Rewind the Film: Less is more for the Manics

ManicsTHE MANIC Street Preachers have managed to make a good fist of personal tragedy, middling critical reaction and political grandstanding in their two decades of existence, enjoying a period of creative revival in recent years following the uncertain wanderings of the late 90s and early 00s. On Rewind the Film, they manage to successfully distil their old fury-in-a-bottle while simultaneously mellowing their music and lowering the volume (for the most part).

This is the sound of three men in their forties acknowledging the speed-stripe vitriol of youth by turning off the electricity and bringing out the nylon strings, accepting their middle age with grace. The result is alchemical in nature, marrying the bubbling rage with a wistful, bitter sense of nostalgia that underscores every track on the album.

This is not to say the electric guitar is entirely absent. There are a few thrilling flashes from James Dean Bradfield on ‘3 Ways to See Despair’, its crying bends matching the intensity of the vocals. There’s the lopsided arpeggio of the woozy, spacey instrumental ‘Manorbier’, complementing its ghostly choirs and Theremin stabs. There’s also the anti-Thatcher ’30-Year War’ (written pre-mortem) and its dark, menacing washes of synthesiser, Bradfield channelling the repulsed fury of one Roger Waters circa The Final Cut.

These electric bursts are made all the more exciting because they are simply not present elsewhere. The album is acoustic, through and through. Every song features Bradfield’s acoustic guitar at its core, laying the foundation for Nicky Wire’s reliably eloquent lyrics to take centre stage. Bradfield’s vocals are at their best; powerful, but evoking a sense of haunted frailty.

The guest vocalists are also great: Lucy Rose lends an understated duskiness to the beautiful opener ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’, while Richard Hawley of Pulp fame does an exceptional Johnny Cash impression on the title track, Bradfield interjecting “let me hide under the sheets” as Sean Moore pummels the skins and violin strings weep. Cate le Bon leads ‘4 Lonely Roads’ with a bucolic, dignified air, backed by tinkling electric piano and some lovely bass loping from Wire.

String and brass arrangements are also smartly implemented, never overburdening the tracks they’re in despite their bombast; this is evidenced most strongly in the standout ‘Anthem for a Lost Cause’. It’s a wonderfully stirring, poignant and appropriately-titled song that comes closest to emulating some of the band’s previous anthems (e.g. ‘A Design for Life’) but never falls over into self-parody, Bradfield imploring what we can only assume to be his younger self to “take this, it’s yours.”

The boisterous brass of lead single ‘Show Me the Wonder’, however, very nearly tips the track into triteness; it’s just a mawkish croon away from sounding like a Burt Bacharach showtune. Fortunately, the wide-eyed awe of Wire’s lyrics and Bradfield’s joyful delivery saves the track from a saccharine fate.

‘As Holy as the Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’ is a hymn-like lament whose words span the global (“the Roman Empire… the spring in Japan”) and the deeply personal (“the coffee that you made for us”), urging its audience to do “something true / even if it only lasts for seconds”. The Nujabes-esque ambience of ‘(I Miss the) Tokyo Skyline’ similarly conjures a sense of lost years, its flowing violin bridges fluently linking each mournful verse.

Musically, each track brings something different and surprising to the table over their shared acoustic bedrock. Take the stark, solo strumming of ‘Running Out of Fantasy’ and the dense, crafted soundscape of ‘Manorbier’ – the jump is undeniably huge but, crucially, both tracks explore similar themes (albeit in different ways) so the shift does not become jarring. So effortless is the musical and thematic flow between songs that one could be forgiven for thinking Rewind the Film is a concept album; every piece fits together perfectly, complementing and completing the whole.

Rewind the Film successfully completes the Manics’ reinvigoration and reinvention, ironically enough by stripping things back instead of overcompensating. It’s a mature approach for a mature album, finding the perfect middle ground between youthful rage and elder wisdom, accepting the latter without abandoning the former. The music here is contemplative, musing on triumphs and failures, mourning the past while embracing the future with measured poise and dignity. This is not the sound of has-been 90s cast-offs desperately scrambling for relevance; this is the sound of the Manics resurgent, proving they have no intention of wallowing in past glories but rather in creating new triumphs. Rewind the Film is one of them.