Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Journal for Plague Lovers

Manic Street Preachers - Journal for Plague Lovers
released 18 May 2009 on Columbia

On May 15 1991, Manic Street Preachers, then an androgynous glam-punk outfit on the up, played a gig at Norwich Arts Centre. After the show, an interview with the NME’s Steve Lamacq gained widespread notoriety when Richey Edwards decided to carve the phrase “4 REAL” into his arm with a razor blade. Stupid and misguided as it may have been, it’s an iconic moment that has gone down in rock folklore and was quite possibly one of the catalysts for the success of the Manics’ début album, Generation Terrorists, the following year. The fact that this man who didn’t sing, (allegedly) didn’t even play guitar and only wrote around half the band’s lyrics could be the focal point for such an image-conscious band pretty much summed up the enigma that was Richey Edwards.

Of course, we all know what happened next. Generation Terrorists was followed by Gold Against the Soul and, completing the Richey trilogy, The Holy Bible. Then, in February 1995, Edwards went missing and hasn’t been seen since. MSP soldiered on without him and became one of the leading lights of the British music scene of the 1990s but The Holy Bible remains their masterpiece: a brutal, gruelling growl-from-the-id of an album clearly showcasing the fragile mind of a man on the edge. Unfortunately, at the time, no-one knew quite how close he was. Richey left behind folders of poems, musings and ideas, and these form the lyrical content of Journal for Plague Lovers. So, basically, we’re in for The Holy Bible mark II, right? Well, just to be contrary, yes and no.

It’s clear from track one, Peeled Apples, that it’s Edwards’ words coming from Bradfield. Within a couple of minutes, there’s a reference to Noam Chomsky and there’s certainly no-one around in 2009 who would pen an opening couplet such as “The more I see, the less I scream/The figure eight inside out is infinity.”

But MSP have grown up over the last fifteen years (all three members are now 40) and there’s a maturity to their music now that has replaced the all-out nihilism of their formative years. We’re now treated to a situation where Edwards’ lyrics actually fit the music; something of a novelty for long-term Manics fans. James Dean Bradfield’s voice has softened from the passionate rallying cry of the early 90s too . So, there’s the odd spectacle of a 40-year-old man crooning, “Overjoyed, me and Stephen Hawking, we laughed/We missed the sex revolution/When we failed the physical” as Bradfield does on Me and Stephen Hawking (hey, no-one said all his lyrics were winners).

The most striking difference between Journal for Plague Lovers and any album MSP recorded during Richey’s lifetime is the variation. Rather than cranking up the amps and letting the fury fly, there’s much more thought and consideration in every riff. In fact, it’s the ballads that prove the most powerful throughout the album, where songs such as This Joke Sport Severed add a restrained gravitas to Edwards’ words. The hallmarks of Manics of old are still there to see though: metal riffs, double-tracked vocals; in fact, She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach could have come straight from Generation Terrorists.

Manic Street Preachers really do need congratulating for their efforts on Journal for Plague Lovers. Not only have they crafted an album that is fit to rank among their best, they’ve done so in difficult circumstances (though obviously they have previous in this field with 1996’s triumphant Everything Must Go). What could have been a mawkish album in poor taste has ended up being a fitting tribute to a friend and former bandmate.

On this album of confounded expectations, it seems only apt that it’s left for Nicky Wire to apply the coup de grâce. Not known for his vocal dexterity, he stays true to form here, but he lends his pipes to the best track on the album, William’s Last Words. Like most of the high points on Journal for Plague Lovers, it’s an acoustic-led ballad and this time, a tender paean to Richey. You don’t get to write your own epitaph in life but that’s effectively what Edwards has done. The words could have just been thrown together in five minutes on a piece of scrap paper for all we know, but lines such as “Isn’t it lovely when the dawn brings the dew? I’ll be watching over you” take on a heartbreaking poignancy when you consider the tragic story to which they now relate. As Wire’s wobbly voice strains for the notes on “Goodnight, sleep tight/Goodnight, God bless,” you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel even the slightest twinge of sadness.

Richey Edwards was officially declared “presumed deceased” in November 2008. Chances are, the truth about what happened will never be found out. The fact that, however crass it may sound, we live in an age where death can sometimes seem a good career move (à la Jeff Buckley or Nick Drake) and conspiracy theorists worldwide can share mutterings across the globe via the Internet means that the cult of Richey Edwards will be with us for a long time yet. With Journal for Plague Lovers, it feels like Manic Street Preachers have finally closed the door on a painful chapter in their career and, rather fittingly, they’ve done it with some aplomb.

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