Portray your tedium for the world to see
On one of the special editions of Postcards From a Young Man you can find a glimpse to a list of recorded songs for the album. “Don’t Be Evil” is there and next to it is a little remark: “b-side”. And while obviously it’s now a part of the album, it really does kinda explain things.
I do quite enjoy Don’t Be Evil to be honest – it’s probably the best straightforward rocker song on the album. There’s some daft joy and upbeat spirit to it. The lyrics are cringeable but Bradders makes them fun enough to tolerate ’em (particularly the “don’t be evil/just be corporate” part is joyous to sing along because of the sheer vibe it’s spurt out with). But it is a bit b-sidey, in the sense that it doesn’t quite come off as strong enough to be on the album. It’s fun and good, but it’s not album-good.
What’s worse is that it’s the closer of Postcards and it really doesn’t work in that position. It doesn’t really do what closers are meant to do, ie close the album in a suitable manner. It moreso seems like a bonus track thrown at the end. It doesn’t really even follow up well on the preceding Future Has Been Here 4 Ever either. One of Postcards’ main flaws is how its final run is a bit haphazard and Don’t Be Evil contributes to that a fair amount. It’s just unsatisfying in its position. Random. A bit messy.
But it is still a fun enough song, outside all that.
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Amongst the crowd the disconnect is sweeter
Another song joins the rank of classic Manics riffs, alongside Glasnost, Motorcycle Emptiness et al.
Hazelton Avenue sounds so wonderfully relaxed. It’s completely without any shade of darkness or anything looming over it, no edges to bump to or hidden tension and desire to roar out. It’s simply an elegant stroll, an anthem of melody and effortlessness. And that’s a good thing. While often interesting or exciting, you don’t need an element of the opposite force all the time. If anything, it’s proof that the band continues to feel rejuvenated in spirit.
That said, it is also much like Postcards in the sense that it’s a very traditionally Manics-esque song. Or rather, a very traditionally Bradfield-esque song. Hazelton Avenue would have fit perfectly on Bradfield’s solo album, both in its style and tone. It’s hard to believe that this isn’t the song on Postcards that James wrote all by himself, so strongly it’s coming from that same well of freedom and desire to simply let melody and harmony talk that The Great Western came from. There is a slight twist in sound in the middle-eight where the song suddenly finds some eastern-inspired strings to provide the backing for the calmer section, which is actually quite nice.
Hazelton Avenue itself is a more-or-less unfamous and uninteresting street in Ontario. The lyrics, with their talk of finding happiness in little things and all that, are probably inspired by the same past travels and nostalgic look on the time behind that much of Postcards tackles with – wouldn’t be too surprised if Hazelton Avenue is another addition to Wire’s catalogue of songs inspired by the places the band has traveled to and the fleeting moments and feelings experienced in them (Valley Boy, Ballad of the Bangkok Novotel, the scrapped cities project, etc).
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I don’t believe in absolutes anymore
Title tracks, be it the album having been named after them or the other way around, tend to somehow tie the album together into one song, stylistically or conceptually. As is the case with Postcards From a Young Man too. Lyrically it deals with reflecting on the past and present, much like most of the album, and musically it’s pretty much Postcards in a nutshell – big rock anthem power, strings and even a little choir appearance by the end.
It’s the first sign on the album that the band are on the right track with what they’ve been trying to achieve with Postcards the album. The song is something that could easily be ruined by the band as it is a rather typically Manicsian moment and as such falls into the danger zone of “haven’t I heard this before but done more convincingly?” – the trick is that they’re actually doing it convincingly this time. Sure it’s a bit safe perhaps but there’s some fan-heartwarming goodness when James appears on the bare-bones first verse sounding as reassuredly good as ever, and it simply sounds like the band’s in control of the whole thing. Because of that, Postcards is a gift that keeps on giving – it always sounds nicely fresh despite treading on the band’s familiar ground. It’s not stuck on a rut, it’s a realisation of why exactly it’s a comfort zone for the band. It’s one of the few songs on the album that genuinely bring back that magic feeling of the Everything Must Go material.
Favourite part: that brilliant “I will not give up, I will not give in” power mantra in the middle eight from which the song explodes to rockness again.
