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4 Lonely Roads

Darker hell stood up on high / Then disappeared without reply

Rewind the Film has this really fascinating side tract going on where the album’s melancholy that’s all over it suddenly meets up with the feeling of freedom the band were enjoying after giving up on trying to meet any expectations (mostly their own). “4 Lonely Roads” exemplifies this. The lyrics are full of self-detriment and pain (and they’re probably one of the best on the album if I’m honest), but it’s just so incredibly carefree and gentle as a song. The best word for it is soft: the drumming is quiet and gentle, the pace is leisurely and it’s a simple verse-chorus-verse ordeal that makes no fuss about itself. It’s so lightweight it’s nearly a throwaway song.

But it’s catchy. It’s got a fairly simple melody that sticks to your head, nothing groundbreaking but something quite pleasant. If that was it for the song, “4 Lonely Roads” would be a fairly disappointing inclusion on the album but the real strength of the song lies in all the details scattered over it. There’s some particularly lovely guitar flourishes throughout the song and the bass especially is a real stand-out. This is another Nicky song, and one where James seems to have taken over the bass duties which you can hear in all the subtly show-offish melodic runs and riff fills that the abnormally bouncy bass line is filled with. I’m not kidding when I say that bass-wise this is one of the Manics’ most interesting ones, even though the song itself borders on a filler ditty.

What would make it more of a big stand-out is if the band wouldn’t play it through like they were half-asleep. The song desperately needs some energy to jolt it into something more than a comfortable stroll (albeit one where the bassist seems to be playing with a wholly different mindset). The brief breakdowns try to shake it awake but they’re kind of clunky, in that weird stop-start way that Wire really seems to enjoy writing. The general lethargy extends to Cate Le Bon’s lead vocals, taking over James as part of the album’s great push for alternative voices. She suits the song in theory but her performance too suffers from the general lack of energy that the entire song is characterised by. It’s – once again – a match that could work really well but there’s a weird anemic aura surrounding the entire song that effects her as well, as she reads the lines half=asleep. Wire does the lead vocals on the demo version on the deluxe edition of the album, and it transforms it into an archetypal Wire b-side. Which I could see someone prefer.

It’s an odd track. It’s almost too simple a song which is too comfortable in its own skin and it’s a surprise to hear it on the album rather than on the flipside of a single, but it’s genuinely pleasant to listen to and the more I listen to it the more I hear the great potential in it. It’s by and far the most unassuming song on Rewind the Film, but I find myself spotting those tiny little details and mentally nodding my head in agreement, and the more I think about it the more I can hear what they tried to go for with the song’s vibe. But similarly, I can never help but feel it’s a little underwhelming – if it had a little more fire in its belly or a kick up its behind, this could easily be one of the album’s highlights.

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Builder of Routines

Democracy has sure made a fool out of me

One of Rewind the Film’s shortest chapters is also one of its best, and definitely one of the most interesting. There’s very little else like it in the Manics back catalogue. James’ short acoustic loop is covered by a bright and piercing celeste melody (a Manics first, I think) and driven by a persistent foot-tapping beat, but otherwise it’s borderline minimalist, a skeleton of a song that still sounds busier than some of its more fleshed out counterparts on the album. The guitar and the celeste together create a disjointed, clockwork-esque melody, which is strangely lullaby-like and gives the song a surreal and slightly foreboding feel. There’s an uneasiness to the song that cuts through it, like it’s constantly on the edge of its seat as it pushes forward.

Towards the end “Builder of Routines” breaks its own routine and gets majestic: James ramps up the intensity in his vocals before a gorgeous French horn appears and lays down a brief lament as the song begins to wind down. It’s a grand finale without actually sounding gigantic; the moment where the song finally lets go of its tension and opens up its wings before fading into its end, which is something both oddly triumphant as well as poignantly wistful. It’s a brief moment but one of the most arresting ones on the album, a gorgeous end to a curious song that keeps offering surprises even though it’s a short, simple thing.

