Manic Street Preachers - Indepth: Journal for Plague Lovers
Michael James Hall 04/05/2009
It is easy to forget that once, in the shrouded mists of time that were the early 1990's a band could be considered controversial. Not in a 'swearing on the radio' or 'I'm going to shoot your face' kind of way, but in a genuine, almost terrifying fashion.
Manic Street Preachers were such a band.
Dividing opinion from the offset, they emerged a half-psychotic, embryonic band of New York Dolls cast-offs brandishing situationist-sloganeering lyrics and copped Slash riffs. The rise of an intellectual glam rock band was not considered proper in the age of Madchester and increasingly dull baggy beats, so this Blackwood bred band of politically charged misfits were pilloried by the press, and praised almost devotionally by the few.
'Motown Junk' was a incendiary call to arms hat reset the clock on rock n roll history. While their debut (double, of course) album 'Generation Terrorists' contained such crystal cut beauties as 'Motorcycle Emptiness' and bravado-charged anthems as 'You Love Us'. The band legendarily swore that it would sell more copies than 'Appetite For Destruction', and that they would then play Wembley Stadium and, the piece de resistance, then commit suicide. An admirable sentiment though one destined never to be executed.
The band, in particular Nicky Wire, found themselves mouthpieces against the corner of the industry in which they were meant to exist, branding Slowdive 'worse than Hitler' and suggesting that Michael Stipe 'go the same way as Freddy Mercury'. Of course when the lithe, cross-dressing bassist suggested from the stage at Glastonbury that they 'build a bypass through this shithole' their fate was sealed.
Absolute nihilists, forever on the fringes, always, like one of their favourite movies, The Outsiders.
The ace up their sleeve though was lyricist Richey Edwards, a fiercely intellectual, stunningly fragile and achingly handsome boy with, it must be said, huge poetic talent and a world of personal anguish to match.
Following the perceived misfire of 'Gold Against the Soul' (actually an excellent record that bore a number of their best remembered songs and slogans) Edwards came to the fore with a genuinely epoch defining album. Steering the themes to his own personal sensibilities, Edwards helped shape 'The Holy Bible' (has there ever been a better album title?) in his own dysmorphic image. The band became the generation terrorists they had always imagined themselves to be with one thundering, terrifying album; a long, dark night of the soul that took in anorexia, Sartre, existentialism, consumerism, Nazism, Plath and Pinter, and regurgitated them into the faces of their own following.
Appearing on Top of the Pops with James Bradfield seemingly dressed as an IRA terrorist sealed the deal. What could have made them look trivial or stupid came across as desperately serious and profound in intent. This band were clearly a force to be reckoned with. If they were to be reviled they would be so entirely on their own terms.
An entire legion of teenagers became, as Richey had once so tragically carved into his own arm, '4 Real', adopting the Manics' influences and look as their own, sometimes even their world view. They garnered the most devoted following of any band of the last twenty years by becoming a musical warning alarm for a world devouring itself.
We know now that, in light of Richey's disappearance in 1995, the Manics would never scale such heights again. Of course many would argue that as a trio they had number one singles, released their biggest selling albums, recorded their definitive anthem and headlined both the Millennium Stadium and Wembley Arena - all as a three piece. All without Richey.
Those who remember the tar black explosion of their first hearing of 'The Holy Bible' and the intense chaos of its' accompanying tour will tell you different. They'll tell you that with public sympathy on their side and without Edwards' brutal, precise humour, they softened, blurred around the edges, and while always remaining one of the last truly great British (more importantly, Welsh) bands of our time, there was always a little fire missing, the 'fuck you, and more importantly fuck me' attitude had departed. Bands get older and change, they mellow and mature - it's the way of things - and the Manics would be no different.
But there were always sparks. Hearing 'The Masses Against the Classes' for the first time and feeling like it was all back in place, that the boys were on fire once more, only to find that the following album 'Know Your Enemy' could not have been more unlike it; Those constant tempting taunts in the press that their next album would be 'more a return to The Holy Bible sound' only to find that, on listening, this clearly was not the case.
Now while 'Send Away the Tigers' had some quarters hailing it as a return to form (and in many ways it was - the form of Everything Must Go rather than anything previous though), this time we are on a promise. An absolute guarantee.