Chosen as the third single, the official video is a typical end-of-campaign live promo video. Most of the footage comes from the Hammersmith gig that introduced us to the song, with some footage of all the memorabilia (postcards, lyric sheets, etc) that surrounds the general visual theme of the era and some other live clips – some of which has been taken from the video for the song the band had released on their website far before, apparently just for the sake of it. Whether you like it or not entirely depends on how much you stomach live promo vids. I’m normally not a fan, but interestingly enough there’s a twist to the expected reaction: much like the song harks back to the old days successfully, so does the video. I used to watch the Forever Delayed DVD obsessively and I have a lot of nostalgic warm feelings towards their old live promo vids (Slash n Burn, Life Before a Landslide, etc). This video reminds me of them. It gives a nice, obviously biased fuzzy warm feeling for what is a bit of a non-event of a video.
Single quotes: “To read a poem in January is as lovely as to go for a walk in June” (Jean-Paul Sartre) / “There is no such thing as simple. Simple is hard.” (Martin Scorsese) / “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means of going backwards” (Aldous Huxley)
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Make yourself pretty just for one last time
Another question answered: Wire’s more and more frequent turns in taking lead vocals isn’t necessary because of his desire to front a band. The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever (there’s that four again) was originally conceived with James in mind but the band felt like his vocals sounded too clean and correct to really fit with the song, and thus Wire’s croon was put into the spotlight. Which is where it started with anyway – Future is one of Wire’s songs and it’s him singing in the song’s original demo as well.
The other big talking point besides Wire’s lead vocals is the mighty return of Sean’s trumpet. It’s the first time since Horses Under Starlight that the trumpet is actually taking a proper lead element rather than simply playing the solo instead of the guitar. The lead melody of the song belongs to the trumpet and there’s rarely a moment when Sean’s not there to bring that lovely sound to front. The lack of your usual Manics lead melody instruments is already enough to make the song a rather big stylistical standout in the band’s vast catalogue – add Wire’s lead vocals, the gospel choir in the chorus and the robotic half-synthetic rhythm and you’ve got one hell of a bizarre track.
It’s still catchy and poppy though like the majority of its parent album, and in fact it’s one of the instantly catchiest parts of the whole album. The rhythm finds its way to the back of one’s head immediately thanks to that hypnotically mechanic nature, the trumpet offers some brilliant parts (especially the more ‘nasal’ melody of the second verse is lovely) and the chorus is just great – Wire crooning, backed by a highly trained gospel choir. The opposites work perfectly together. All the off-the-cuff elements turn the song into something a bit loopy, a bit loony. And for its credit, Future takes the best possible advantage of that. It seems to exist in its own little world and its appearance at the end of Postcards is like an accidental peek to that place.
In a fit of amusing coincidence, both one of my favourite lyrical parts and least favourite lyrical parts are present in this song. The chorus is the great thing: “The|My future has been here forever/The future’s still unclear… whatever”. It’s that “whatever” that makes it special. It’s a small thing but there’s some insane power to that brushoff that tells introspection and fear of the future to sod off and stop clogging up the present. And then in the second verse you have the “Like the Godfather 3/I can never escape” part that continues to prove that not everything in this world works as a direct, namechecking reference without sounding extremely clunky.
I’m not as massively over the moon over Future as I was when I heard it for the first time, but it’s still one of Postcards’ notable big moments. If only for the fact that it’s the big peak of light to help one get through the otherwise rather flopping final stretch of the album.
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My work will set me free and fulfill my dreams
Auto-Intoxication sounds a bit like a Journal for Plague Lovers leftover, in the sense how it has a similar playfulness to songwriting that many Journal tracks had. It’s one of them jigsawy type songs where almost unrelated parts are married together and the instrumentation’s more bare-bones; a bit of a detour on an album otherwise composed of straightforward pop/rock songs laden with strings and such. It’s not done in an all that masterful way mind you and comes off as a bit of a slice of raw potential, but I don’t want to bash it too much for that. In a period where the band’s songwriting is structurally fairly predictable, little moments like these where things are a bit loosened up are to be commended. And after the initial awkward period, it’s actually a swell enough song.
