This page was largely written by a guest reviewer – I wrote the introduction and the review of The Holy Bible.
Manic Street Preachers formed as a high school band in Blackwood, a town in South Wales. Singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore are cousins, and shared bunks as children after Moore’s parents divorced. The pair provide the musical impetus behind the band, while bassist Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards provided the lyrics.
The group have flirted with different styles over the years, dabbling in glam, punk and alternative rock, and sometimes feel like they’re not sure if they want to be Joy Division or Guns ‘n’ Roses. It’s their lyrical outlook that’s the most interesting. Wire and Edwards’ lyrics explored leftist politics and personal alienation.
The group are generally regarded as peaking with their third album, 1994’s The Holy Bible. Following the album’s release, Edwards went missing before a promotional tour, and was later presumed dead. While the group enjoyed continued success without him – the excellent ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ was a number one UK hit in 1998 – it seemed like he was the soul of the band and they lost their edge without him. The group have continued releasing albums; 2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers, with lyrics based on a folder of writings that Edwards gave to Wire before his disappearance, is likely the most interesting.
Manic Street Preachers Album Reviews
With the best of punk intentions, the Manic Street Preachers arrived with their debut album, Generation Terrorists in 1992. Producer Steve Brown drew the influences of The Clash and Public Enemy to the fore, inducing paranoid hysteria among the media not seen since the enigma that was Sid Vicious.
As a reaction to Madchester, the drug induced dance seen in Manchester of the late eighties and early nineties, Generation Terrorists is probably as flawed as the synthesizers and drum machines that rose to prominence during this very sad period in music history. What the Manics had that these bands from Manchester never had was sincerity, fire and intelligence. Due to the naivety of youth and inexperience, these three elements make the transition from psyche to the Generation Terrorists record in isolated moments of inspired aptitude.
So much so, if Generation Terrorists was a five-track EP, I’d possibly being reviewing one of the finest releases of the last thirty years. For the record, this EP would include: ‘You Love Us’, ‘Repeat (UK)’, ‘Stay Beautiful’, ‘Spectators of Suicide’ and ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. If I could add ‘Little Baby Nothing’, ‘So Dead’ and ‘Born to End’, I would be reviewing a much stronger album than the eighteen-track entity that more often that not offers little more than a nice photo collage of the band in the liner notes. The aforementioned tracks are a mixture of punk revival, slice-your-wrists beauty and antagonism. To put it mildly, ‘Repeat (UK)’ tells the Queen she’s not liked one iota by members of the band. Johnny Lydon et. al would be proud to call these young lads from Wales his lads and continue to raise them on a diet of rhetoric and antagonism. ‘You Love Us’ points the barrel at the fickle media and the trigger is released with “Until I see love in statues/Your lessons drill inherited sin” and “Your love is like a holocaust”. Moments like these are isolated, with songs like ‘Natwest-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds’, ‘Love’s Sweet Exile’ and ‘Damn Dog’ embarrassing everyone, even the humble listener.
As Nicky acknowledged in 2001: “Everybody knows the first album [Generation Terrorists] would have been better if we’d left out all the crap.” The benefit of hindsight.
Gold Against the Soul
If Generation Terrorists was about punk, Gold Against the Soul made no attempt to subvert the influence of Guns N’ Roses. The main difference between the bands was Axl Rose was never seen to quote Primo Levi; one would be hard-pressed to make an argument that Axl Rose would not conclude Levi as the manufacturer of denim trousers. Gold Against the Soul is a difficult album to understand, even for the most avid follower; this is the Manics at their best and worst.
The first three tracks eclipse the majority of Generation Terrorists in terms of sonics, and certainly lyrically. ‘Sleepflower’ is poetry in its own right, the first line could be penned by none other than Richey Edwards: “morning always seems too stale to justify”. Richey’s demons come to fore with his inability to sleep without chemical assistance, more often than not in the form of a bottle of vodka. The importance of this song is not limited to the lyrical content. It was also the first song which Richey contributed to musically. It’s common knowledge he didn’t contribute a note to Generation Terrorists; here first-time producer Dave Eringa forced Richey to contribute via rhythm guitar.
