Not so manic now...

James Dean Bradfield seems to have rediscovered his mojo on debut solo album 'The Great Western'. Recorded in the aftermath of heavy touring to promote the Manic Street Preachers seventh studio album T.G.W. could have been an interesting diversion from the day job but it appears to have blossomed into something altogether more promising. If an atmosphere of resignation, gloom and (dare we say it) apathy reigned over 'Lifeblood' then all such thoughts are pushed to one side here. It appears as though stepping out from the shadows of one of the biggest selling British band's of the past decade has reinvigorated Bradfield.

This is unquestionably his strongest set of songs since 1996's 'Everything Must Go'. There's air punching anthems galore, elegant acoustic ballads and controlled bursts of well directed venom. Album opener and first single 'That's No Way To Tell A Lie' is one of the finest songs he has composed to date. It mines a familiar Joy Division / New Order territory to the last M.S.P. album but coupled with neat little touches like 'sha la la la' backing vocals and handclaps it somehow surpasses that album's best moments by a country mile. In many ways it's this attention to detail that makes 'The Great Western' a cut above the other records he's been a part of in this past decade. JDB is certainly less angst-ridden as a solo performer and seemingly more confident in his own skin than at any point in his career.

There's even the odd jaunty moment in the form of the Kinks-ian piano riff of 'An English Gentleman' (Bradfield's ode to friend and former manager Phillip Hall) and the oddly titled 'Say Hello To The Pope'. One of the undoubted stand-outs on this album is the insanely catchy 'Bad Boys and Painkillers', a future anthem in waiting its slashing power chords and 'that' voice still so pure and powerful fifteen years down the line mark it out as another potential single. Similarly impressive is the lively seventies flavoured rocker 'Run Romeo Run' whose jabbing organ, thunderous drums and axe work all warrant serious attention.

The ballads too are well crafted and in the case of 'Still A Long Way To Go' achingly gorgeous. 'To See A Friend In Tears' displays a tender elegance and proves that armed only with an acoustic guitar JDB can still deliver the emotional goods he's famed for (this number's on a par with 'Small Black Flowers..' if you can believe it). The album ends with the lighters aloft anthem 'Which Way To Kyffin', a grandiose exit for an album whose class and quality doesn't dip for one single moment. This is a triumphant, flag waving return to form for JDB and proof that maybe the Manic Street Preachers have more than one last hurrah left in them.