Lyrically, as is clear from the title, “Builder of Routines” falls in line with Wire’s history of praising boredom and the familiar, the melancholy comfort of sticking with the mundane and the familiar as a way to build a protective bubble from the world. The difference is that for once, there’s none of the dry, self-depreciative humour of the past songs. “Builder of Routines” sounds like the confession of a defeated man that has told himself he finds solace in routines that he’s started to believe it. It has an emotional impact that builds up as the song goes along until it finally unfurls in a passive-aggressive rage in the climax. It’s effective – even if I can never unhear James singing about lemonading himself.

Rewind the Film

There is too much heartbreak / In the nothing of the now

If we go along with the common assumption that the album title track is meant to be the most representative of the album, let’s dissect Rewind the Film’s title track from that point of view.

“Rewind the Film” – the song – was released as the first preview of the album, not as a single as such but a promotional treat of things to come. At this point in time, Manics having set on a lane of predictability was a given fact and no one believed the band when they said they’d ditch the radio-friendly guitar rockers if Postcards from the Young Man didn’t take off. “Rewind the Film”, the song, was the first real signifier that there were actual winds of change coming. They presented a six-minute song where it takes half the song before James’ vocals appear, where his typical guitar mannerisms are nowhere to be found and the tone is far removed from any stadium singalongs – for once, the Manics had actually kept a promise of theirs and while proving the point by releasing the title track first was probably the most obvious thing to do, they needed to prove that point.

Going further into the music aspect, “Rewind the Film” is an appropriate microcosm of the album too. The tenet of making an acoustic album without forgetting all the other instruments in the world is clearly present, and in an intriguing way – much of the backing track is a re-performed interpolation of David Axelrod’s “A Little Girl Lost” (the title already referenced by Manics in the past), and the demo in fact features the sample directly, layered slightly haphazardly under the Manics instrumental. It’s a beautiful, cinematic miniature epic that brings together an intimate, acoustic lament and a score that sounds like a spaghetti western by way of Welsh valleys.

Lyrically, too, the title track is an apt representation of the album’s themes: Wire’s fears of growing older, his disillusionment over where he is now and the anxieties surrounding both. Rewind the Film is almost a cry for help in the form of nostalgic longing for simpler, more easily fulfilled days. Rewind the film back to the good old times of the world being smaller and your bedroom radio being able to fill all of it with blissful sound. What’s arguably more significant though is who sings the lyrics. Around the time of the album James confessed he was bored of his own vocals and both Rewind the Film and Futurology are partly defined by their heavy amount of guest vocals – and once again, the title track points this out. Richard Hawley does his job well – he’s got a good voice and it suits the song. And yet, funnily enough, out of all the guest features on Rewind the Film he’s the one that leaves the least impression behind. Nothing to do with his own talent per se, but the contrast between his singing and Manics material just isn’t particularly exciting and if anything, he sounds like a good singer doing Manics karaoke. It’s also strange hearing Wire’s introspection through the voice of an “outsider”, which further pulls you away from the full deal. All the guest singers across Rewind the Film and Futurology suffer from this to varying extents, but it’s most noticeable in Hawley’s performance because it’s not worlds away from James’ own, at which point it comes off like a strange substitute rather than a new vocal point of view. In the demo the verses are sung by Wire and it works far more naturally even if it’s less graceful, and the juxtaposition with James in the choruses is excellent. James of course sounds great – he may have been bored of his voice, but he proves so well that he’s the best fit for Wire’s lyrics and his own songwriting.

Rewind the Film received a promo clip that’s largely a visual mood piece, an accompanying set of visuals of Welsh countryside and the band’s old locales that hammer in the point about yearning back to the roots (also, old people playing bingo). It’s an extension of the minimalistically scenic album cover – and once again, manages to represent the whole. “Rewind the Film” is a great song full of emotion, pathos and strong melodies, but the way it weaves all of the project’s multitude of themes together is arguably the most impressive thing about it. It absolutely nails the concept of the album and becomes the heart of it, even if it appears relatively early in the tracklist – and it delivers a great song while doing it, even if I probably would’ve been happier without Hawley in it.

Show Me the Wonder

We may write in English / But our truth remains in Wales

If Rewind the Film’s opening track sung about Wire’s sullen Welsh heart, on the album’s lead single that same heart is filled with national pride.