We have the king of abrasiveness Steve Albini on recording (never production) duties, cover art (eerily similar to a portrait of Richey's face) from Jenny Saville and, most tantalising of all, lyrics taken entirely from notebooks given to James Dean Bradfield, Sean Moore and Nicky Wire mere weeks before Edwards' disappearance.
'Journal For Plague Lovers' takes all the ludicrous Rhianna covers and all the second-hand NME awards (the 'Godlike Genius' honour given to the Manics was previously refused by Morrissey) and pitches them into a chemical inferno. Manic Street Preachers here return to their muse and find it absolutely, entirely intact.
Opening with the savagery of 'Peeled Apples', a powerhouse of supercharged guitars and poetic, striking imagery ('Riderless horses from Chomsky's Camelot / Bruises on my hands from digging my nails out' screams the chorus to a melody sneakily cribbed from Heaven 17's 'Temptation') we are instantly transported back fifteen years into that brutal, edifying world they so bravely created.
This time though, the added ingredient is, almost unbelievably, a healthy dose of pitch black humour.
Yes, 'Journal for Plague Lovers' is an extremely funny record. Like The Smiths or perhaps Chris Morris it toys with its own notions of seriousness whilst simultaneously avoiding self parody. This is most evident on tracks like 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time' where a moral, philosophical question is transposed to the trivial world of Collins' pulp romance novels: 'If a married man fucks a Catholic / And his wife dies without knowing / Does that make him unfaithful?'
This sly, snide conceit is juxtaposed with the chorus lyric of 'Mummy, what's a sex pistol?', as concise and adroit a dig at middle England Daily Mail values as one could hope for.
There is also warm humour to be found in many of the other tracks; 'Me and Stephen Hawking' with its reference to both Hawking and Edwards missing 'a sex revolution / when we failed the physical'.
Even the otherwise terrifyingly bleak 'All Is Vanity' with it's knowing refrain 'It's not what's wrong / It's what's right / Makes me feel like I'm talking a foreign language sometimes…It's a fact of life, sunshine', the last line delivered with such knowing resignation that the humour almost hurts.
Now, this is not to say that this is not a serious record, these moments of levity a welcome respite from the Manics' more traditional themes of alienation and despair.
There is, for instance, the maudlin funeral march of 'Doors Closing Slowly', with it's slow firing gun drums, heartbeat bass and key lyric: 'Crucifixion is an easy life'. There's a moment in the pre-chorus where the drum part is reminiscent of a condemned man's footsteps against the concrete of his cell. The whole song appears to be awaiting execution as the bold sample of a ticking clock at its end reinforces to dramatic, unsettling effect.
On 'Facing Page: Top Left' we find a musical cousin to 'Small Black Flowers', an acoustic enterprise with some neat musical inversions, the twinned guitar and harp often taking the listener to places they would not expect to go.
Its sliding, plucked notes offset obtuse, random phrases like 'skin cancer calories' and this is the track most likely to remind adherents of the days when Bradfield was forced to cram in as many syllables as humanly possible into every line, rendering many without sense, though viscerally compelling. The track's haunting, Nick Drake-like coda is glorious and due to smart sequencing it leaves us unprepared for the sonic assault of 'Marlon JD'.
It boasts the only use of drum machine on the whole record and it's put to great use. Insistent disco beats punctuate a winding, vibrating guitar while notions of manhood and fame are punctured through lyrics like 'He stood like a statue while she was beaten across the face'.
It's this song that contains perhaps the most apt and memorable lines on the whole record: 'He did not defend himself / Did not even raise his hand / I will not beg because / This is how I am'. It's another one for the Edwards canon, simultaneously despairing and valedictory.
There's also the frenetic dance of 'Pretension/Repulsion', boasting further frantic word panic, a Pixies-like, utterly mangled solo, an horrific 'Pornographic versus Pornographic' chorus and an ending that sounds like the song has collapsed in on itself; it's a trait shared by many of the songs here, most clocking in at around the three and a half minute mark, none outstaying their welcome, none guilty of indulgent, chantalong climaxes - the songs are simply played to their natural conclusion, then end without fanfare or drama. It's a set of songs recorded as they were written, without pointless adornment and Steve Albini's hands are all over them.
