Mouthy agit-rock trio trade spiky bombast for mellow elegance

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Never Mind The Ballads

Contrary bastards, the Manics. As the world stands at its most politically charged precipice for decades, the bolshy Welsh trio follow their spiky and poorly received 2001 manifesto Know Your Enemy with an album of warm, widescreen, soft-rock ballads. All fluid guitar surges and gentle string arrangements, Lifeblood seems closest in tone to Everything Must Go, although the sound is lighter, less bombastic, more soothing.

Musically and lyrically, the mid-’80s are a key reference point. The opening track is even called “1985”, name-checking Morrissey and Marr in its intoxicating swirl of bittersweet memories and bruised majesty. Vintage New Order, U2 and Associates are all cited as influences and their ghosts sometimes hover very close-the crystalline piano rolls of “Empty Souls” and “To Repel Ghosts” are straight out of “New Year’s Day”.

Sadly the swooping, singalong momentum of “1985” and its splendidly incongruous partner in misty-eyed nostalgia, “The Love Of Richard Nixon”, is not sustained throughout the album. Promisingly titled tracks such as “Glasnost” and “Cardiff Afterlife” foreground meticulous MOR production over memorable tunes. Which is a shame, because a couple more killer anthems might truly have qualified Lifeblood as Everything Must Go 2. That said, the Manics are clearly learning to conquer some long-standing flaws. James Dean Bradfield’s voice is no longer stuck in shrill fifth gear but more soulful and supple, capturing that “ache” that Nick Cave defined as essential for love songs. Most of Nicky Wire’s lyrics now flow smoothly instead of spitting out shopping lists of intellectual disdain. Although the Manics will clearly never be the entryist superstar subversives they once promised, the gap between their ambitions and their abilities narrows with each record. Contrary little bastards.