On the whole, Gold Against the Soul is a solid, if not underestimated exhibition of their talents. ‘La Tristesse Durera’ brings the talents of James, Nicky and Sean to the fore. James and Sean perfectly capture the counter-grunge sound of the time, Nicky capturing counter-modern images that would be at home anywhere amongst literary circles in the last one hundred years. ‘Yourself’ is rock-by-numbers: big guitars, chunky bass stabs, big vocals. ‘Drug Drug Druggy’ is as lame as the name would suggest. This is the Manics at their most uninspired. Considering the b-sides recorded at the time, it’s inexcusable that ‘Drug Drug Druggy’ was included, let alone recorded.
‘Roses in the Hospital’ quickly banishes that memory with it’s wah-induced peppy verses. The sonics defy Richey’s demons which are beginning to make their way onto the lyric sheet. “Roses in the hospital / Stub out cigarettes on my arm” offers an insight to Richey’s increasing self-abuse, but he quickly removes himself from the cliche, “Heroin is just too trendy”. From here on, Gold Against the Soul is a downward spiral. The final track, ‘Gold Against the Soul’, is charming in its audacity, and acts as a great closer as it reflects the patchy nature of the album. The patchiness aside, it encapsulates the alternative sound to the Seattle phenomenon which was to hit its peak a year later.
Few would have predicted the intensity or the adroitness their next release would offer.
The Holy Bible
The Manic Street Preachers’ final album with Richey Edwards in the band is their best-loved work. While Wire and Edwards usually split lyric writing duties, The Holy Bible was dominated by Edwards. Edwards’ subsequent disappearance has only added to its cult status, with lyrics like “I want to walk in the snow/And not leave a footprint/I want to walk in the snow/And not soil its purity”. There are plenty of politics as well – Wire’s ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart’ is a highlight – while the spoken samples help to elevate the record’s intensity – the aforementioned track opens with a TV trailer for GOP TV’s Rising Tide show.
Musically, The Holy Bible moved Manic Street Preachers back to British influences after the group felt that Gold Against The Soul was too close to the American mainstream. Given the circumstances and lyrical content, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons with Joy Division, and there’s a clear musical influence from the Manchester quartet on tracks like the intense ‘Humming of Evil’. On the other hand, songs like ‘Yes’ and ‘Faster’ are tuneful despite of their intensity.
The Holy Bible understandably enjoys a cult following, due to the events around Richey Edwards’ disappearance, but it’s also a remarkable record that captures Manic Street Preachers at their most intense.
Everything Must Go
1996 presented the wanting British public with a depleted Manic Street Preachers lineup. four were now three. Once hated for the rhetoric they were only to eager to deliver, they were suddenly darlings of the British press, and the music-buying public soon jumped in line. Their first album recorded without leader and more importantly best-friend, Richey Edwards, the dominant theme was always going contain themes of dealing with pain and moving forward. For all the despair Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore had been through in the past two years, this album stands out as a remarkably positive piece. Nicky Wire firmly distances his own mindset from that of the arguably morbid outlook of his childhood friend, Richey Edwards. He asserts this optimism on ‘Enola/Alone’, “all I want to do is live / no matter how painful it is”.
Songs penned by Richey do appear, the lyrical standout is ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’. It is no surprise that it is the most depressing song on the record, but this is what Richey did best. ‘No Surface But All Feeling’, penned solely by Nicky Wire, harks back to the post-grunge sound of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. While this could be a weakness, the Manics achieve it with ease by adding the standard vocal mastery of Bradfield. For the first time the Manics had achieved huge atmospheric sound-scape. Strings are dominant throughout, perhaps there to distance themselves from the bleak narrative The Holy Bible offered. Thus, songs such as ‘A Design For Life’ and ‘Everything Must Go’, whilst personal, are the most positive pieces they had recorded to this point. Everything Must Go is by no means a flawless work as it loses continuity towards the end; ‘Removables’ and ‘Australia’ testify to this. Whilst not particularly weak tracks, they act like potholes on a well-paved road.
If The Holy Bible was Richey Edwards’ album, Everything Must Go was anything but. (JP)
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours
The Manics were always a band that thrived when the chips were down. England had hated the Manics for a long time (and it showed in record sales), but with Everything Must Go they were revered rather than reviled. Personally, I think this was borne more from sympathy than the quality of the album, because Everything Must Go was a patchy affair. Now with the England salivating over their every move and expecting the next OK Computer, how did they fare? Well, they came through pretty good.