Of course it's no secret that 'In Utero', one of Albini's finest works is an album close to the Manics' hearts (remember their stunning live renditions of 'Penny Royal Tea' all those years ago?) and it's this blueprint that is worked to here, eschewing even the complexity of sound shown on 'Holy Bible' and striving for a more abrasive, direct clarity.
This attitude is most evident on the title track with it's incredible drum sound - Albini keeps all the distortion from the kit resulting in a hot, red vibration pulsing keen and nagging throughout. This track also boasts some of Wire's niftiest bass work and more slicing, metallic guitar lines from Bradfield. It's like 'Yes' filtered through 'Serve the Servants', and that, friends, is certainly no bad thing. The song itself is wonderfully indicative of the record as a whole: a wide open road of a tune that takes narrow bends into dark, sparse alleys.
'This Joke Sport Severed' is another personal, introspective take on insecurity and self-image. It moves quietly across lyrics like ''I endeavoured to find a place where I became untethered', maudlin, desperate and tired and climaxes with a striking string part via an apocalyptic mid-song breakdown of white noise and feedback. Stunning.
There are some queer anomalies here too, such as the Super Furry Animals sounding 'Virginia State Epileptic Colony' which utilises Sean's trumpet skills to great effect while channelling '90s indie-pop and offering us the most endearing image conjured across the record: 'Cleaning, cooking and flower arranging / This is a kind of liberation'. It's piano vs. trumpet breakdown is a luscious moment of musicality.
The very best song here is the scratching, scraping 'She Bathed Herself In A Bath of Bleach' wherein a sweetly satisfying and aptly obtuse guitar line gives way to a Smiths-like tale of female tragedy. This is one of the clutch of tracks here that, as they burst into life, feel like biting into hot skin and drawing blood - vicious, visceral, painful, perverse and born of passion.
Now, it's worth noting that this is something of a 'trick' record. On first listen you'll be enamoured with the more obvious, anthemic numbers; the pinched harmonics of Bradfield's guitar ringing out in one of his simplest and most winning moments as a player of the instrument on 'Jackie Collins';
The impossibly exhilarating stop-start riff of 'Stephen Hawking';
And the thundering chorus of 'Peeled Apples' of course.
Yet it's the later tracks, harder to get a handle on, more subtle and giving away little in terms of melody that flourish and embed themselves in the mind on further listening.
It's a record designed for multiple visits, each offering a little more than the last, much like 'The Holy Bible'. Sometimes it will be a deeply hidden lyric or sample (and the album is indeed peppered with barely audible spoken word clips), sometimes just a neat little guitar line or drum fill, each serving to enrich the album as an experience.
It's not one to slap on while playing your X-box or doing the washing up, that's for sure. It demands your unadulterated attention in a way so few modern albums can claim to.
This then, is a document of friendship, strange nobility and high integrity. It is not 'The Holy Bible', it is not 'Everything Must Go'. It is an album that delves into the past, acknowledges its heredity, filters youthful ideas through the eyes of experience and delivers a thrilling, all-encapsulating document of an essential, powerful rock band that have always meant so much to so many.
Irrelevant of what they choose to do next, when history glances back at Manic Street Preachers it will see that 'Journal for Plague Lovers' was a defining moment - a moment when past and present crashed beautifully together to create one of their finest hours.
Never again will they be dangerous, never again will they capture the zeitgeist in the way they did so many years ago. They are fully aware of this and wear it with a smile. No longer terrorists but Statesmen of the most unsuitable kind. Their fire still burns, their passion untamed, and as they look over their shoulder at those young punks from Blackwood, determined to become cultural commentators and icons they can both laugh at their pretensions and feel that, to a great extent, their ambition has been achieved.
A career that has become a tribute to a lost friend has culminated with their final musical embrace of all that encapsulated him.
The album leaves us with the Wire sung 'William's Last Words', a tender homage to his bandmates from Edwards containing the perfect kiss-off:
'Wish me some luck as you wave goodbye to me / you're the best friends I ever had'.
The perfect, plaintive end to one of this, or any other year's best and most beautiful albums.
The album 'Journal For Plague Lovers' is released on the 18th May through Columbia records.