Joe Flynn reviews Journal for Plague Lovers by the Manic Street Preachers.
The Manics’ new album has been hyped in the press as a return to their 1994 peak. All the lyrics are taken from notes left by Richey Edwards, a former band member who disappeared in February 1995. Since then the Manics have gone from relative obscurity as dark iconoclasts, to mainstream success as dad-rockers with occasional moments of weird, sub-Stalinite political rhetoric.
Edwards never contributed musically to the Manics. He was their self-styled “Minister of Propaganda” back in the days when the band had the absurd idea of fomenting revolution through “cultural entryism”. They would play music like Guns n’ Roses but with “revolutionary” lyrics. Becoming the biggest band in history, they would release one LP in a sandpaper sleeve, so it partially disintegrated every time you played it; then they would play Wembley Stadium for three nights and announce their split. This action would effectively, they said, destroy rock n’ roll and undermine the power of “The Spectacle” (capitalism).
This bizarre mixture of Guy Debord and Bill and Ted was utterly incoherent but rather endearing. Since Edwards disappeared the band has degenerated politically, flirting with Scargill, Castro and latterly, Gordon Brown.
The work Edwards left behind has been described as more like poetry than lyrics, and this creates a problem on the new album — without Richey around to give them shape, the songs lack coherence and seem like a series of abstract images. The excellent “She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach” is an exception.
Musically, the band became more melodic, with bigger production values, after their comeback in 1996. This remains true on Journal... and feels bizarre counterposed to Richey’s clipped, neat, brutal lyrics. The tracks labelled as “demo” versions are noticeably better than the studio versions — the jaunty piano on “V.S.E.C.” is the worst example of the latter. The stripped down guitars on “Marlon J.D.” are a model of what would have been appropriate throughout.
There is no real sense of urgency on the album — what is this for? Once upon a time the Manics had a purpose. They sought to antagonise, scandalise, spew bile and beauty, wear lipstick and incite revolution. They were muddleheads, but our muddleheads — a working-class band. If this album gets more people interested in Richey Edwards and the band’s early work, then well and good. But in and of itself, it doesn’t feel like a particularly worthwhile exercise.