James Dean Bradfield - The Great Western
Bill Cummings 31/07/2006
James Dean Bradfield has been the musical driving force behind the Manic Street Preachers for the last sixteen years or more. Even in their early days when Richey “wasn't plugged in”, James' furious guitar licks drove The Manics, with all the passion of a man possessed. Part Springsteen, part Strummer, he played virtually every adrenaline-fuelled guitar part on their first two long players and bashed his way through the early years with incendiary live performances and a down to earth charm.
Then there's “that” voice that's improved immeasurably down the years, at one moment a “rasping, passionate cry” at others he sounds like he's “singing with his eyes shut,” breathily pulling at your heartstrings with his world-weary croon. Put simply I can't think of many better frontmen in recent times. Given this it may surprise some that this is his first solo album, written as the Manics take a break from their genre-busting seven-album career (and the commercial disappointment of last long player “Lifeblood”). Until now it's always been Nicky Wire (and in the early days Richey Edwards) supplying the personally and politically-charged ammunition. And there's a sense that before now he's been unsure of himself as a lyricist, until now his only efforts have been keeningly emotional but quite simplistic in form (“Ocean Spray” and “Firefight”). The main question in my mind surrounding “The Great Western” was could he pull it off? Could he create something that both reflected his musical influences and proved those that doubt his lyrical prowess wrong? The answer is partly.
”The Great Western” is an album that balances neatly between the big-hearted cinematic guitar/pop sheen of “Everything Must go” and the intense personal honesty of a discs like “This is my Truth” and John Cale's Paris 1919, added to this are the almost motown-esque backing vocals, and a myriad of instruments (harmonicas, pianos and strings) that give this record its glacial backdrop.
It opens with the punchy pop swipe of “That's No Way To Tell A Lie” which takes a jab at the way organised religion has kept Aids rife throughout Africa, and it's a diverting pop song but its chorus lacks a progression, lapsing into a familiar latter Manics trait of repetition (“That's no way to tell a lie!”) as way of a exclamation point. Probable next single “An English Gentleman” pays moving tribute to the benevolence of the late Philip Hall; their publicist, close friend and mentor. Its bouncing ELO style guitar pop is well realised, peaking with James' rasping vocals, it's like the soundtrack to a Spaghetti Western. Only its opening bars' mild resemblance to Razorlight's “Golden Touch” is problematic on repeated listens.
One of the album's best moment comes with the Nicky Wire-penned “Bad Boys And Pain Killers” its gorgeously realised Spectorish pop garnished with heart-tugging call-and-return melodies and lyrics that hint at everyone from Richey to Pete Doherty. ("Bad boys and pain killers/Swollen hands looking for love/Safe from harm is all I ask.") It's comparable with much of the Manics' best recent work. It's matched later by the excellently lovelorn dynamics of “There's still a long way to go.” that's lonely harmonica, vocals and guitar rise and fall gracefully, faintly reminiscent of the Manics' “Door to the River”, it's like the soundtrack to some wistful heartbroken night staring at the stars, its lyrics are some of James' best. (“I don't need an A to Z there's some things I just can't show.”)
Elsewhere there's a beautifully plucked rendition of Jacques Brel's “To See A Friend In Tears” thats message echoes from the '60s when its was written, about the Second World War right through to the Iraq war of today. The journey from Cardiff to London and back again is at the heart of the Great Western (the album is even named after Cardiff's railway station): the juxtaposition of James as well-known Musician living in London and James the Blackwood boy. Hence we have songs about leaving: the lush “Émigré” and the yearning closer “Which Way To Keffyn” both exhibiting perceptively personal lyrical touches.
However there are problems with this disc, at times the lyrical simplicity is stretched to breaking point: see “Run Romeo Run” thats solid verses give way to a overly simplistic chorus and “Say Hello To The Pope” that's just too similar to other sheened rockers present: these tracks lack the intensity and musical variation that's always present on any work that carries the name Manic Street Preachers, indeed some of these resemble Manics b-sides. There's also a sense of the album tailing off at the end. There's a lack of real memorability about a song like “Wrong Beginning” for instance.
For a solo album this is a promising start from one of the best voices in music today, no longer a conduit but now a chronicler, a fully fledged songwriter in his own right, if James can push himself into new musical terrains, he could have a future beyond the Manic Street Preachers.