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Midnight Sun

Time keeps us beneath while autumn sheds its leaves

There is an element of unearthing a treasure from underneath the sands of history with Midnight Sun. It may have been released as a single b-side in early 2011, but its origin is ten years before that – written and recorded during the Know Your Enemy sessions or ones succeeding it for its single b-sides, but then lost in the archives for whatever reason. The KYE sessions were a hotbed of mad creativity with no idea left unused and being a bit of a fanboy for that era, excitement for it was rife. Especially when it was found out that the version of Midnight Sun on the b-side of the Postcards single is the original 2001 recording rather than a remake.

The thing is, we’re dealing with a band who rarely leaves anything to the archives. The Manics are workaholics and love to release what they record, filling each of their singles with several b-sides even during a time when most bands have abandoned the entire concept of a single altogether. The KYE era especially was a time of the ‘anything goes’ ideology, as witnessed by the… eclectic nature of the songs recorded during that era. Unlike a lot of acts who make it clear that not everything survives through the recording sessions, Manics have been a very open band about what they’re doing and while the fans know of a lot of songs that only exist as names, we also know those never made it past the demo stage. So how come Midnight Sun was simply ‘lost’?

Listening to the track, it’s fairly obvious – Midnight Sun sounds unfinished. It’s a fully-fledged and fully-formed song in its own right, but lacks the finishing touch. Its recording is somewhat stuffy and muddled. It’s not a demo but it also sounds like the band stopped working on it before the process was finished and in the aftermath, the song was shelved. Why it got resurrected now, who knows.

That said, it still has an element of the magic of its era. The band sounds more relaxed, James’ vocal delivery is more effortless rather than rock-shouty even during the song’s calmly high-reaching chorus and, as a meaner point, it’s actually a finished song with a full lyric and musical progression rather than the repeated verses and abrupt endings of a lot of modern Manics b-sides. And it’s not a bad song in general – it has a nicely weary atmosphere, the organ of the choruses is genuinely fantastic and overall it’s an enjoyable song, albeit far from the general high quality of the era it belongs to. It carries the feeling of lacking the final touch, that extra polish that would take it one step further. It’s a bit of an odd one – and maybe it being a bit of an odd one was the reason it got initially shelved.

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Broken Up Again

The pictures on my wall are fading

The recording of this most likely had something to do with the band looking into their past, caving into fan wishes and playing some Lifeblood in the form of Empty Souls on a handful of their Postcards tour gigs (until apparently Sean had a stroppy and refused to play it any longer). The two songs share definite similarities: the stomping beat isn’t unique to the two songs in the Manics catalogue, but its crisp and clear sounds of Broken Up Again’s drums are a surefire flashback to the Lifeblood standout, and the atmospheric keyboard part accompanying it is a sound unlike anything the band’s used in their songs since, well, Lifeblood era (bar a few high-caliber rarities like Untitled Instrumental).

That said, Empty Souls #2 it isn’t. Outside its verses it’s a wistful rock belter, loaded with Wire’s introspectivity and some impressively good instrumental parts throughout. I say impressively because Broken Up Again doesn’t sound like a b-side, it could belong on an album of its own. The band keeps saying that they’re bringing back their anthemic rock side but occupies itself with all sorts of garnish and extra mass-pleasing tools on their album (to a mostly good effect, mind you) and sometimes forgets the direct life-filled, heartfelt power in favour of pretty pop hooks. Not to dismiss those but it’s songs like these that really make the band sound invigorated. That chorus, guitar riff and all, is classic Manics.

I can’t stress this enough that I really do like Postcards and modern Manics in general (the other entries here can prove to that), but probably the best thing in the Postcards era is hearing b-sides like this again – strong, memorable tracks that sound like A-sides, just like the band used to churn out all the time as single bonuses.

Slow Reflections/Strange Delays

So much to write but not much to say

There’s been a surge of increase with acoustic James solo spots in the Manics’ recorded catalogue over the past five years. There’s no denying that a lot of those moments are strong, intimate displays of James’ talents and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the approach. But whilst each of James’ solo spots felt special in the past, the current stream of them is starting to take its toll: it’s getting hard to really distinguish these from one another.

Sure, they’ve all often got their own sound gimmicks – in the case of Slow Reflections it’s the occasional electric guitar backing the acoustic. But it’s not enough to disguise the feel that you’ve heard this song already several times during the recent years. Slow Reflections is pleasant and certainly listenable, I’ll give it that. Lyrically it’s excellent even and shows that Wire’s back on track after the slight embarrasements of the past handful of years. But as much as you can mention positive things about it, it simply doesn’t stand out or really act like it’s anything other than some quick single filler. It’s a pleasant James spot but it doesn’t really offer any part of its own that would make it rise above all the other James spots. It’s indistinguishable.

Just can’t help but feel that despite being able to enjoy it, the song feels a bit like a waste of a good lyric and great title.

Evidence Against Myself

Buried all in the belly of a song

I can’t remember the last time this happened – rather than blasting through the obstacle of wonky lyrics with awesome tunage, here we have a rather standard Manics throwaway with some really good lyrical work.

There’s not a lot of lyrics here, only 8 unique lines some of which are then shuffled around together a few times during the song, but they’re all very good. Particularly verses are actually downright great – it’s just two lines per verse but with only a couple of bits Wire seems to be able to say something more interesting than he can sometimes spend a song doing. The base concept of the song is simple as well – it’s the thoughts of a guy who’s been an asshole thinking that yeah, he has been a bit of a prick and who quickly gives a fast excuse for it. But it’s just said so well.

Musically… well, you can tell why it was cast off the main album and relegated to a b-side. It’s got a swinging rhythm that you can tap your foot to and enjoy but you can’t say it makes a big number in the scene. Alright little stomper that you can find yourself enjoying quite a bit on an off-hand surprise moment but I have slight problems remembering how it goes outside all that.

Red Rubber

Civilization takes up many forms / Usually disguised and fatally flawed

Spaghetti western electro rock. No, really.

Red Rubber reminds me of the Know Your Enemy era. Not stylistically – it really doesn’t remind any other song of theirs musically – but because that was the time of Manics giving a new surprise every corner. You had no idea what the b-sides would sound like – hell, you had no idea what on earth would turn up next on the album either. To hear the band going a bit creatively crazy again in this season of them playing a bit safe is rather giddy.

There’s more than just the concept to be excited about as well. Red Rubber is the bastard child of a Western film theme tune and a synthesizer/drum-machine driven rocker – Ennio Morricone meets Kasabian, or something. And it sounds great. The Western parts are filled with some gorgeous guitar and keyboard work, whilst the rocking bits are some of the best rocking bits of the Postcards era. The main drawback is that it’s way, way too damn short: it clocks in at three minutes and feels like it ends halfway through, after only two verses and two choruses. The band’s desire to keep their songs short these days is really getting on my nerves. Still – those three minutes sound damn good and provide some minor excitement due to seeing them go a bit crazy again. I wouldn’t want them to ape Red Rubber’s style for the duration of a whole album, but some bonafide Manics rocking with some nifty synthesizer work could really work as a direction.

The song is about Leopold II’s violent colonisation of central Africa, and in fact borrows the chorus lyrics from the title of a documentary about it (White King, Red Rubber, Black Death).

Don’t Be Evil

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.

Hazelton Avenue

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).