold indignities of modern life. Unlike his unfortunate chum, Wire has been able to mature into a more skilled lyricist, smuggling his ideas through in lines which don't fight against the song structures, but embrace them, whether in straight-talking rhetoric ("This life, it sucks your principles away/You have to fight against it every single day") or sly poetic assonance ("Oh what a Shangri-La/Oh what a shower we are"). The result is a more streamlined, potent rock music, which James Dean Bradfield must find so much more satisfying to deliver.
As the title suggests, the album is loosely themed around the expectations of youth and the disenchantments of adulthood, with songs such as "Golden Platitudes" and "All We Make Is Entertainment" taking furious aim at the political treacheries of our era, the latter considering the decline of the UK's manufacturing base as a betrayal not just of the workers but of our own cultural heritage: if we're prepared to sell out Cadbury's whilst supporting Northern Rock, they suggest, what chance is there for our music industry, a proven money-spinner now being shunted towards the abyss?
The source of that decline, the Interweb, is roundly chastised in both "Don't Be Evil" – the title a mocking echo of Google's motto – and "A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun", for its seemingly heedless promotion of cowardly inhumanity and general vileness. "Auto-Intoxication" (a syndrome in which one's body is poisoned by its own organs) offers a metaphor for this self-destructive societal malaise, the brittle, spiky guitars and John Cale's piano combining in a churning glam-pop groove.
Solace is found in less virtual forms, such as the archive of postcards, artworks and writings nostalgically browsed in the title-track, and the bitter tang of grief and longing experienced in "Some Kind Of Nothingness", on which Ian McCulloch's baritone adds an extra layer of warmth beneath the stridency. A similar poignant reverie is welcomed over the mandolin trills and wistful organ of "I Think I've Found It" – just one of an impressive range of musical strategies employed here, from the early Seventies sound of "The Descent (Pages 1 & 2)", which could be a Mott The Hoople tribute, to Sean Moore's trumpet on "The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever", to the exultant strings lavished throughout what is surely the Manics' best album since Everything Must Go.
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