So, mid-tempo rocker verses, keyboard-drowned bridges and Journal for Plague Lovers-esque aggressive explosion choruses. The first one aren’t too interesting musically and for some reason the drum production is painfully weak (the snare seems to have been sapped of any power) but James’ vocals have an odd detached nature to them that serves as a positive thing, lifting the singing bits of the verses as the standout thing and additionally the second verse gets some additional kick under it which improves it ever so slightly. The bridges have pretty lovely keyboard work and generally that atmospheric drift reminds me of some past glories like the This Is My Truth era. The transition from the break to the chorus is done to a surprisingly well, but the chorus itself doesn’t work. It may sound like these days I’m completely against Manics ever rocking out fiercely but that’s not quite right as I do love them belting out riffers etc. It’s simply when the sections sound like they’ve been done for the sake of adding some rock noise for the hell of it that it begins to bore me. And the choruses of Auto-Intoxication are the song’s worst part – in a song with highly distinguishable parts it’s the one that jars the most and despite the good transition from the dreamy bridge the actual section seems abrupt and even a bit unnecessary.
Still, even if that would have been different Auto-Intoxication might have still sounded a bit like a b-side. A good b-side yeah, but something that gets obviously discarded from the album in lieu of stronger pieces that work better with the album’s general style and concept. Auto-Intoxication is a bit of a stylistical oddity and while it’s one of the more enjoyable less-polished tracks on Postcards, it doesn’t really feel like it belongs to the album all that well.
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The insides of our nation have been exposed
I like to say that Postcards From a Young Man is Send Away the Tigers done right – that is, a commercial rock album that sounds like the band hasn’t sacrificed anything behind it. But I suppose it would be sod’s law or something that there’d be at least one song that would remind us of the band’s previous attempt to knowingly hit the charts. A case of the band thinking that just putting some guitars on the forefront is enough to make a track good.
All We Make Is Entertainment isn’t bad, it’s just boring. It’s just a bog-standard, bog-uninteresting jumpy rock thingy that has (probably) just enough effort to excite those who think that the only thing the band needs are loud guitars and stuff, but which has absolutely nothing beyond that. Well, that’s a slight fib: there is the small breakdown near the end where it’s just James and an acoustic guitar before the song enters its final rockout. It’s not a particularly special moment or anything but that sort of quick brush to something simple instead of a more typical solo strut-out or middle eight is a structure that rarely features in the band’s songs and it’s noticable just because of that.
Otherwise Wire blabs something about how entertainment is the only thing England/UK has left to export to the world, James does some dull guitaring that has no bearance whatsoever to what makes him a great guitarist and Sean pounds something in the background. Yay woo etc. Can we get to the actually interesting rockers now? They are capable of those too, y’know.
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I fell back in love with love
Every commercial album needs its big ballad moment.
I often talk about subtle growth in songs and by that I mean that the song intensifies and its sound deepens as it progresses, but it happens almost invisibly. The new elements appear slyly in the background and when you notice them it’s almost like they had always been there. It’s like a snowball rolling down a hill calmly, gaining up in speed as it gathers more snow around itself and grows larger.
This is precisely what Golden Platitudes fuels itself with. It starts out as a quiet, contemplative and very no-frills moment and the switch to its chorus is almost nonexistent – it simply tilts its direction to another way without bothering to tell the listener. And all of a sudden you’ve realised that the song’s cranked up on the intensity – James’ singing carries more weight, all of a sudden there’s choir backing him, the rhythm’s got more lively… almost unnoticably on a conscious level.
It’s a bit of a slowburner but eventually Platitudes classifies itself as an important, integral part of Postcards. It’s the counterpoint to all the big rockers – the torchsong amidst the guitar walls. It’s musically beautiful in its understated yet strong nature, the choir does a great job, the lyrics are good and show that Wire’s got some of his old muse back and while a bit clichéd, the final la-la-la coda sounds bloody good and closes the song off excellently. But the strongest element comes from James: for the past few albums Bradders has believed in the power of loud and while his rrrrock roaring sounds great most of the time, his best vocal moments tend to come from the times when he doesn’t emphasise the scale of his skills and instead simply sings with grace. Which is precisely what he does on Platitudes and it really hits the song’s mood to a T.
Annoyingly it’s not a perfect homerun and shelters a few minor annoyances. The clunkiness of “where did the feeling go / where did it all go wrong” really grinds against the success of the rest of the lyrics, and on the musical side you have the completely pointless light rock moments that appear after the choruses and at the end of the songs. Dynamics are good and all, but Platitudes really doesn’t need the sections and they only hindrance the fantastically crafted build of the rest of the song. Fortunately neither element is too big in the large scheme of things but they always stop and say hi while the song goes on.
Otherwise though, Platitudes proves itself to be one of the songs that reward coming back to the album the most.
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