That’s really just an undercurrent in the song but there’s definitely a sense of optimisticshowmethewonder defiance running through the veins of “Show Me the Wonder”. It’s the most overtly upbeat song on its parent album and it’s not miles away from the band’s more stadium-friendly moments; however, Rewind the Film’s intentional stripping back turns it into something more living room sized and a bit of a 70s MOR throwback. The band themselves namechecked Elvis in Vegas as the main vibe for the song and there’s an audible lineage there, with the big, bolsterous choruses accented by some lush horn sections. The band sound so into it as well: there’s a bit of cheesiness to hit but the soul of the song sounds thoroughly genuine and the joy it radiates with is honest positivity. It’s still far more Blackwood than it is Vegas in execution though.

The positive feel arguably landed it the lead single slot, deceiving as it may have been in regards to the rest of the album. For an album obsessed about looking back and contemplating on years gone, “Show Me the Wonder” celebrates them – whether it’s expressing national pride in the band’s geographic roots or love for the wonder of experiences you find through life. When the song hits its choruses it downright bursts into the kind of positivity you very rarely hear in a Manics song. It’s those same choruses that let the song down however: they’re a bit of a one-note pounder where the band hammers you down with the melodic hook until you submit. They are in awkward contrast to the sublime verses where the song really shines. Those verses are a mix of wistfulness and pride, warm-hearted nostalgia and hope for the future, and they’re executed with a grace and delicacy that makes parts of them surprisingly and enduringly touching, which then crumbles away as soon as the chorus appears. It doesn’t quite break the song but there’s such a world of a difference between its structural building blocks that I’m still not entirely sure where exactly I stand with the song as a whole.

But it was an obvious choice for a single, and it gave us one of the few memorable videos of the latter-year Manics videography. The 70s comparisons the band raised at the time more than likely gave way to the video concept, where two young lovers meet in a community club in Wales in the 1970s. It’s a decent video with a little bit more effort put into it than most Manics videos from around mid-00s onwards, but the absolute best part of it that makes it all the more glorious is the ridiculous set of 70s accessories the band wear to fit in with the decade, most gorgeously James’ sideburns and Sean’s moustache. Iconic.

This Sullen Welsh Heart

I don’t want my children to grow up like me

The Manics traditionally like to open their albums with a bang (even “The Everlasting” grew to anthemic heights from its quiet first notes) but “This Sullen Welsh Heart” signals where Rewind the Film is heading. Its arrangement is sparse but its significance as an opening track for this very particular album is grand. Rewind the Film was touted as the band’s long-coming acoustic album, and what better way to make that known than a quiet, acoustic mood piece, but it’s not just that. Rewind the Film follows the band’s extended period of attempted commercial revitalisation and in particular the pomp and bombast of Postcards from a Young Man, their “last shot” at mass communication. The return to charts wasn’t particularly successful but it was easy to be sceptical whether this really was a tide-turning moment, given the band’s reputation as a frequent promise-breaker. “This Sullen Welsh Heart” isn’t just an atypically quiet opener: it also acts as the fulfilment of the promise to chase after commercially ready rock anthems.

It’s funny how something so stripped down can sound so much more rejuvenated than the majestic overtones of the directly preceding material. “This Sullen Welsh Heart” is alarmingly earnest and introspective, with none of the literary referencing or grand attempts of emotion that Send Away the Tigers and Postcards from the Young Man tried to go back to. James softly croons Wire’s honest dark night of the soul, with its adult fears and disillusionment, and breaks apart the rock n roll sheen that surrounded its preceding albums. The direct emotional tone is refreshing, the earnestness encouraging. The song has also got a directly musical sense of rejuvenation. The acoustic cuts from the band’s past handful of preceding years bore little of the impact they used to: here James once again sounds like he means it and manages to turn the song something unique in the band’s catalogue.

It’s a simple song but each element is executed perfectly. James’ voice is on point, the melody is straightforward but strong, the light organ in the background (the only other instrument besides the guitar) brings a nice atmospheric touch and Wire’s lyrics have gone back on form (once again proving that he is at his best when at his most introspective). Lucy Rose’s backing vocals are a lovely addition and they compliment James’ perfectly (and if for some reason you’re not fond of them, the musically largely identical demo on the album bonus disc doesn’t contain them).

