Album: Manic Street Preachers, Postcards From a Young Man, Columbia

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The Independent Culture

According to the rock-band cliché: "We just make music to please ourselves and if anyone else likes it, it's a bonus." For the Manic Street Preachers, that sort of talk has always been an unforgivable, bourgeois conceit. If you've got something worth saying, you want it to be heard by the maximum number of people. That, at least, is half the story.

Manic Street Preachers are two bands, in a state of constant war. The first wants to challenge MSP listeners, the second simply wants to expand their numbers. The first impulse gave us those macabre, Richey Edwards-penned twins The Holy Bible and Journal for Plague Lovers, and also rears its head, in different ways, on the chaotically diverse Know Your Enemy, the subtle, soma-sedated Lifeblood and Wire's kamikaze solo effort I Killed the Zeitgeist.

The second gave us the anthemic populism of Everything Must Go, This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, Send Away the Tigers and James Dean Bradfield's The Great Western. The enduring irony is that the Manics are at their most commercially successful when they're appealing not to their hardcore fans but to the people who aren't really Manics fans at all: the casual listeners who dip in and out when there are pretty tunes.

It's the perpetual motion between the two that propels them onwards, and Postcards From a Young Man, which Wire has famously described as "one last shot at mass communication", unquestionably falls into the "pretty tunes" camp.

When I first heard "It's Not War (Just the End of Love)", the opening track and lead single (complete with insanely hot Michael Sheen/Anna Friel lust-on-the-chessboard video), I laughed out loud at how almost comically melodic it is. Wire's second-most famous quote was to describe this as "heavy metal Tamla Motown".

There's some eminently radio-friendly material here: in addition to the single, there's "Hazelton Avenue", which carries echoes of Bowie's "Soul Love" and – no kidding – Kravitz's "It Ain't Over Till it's Over", while "Some Kind of Nothingness" features the elegant crooning of Ian McCulloch.

Postcards may just be the Manics' most perfectly weighted attempt at entryism yet, which is not to say that it will be their most successful (it ain't 1997 any more). But any socio-political content is overshadowed by a massive amount of navel-gazing. Countless bands of a certain age fret in private about losing their youthful fire. The Manics beat themselves up about it in public and in song.

It's an album which is self-aware enough to include, late on, a song called "All We Make is Entertainment", and to end with another called "Don't Be Evil", an acknowledgement, perhaps, that that's all you can ask of a rock'n'roll band: refrain from actively making life worse. For 20 years, Manic Street Preachers have been making life better. They shouldn't worry. But if they didn't worry, what else would they do?