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"National Treasures: The Complete Singles"

Manic Street Preachers – National Treasures: The Complete Singles
02 November 2011, 08:30 Written by Andy Johnson

For a band that claimed they would never write a love song, Manic Street Preachers have inspired some strong emotions. For a band that also claimed they would record one album and break up, they have been doing so for 25 years, being met variously with adoration, derision, acclaim and scepticism. Having formed in South Wales in 1986 as four idealistic upstarts, the Manics became three elder statesmen of British rock, a cult force with international recognition and an uncommonly devoted fanbase. A completist singles collection and a last parting shot before a long hiatus to come, National Treasures charts one version of the history of a truly unique band.

It is one version of that story because for all the disappointment in some quarters that the Manics have chosen to release “just another compilation”, it is important to remember that National Treasures is not a greatest hits like the much-criticised 2002 effort Forever Delayed (which omitted not only the song containing that phrase but also a song by that title); nor is it a B-sides and covers set like Lipstick Traces, from the following year. Instead, this compilation quite consciously sets all 38 Manics singles in chronological order. Where Traces was a “secret history”, Treasures is an abridged one, and comes with all the contradictions and occasional gaps that implies.

True to that format, this is an invigorating journey but one rife with contrasts – there are two UK #1 singles here, just as there are disappointing commercial flops; there are inspired decisions, and regrettable ones. It all reflects the Manics’ long-held willingness to confront, rather than conceal, their missteps. The end result is two and a half hours of intriguing, frustrating, baffling but ultimately thrilling and vindicating rock music which stands shoulder to shoulder with the best comparable singles discographies of the last two decades.

So many of these songs have passed into modern mythology that it feels as though they have been around forever; but while triumphs like ‘A Design For Life’, ‘If You Tolerate…’ and ‘Faster’ are as impressive as ever, it is often focusing on the Manics at their more ambitious and flawed which delivers the freshest rewards. Their cover of the theme to M.A.S.H. recorded in 1992 may have been knocked out for an NME charity single, but it’s terrific outro is one of the band’s most bruising moments; ‘Little Baby Nothing’ was criticised for its duet vocal spot from former underage pornstar Traci Lords, but its lyric on the objectification of women is as completely Manics as they get and something few bands would even dream of attempting.

Some of the more baffling moments from the band’s middle career also remain a treasure trove. The frankly bizarre ‘So Why So Sad’ is still as difficult to get a handle on as ever, while ‘Let Robeson Sing’ contains a kind of majesty in its core, so nearly hidden under its fatally flawed execution. Later still, the likes of ‘Autumnsong’ and ‘Postcards From a Young Man’ document a band hesitant to release their most vital material in singles form, but still demonstrating that the fire still glows on.

It is fascinating that the Manics have chosen to promote and close National Treasures with a cover of The The’s 1983 track ‘This is the Day’. Their buoyant performance is simply one of the most and positive things the band have ever recorded, and may worry those who fear that the boys from Blackwood are fuelled by rage alone. Fret not – beautiful, brutal, melodic and maudlin, National Treasures is evidence that there is much more to Manic Street Preachers than that.

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