Monday, June 1, 2009

Plague Lovers' Purgatory


In a career almost twenty years long, the Manic Street Preachers have never gained a massive following in the US. In their native UK, the Manics have been among those ranks of bands that everyone knows--their songs became drunken anthems in London's working-class pubs long before the boys of Oasis even formed.

Their music has always skated dangerously close to Rock 'n' Roll's edge--blistering guitar licks, a rhythm section that refuses to be part of the background, and lyrics that play as much with "I-don't-give-a-shit" nihilism as they do with meaning and purpose. While Grunge may have brought a youthful anger back to Rock, few American groups gave it a direction.

The Manics, however, blended their sneering cynicism with a political compass that most bands on either side of the pond couldn't maintain in the crumbling grandeur of the '90s. Their inconoclastic use of media manipulation, their willingness to skewer anything that smacked of stale establishment junk, and their outspoken affinity for radical ideas clearly set them apart, especially because they did it with such style and fearlessness.

Whether it's this refusal to be anything but themselves, or just a consequence of the chronic myopia from which the American music industry suffers, the Manic Street Preachers' American audience has always remained sparse. With any luck, that will change with their new album.

Journal For Plague Lovers is a near-breathtaking piece of work, even by the Manics' standards. It is the first album to feature lyrics penned entirely by the group's backup guitarist and lyricist Richey James Edwards, who disappeared on February 1st, 1995. Edwards' body was never found, though his car was discovered near a notorious suicide spot two weeks later. Edwards, who had long battled with depression, was declared "presumed dead" at the request of his family in November of 2008.

A few days before his disappearance, Edwards gave a notebook filled with lyrics to bassist Nicky Wire. After thirteen years of sitting unused, Journal is the long-awaited result. Though it might be easy to think of this album as a novelty, a fossil of sorts, the shocking reality is that this is their freshest sounding and most relevant album in a decade! Edwards always brought an irreverence to his lyricism that was more harrowing than humorous, and that ethos seems to have soaked into every aspect of Journal.

"Peeled Apples" is a brutally abrasive opener, filled with razor-on-metal guitars. James Dean Bradfield's dangerous wail makes Billy Idol sound like a cat with a hairball problem, and Sean Moore's drums have the determined pound of a wrecking ball smashing through concrete. None of its intensity fades on the second track, "Jackie Collins Existential Question Time," which sees Edwards ruminating on the underbelly of traditional sex and marriage:

"Tonight we beg,
Tonight we beg a question
If I a married man,
A married man begs a Catholic
And his wife dies without knowing
Does it make him unfaithful people
Oh, Mummy, what's a sex pistol?"


This kind of world-view has always been at the heart of the Manics' music. Their keen love of Situationism has inspired them to turn the traditional inside out and lay its own emptiness bare--whether that be sex, work, love, leisure, even the concept of beauty itself. Unlike so many "political" groups who will rail on and on about specific issues that may or may not be relevant in a few years time, Manic Street Preachers play at the much more insidious sicknesses that plague modern capitalist culture. It's not only better song-writing, it's a timelessness that makes their music that much more potent--not to mention amazingly poignant almost fifteen years after the words were written.

This kind of universality comes out full-frontal on Journal For Plague Lovers' title track, which relies on tornado-swirl guitars and Bradfield's joyfully masochistic delivery. More broadly, the song's topic is the unabashed arrogance of absolute power:

"Only a god can bruise
Only a god can soothe
Only a god reserves the right
To forgive those that revile him"


Tell me these lyrics don't ring true in the age of billion dollar bank bailouts--especially when Bradfield sings "oh, sweet stimulus." Screw relevancy, this kind of statement is flat-out dangerous--in the best way possible!

It's a fitting tribute to Edwards' memory that his lyrics can find such immediacy long after his absence. There is obviously no way he could have predicted the present battle of ideas over same-sex marriage, let alone the current economic meltdown, when he lambasted the collisions of sex and power. The material that shows up on Journal finds traction in our own era, however, and that's one of the things that makes Edwards as close to immortal as an artist can get. It's also one of the reasons that more people in today's America need to listen to the Manic Street Preachers.

Originally appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Funny that you did this review, because I was just thinking of the Manics for the first time in ages. When I was a metal kid in the mid-90s, everyone in the scene totally defined themselves against MSP. But then Everything Must Go was this huge album with smart lyrics and it was impossible not to have a grudging respect for them.

And Motorcycle Emptiness is a classic. Still listen to that and get goosebumps.

- James