Granted, there are a few tracks on here which continue the tendency to a more radio-friendly sound, but the Manics stay true enough to their roots to justify its release. With Nicky Wire assuming full lyrical duties for the first time, it should come as no surprise the sound of the Manics is hard to align against the first three albums. Lyrically, there’s still a load of introspectiveness, politics directed in all the right directions and emotions prompted. If you’re getting none of those, then chances are you either are unaware of their history, or simply don’t care.
The album begins with two of its strongest tracks, the first being a six minute epic, followed by ‘If You Tolerate This…’, paying homage to those who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War. There are plenty of strings still, and moments do sound sonically similar to OK Computer such as ‘Ready for Drowning’, but this album isn’t stimulating itself on the desire to be hailed as the next masterpiece in British music. The weak tracks are par for the course of a typical Manics album with the exception of ‘You Stole the Sun From My Heart’ which they should find embarrassing, but strangely, don’t. ‘Born a Girl’, ‘My Little Empire’are beautifully introspective and familiar to anyone who’s aware of Nicky Wire’s own torment which was often overlooked whilst Richey Edwards was in the band. ‘Nobody Loved You’ is the bands last recorded homage to Richey; one which says it all and tears the heart out. It’s evident the hurt will always be here, and while Wire is trying to remain positive and reassuring, he struggles to convince anyone, yet alone himself making it even more poignant.
This is My Truth is likely to alienate enough people that the Manics will still remain inaccessible to 90% of listeners, and it’s obvious they like it that way. In that regard, the album is a success.
Know Your Enemy
I believe it’s only fair to point out that this review you are about to read has been written as to avoid the history assignment that lies in the form of scattered paper around me. I’ll fail that assignment, I can’t promise the review will be of a better quality. Know Your Enemy is crap. Who knows what the Manic Street Preachers were thinking. I can tell you what they think they were thinking. “We need to show the kids we’re still punk”. In the interviews leading up to the release of Know Your Enemy, they castigated their previous album This is My Truth… and proceeded to state Know Your Enemy is the best album they’d ever made. Wrong, it’s their worst. ‘Found That Soul’ is an attempt at punk and fails.
The problem with the latter-day Manics is the addition of keyboardist Nick Naysmyth. Words cannot describe how utterly crap he is. He uses all of one finger in the aforementioned song. And constantly taps one key like a woodpecker and it’s just as irritating. Tap tap tap. If I had a gun…well. The Manics are all over the place. Cross the Beach Boys with Christmas and you have ‘So Why So Sad’. But, it’s actually a pleasant song. More than that, I like it. Their ode to Paul Robeson is terrible and that same keyboardist needs…you know, the gun. ‘Wattsville Blues’, ‘Year of Purification’and “Royal Correspondent’ are so desperately mundane the keyboardist is spared as the listener saves the last remaining bullet for themselves. Nicky Wire is a good lyricist, so where did he lose his brain with lyrics like “but you’d like the chance to eat their food/even though it has been chewed”. Who’s hiding the gun? ‘Dead Martyrs’, ‘The Convalescent’ and Baby Elian’ are nice enough but this is the Manics on autopilot. By that logic, the plane that is Know Your Enemy has no autopilot. That’s how low the majority of this album sinks.
To be fair, when the Manics do it well, they do it better than the rest, but on Know Your Enemy this is easily forgotten as there is not one single reminder of how good they really are. I’m sure it’s not as bad as I make out, but there is a reason this album moved straight from the sale tables to dust-collecting shelves.
If one was inclined to plot the points on the history of the Manic Street Preachers (and I am) it would go something like this: punk -> arena rock -> bleak and morbid -> cathartic optimism -> introversion -> punk revival. With punk book-ending their career to date it may have been appropriate to call it a day after Know Your Enemy, but to have done so would have been an injustice of the importance of the Manics. The strength of bands such as the Manics is their willingness to embrace different influences, challenge themselves, and push into new territory making each album vastly different from anything else within their discography, and more often than not sounding like no other band. This is something that a band like Rage Against the Machine cannot claim and precisely why their music sounds so irrelevant in the new millennium. That is to say, each Manics album is unique, a progression, for better or for worse. After each album it’s hard to see where next for the Manics and with each new release it seems to make perfect sense. Lifeblood makes sense because it’s a major departure from 2001’s Know Your Enemy, and it consolidates the strengths the band has developed in the last eight years. It doesn’t try to be anything, it’s simply take it or leave it. Lifeblood sounds like the band isn’t at all bothered whether they’re loved or loathed; there’s no “this is the greatest album” statements from Nicky Wire this time around; this is why Lifeblood works.