There’s a lot of symbolic and emotional importance within the sparse notes of “This Sullen Welsh Heart” but most importantly it’s powerful in its own right – it’s a beautiful, atmospheric piece of warm melancholy that grows to be one of the album’s most pivotal moments even when it’s as unassuming as it is.

I feel the love within me / And love can’t be removed

I’ve debated for a while whether to include this here or not as I’ve wanted to keep this list limited to the band’s official studio releases, and when this was originally released it was noted down as a demo. It’s however really hard to view it as one – the sound quality, composition and production are far from the band’s usual demos. So without much further ado, it now finds a place here as it’s more or less a fully-fledged Manics track.

That said, it is in fact a Shirley Bassey track. The legendary Welsh singer’s 2009 comeback album The Performance featured songs written by a number of contemporary artists, and “The Girl from Tiger Bay” was Manics’ contribution. While written for Bassey, and about Bassey, it doesn’t really move itself away from Manics’ safe zone; in fact, after Journal for Plague Lovers this could be seen as a precursor to Postcards from a Young Man as it carries much the same sound and feel. It’s a swooping orchestral rock track in exactly the vein you’d expect to come from James Dean Bradfield’s hands, to the point that the Shirley Bassey version never really feels like it’s actually hers. It’s probably its Manics-ness that lead to the release of Manics’ own version (free on the band’s website at the time); something that any of the other songs Manics have written for other artists have never gotten.

While not even thinking about reinventing the wheel and certainly not a important hidden rarity, “The Girl from Tiger Bay” has the feel of a timeless classic, even if not the strength of one – it’s clear that the idea was to write something befitting for a respected artist full of style and class. Wire’s lyrics, offering his interpretation of Bassey’s mindset at her old age, aren’t bad either even though it’s the first time he’s tried to write from the viewpoint of someone else. It’s overall rather enjoyable and would have slotted fairly effortlessly somewhere within Postcards or its b-sides.

The Bassey version’s main difference outside her vocals is the added orchestra behind the track, replacing the faintly audible synth strings on the Manics version. Otherwise they’re more or less identical.

Rock n Roll Genius

Oh my god, I’m being serious

Good ol’ Manics self-deprecation. This time it’s tongue-in-cheek though, which is a good thing. One can’t help but find it somewhat amusing how this song finds its release during the National Treasures era: the era is all about celebrating the band’s history, and wonderfully to accompany all that there’s a dry lyrical eyeroll at the rock and roll bravour. It’s not really one of Wire’s greatest lyrical achievements admittedly but as it’s relayed through Wire’s own sneery singing, the text gets through as the sort of lovingly poking jab (with a healthy dose of your usual Wiresque introspectiveness) it was meant to be.

There’s actually a great deal of the feel of Wire’s own solo album here with the same dry commentary and the same self-poking introspectiveness that I Killed the Zeitgeist had across its tracks. This feel also extends to the rest of the song. After the Send Away the Tigers period we’ve seen a humongous growth in Wire’s songwriting and he’s become a genuine musical part of the band whose work can proudly be displayed on the albums themselves rather than always relegating them as b-sides. Rock n Roll Genius steps away from all his new meddlings with sophisticated pop and the slight experimental nature that crops up here and there, and instead moves back to the ramshackle rock of the solo days. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: arguably Wire’s better-composed songs work better when sung by James’ more trained voice, while his own ragged rambling suits a more chaotic, lo-fi type of music.

It’s not a particularly excellent or noteworthy song – it does have some surprisingly catchy quality and the organ sound that pops up after the choruses is rather great, but Wire’s done this sort of thing better before and better, and it’s a far shot from anything essential. It comes across slightly as his equivalent to James’ b-side filler acoustic solo moments, albeit a far more interesting equivalent these days. But it’s good to see some occasional light-heartnedness crop up in the Manics catalogue every now and then amidst all the earnestness. It nicely rounds their musical personality to match their interview ones.