It takes them all of a minute to find a return to form, “So God is dead, like Nietzsche said/Superstition is all we have left”. In this first minute we pretty much have the Manics in sum. We’ve heard about Orwell, Torvill and Dean, the words “sad” and “losing”, and religion appears courtesy of a Welsh Chapel, and there’s this chap named Nietzsche. It is perhaps puzzling Nietzsche only makes his first appearance after seven albums and countless singles. Appropriately named “1985”, they embrace the influence of the earlier New Order catalogue and sweep into a majestic chorus reminiscent of Everything Must Go. “The Love of Richard Nixon” is an odd number and requisite for a Manics’ album. James Dean Bradfield’s delivery is so deadpan it sounds like he’d rather be doing anything than singing, but it’s sure to be Nixon he’s so ambivalent about. His vocals sum up the song completely, but the casual listener could be forgiven if they don’t quite get it. They’ve been a puzzling band to most, and this song is surely to do the same. He sounds so bored he perhaps flirts dangerously with making the song redundant, but it’s a good choice for the lead single as it sums up the mood of the album perfectly: take it or leave it.
The real heart of Lifeblood lies in tracks four to six. “A Song for Departure” instantly becomes the standout track. Tony Visconti’s influence can be heard with a solid bassline setting the foundation while Bradfield’s guitar drifts in and out before swelling into a beautiful chorus with multiple vocal tracks soaring over and above a really beautiful appearance of piano, which is rare for this band. “This is a song, this is a song, a song to break your heart to”, is in effect exactly what the song has the ability to do. There’s so much contributing to the mood it simply stands up as one of their most beautiful songs, and easily one of their best. It’s a rare track where any possible criticism would appear harsh and unfounded. Similarly, “I Live to Fall Asleep” showcases Bradfield’s wonderful vocals and is accompanied by a wonderful piano track. Lyrically, it’s an enigma within the context of Lifeblood, it’s a personal introspected moment evoking similarities to This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours which surprisingly enough, is a departure from the remainder of the album. Wire appears to have found a new universality in his lyrics. If Goldfrapp engineer, Tom Elmhirst, left his mark anywhere on Lifeblood, it’s on “To Repel Ghosts”. Sean Moore’s drums are pushed so far into the background, the programmed loop skips along and almost becomes the dominant player in the song, Bradfield’s guitar has a tone that glimmers with a sheen, and it all combines into a track that sounds mysterious, weird, and for some reason it works when it probably shouldn’t. It’s a breakthrough track for the Manics because it is truly new ground for them, consolidating their own strengths, the smarts of Tom Elmhirst, and their willingness to push themselves out of their comfort zone.
As with Everything Must Go, they begin to lose focus towards the 3rd quarter of the album. The weakest moment pays homage to suffragette Emily Pankhurst, and is followed by “Glasnost”. “Glasnost” isn’t a bad song, but it fails where songs like “The Love of Richard Nixon” succeed. Importantly, “Always/Never” appears in time to put the album back on track. It’s a song of musical chapters alternating between funk and atmosphere. Wire’s bass stabs puncture through Bradfield’s wah, keyboards then assume the lead role into a chorus which is reminiscent of the Manics of old, where the funk isn’t so familiar. “Solitude Sometimes Is”, “Fragments”, and “Cardiff Afterlife” close the final quarter. Whilst not earth-shattering, they’re tracks that contribute to the album, hold their own, and ensure this is 45 minutes worth listening to.
It’s an album fans will love, casual observers will appreciate and the rest will continue to ignore. One would guess this suits Wire, Moore and Bradfield just fine. They’ve never sounded more comfortable with themselves, the music and life; to them, it would seem, that’s enough. Take or leave it? We’ll take it, thanks.