by Fiona Shepherd
JOURNAL FOR PLAGUE LOVERS
It is difficult to envisage a more personal, painful yet cathartic project than this ninth Manic Street Preachers album. Although there must be a whole generation of fans who have no recollection of their original guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards, his memory has stalked the group ever since his unsolved disappearance in early 1995.
Weeks prior to this, he had given his bandmates a ringbinder stuffed with lyrics, poetry, prose and collages. With hindsight, the band regard this as a bequest and have spoken about their sense of responsibility to do something with those lyrics.
Edwards was officially declared "presumed dead" last November, which may have had some bearing on the decision to finally put music to his words and effectively work as a four-piece again for the first time since their finest album, The Holy Bible.
Journal For Plague Lovers has been painstakingly conceived as a sequel. Like its predecessor, there are 13 tracks. The sleeve uses the same typeface as The Holy Bible and is also adorned by Jenny Saville's striking artwork (a painting of a bloodied child this time). Spoken word samples - a common Manics' device of old - complement the album's psyche. And the recording has been produced in typically hands-off style by hardcore hero Steve Albini, whose work on Nirvana's In Utero was greatly admired by Edwards.
But all ears will be on the words. The idiosyncratic song titles - Pretension/Repulsion, This Joke Sport Severed, Virginia State Epileptic Colony and the Daniel Defoe-referencing title track - are convoluted, yet somehow trip off the tongue. The band have summed up the lyrical content thus: "The Grande Odalisque by Ingres, Marlon Brando, Giant Haystacks, celebrity, consumerism and dysmorphia". Just a regular day at the office for Edwards-era Manics.
Frontman James Dean Bradfield once again faces the peculiar challenge of wrapping his tonsils around Edwards's stream-of-consciousness outpourings, and attacks the lyrics like a bulldog. But does he know what "fragrance my escort of no meaning, this beauty here dipping neophobia" from Facing Page: Top Left actually means? Did Edwards? Does it matter?
Abstruse or not, the lyrics do jump out immediately, in a way that only Edwards' contributions can. There is almost a cosy nostalgia to the blizzard of cultural references, and his way with an ear-catching slogan, such as "the Levi Jean has always been stronger than the Uzi". But he could be emotionally direct too; raw observations such as "I endeavoured to find a place where I became untethered" are sobering and beautiful.
Edwards's bleak worldview struck an intense chord with doomed youth, spawning the cult around The Holy Bible in the first place, and there are dark and troubling images to process here, such as the scarred protagonist of She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach. But there are also unexpected outbreaks of wry humour. Me And Stephen Hawking - the song which references Giant Haystacks - boasts the killer lines "me and Stephen Hawking, we laugh, we missed the sex revolution when we failed the physical", matched by the priceless, chiming "oh mummy, what's a Sex Pistol?" chorus of Jackie Collins Existential Question Time.
The danger is that the music just becomes the dull frame round the work of art. But, although Journal is not heavy on mighty hooklines, there is an edge to the sound, thanks to the Manics' blatant plundering of the best of progressive post-punk. Echoing the obsessive musical name-checking of their early days, the band have supplied instrumental guide notes as well as a lyric sheet with the album, which read like prescriptive stage directions: "Minutemen gaps", "Wilco fuzziness", "That Petrol Emotion produced by David Holmes", "heartbreaking ticking clock volcanic ending" and - a fine manifesto for any band - "the idea was to write music inspired by Rush then pretend we were Magazine playing it". Which is exactly how the title track sounds. Given the Manics' flabby form over the past decade, it is heartening how often they hit their targets.
They have good reason to handle the closing William's Last Words with care, as it sounds like it could be Edwards' suicide note. Since Bradfield doesn't really do vulnerability, bassist Nicky Wire shoulders singing responsibilities. He is not a naturally blessed vocalist, but his trembling delivery works. In this context particularly, the line "wish me some luck as you wave goodbye to me - you're the best friends I ever had" is heartbreaking.
Those friends can now hold their heads high as custodians of Richey Edwards' memory. Journal For Plague Lovers is a noble, sympathetic and celebratory reminder of how much they really lost the day he vanished.
[Originally published: The Scotsman, 11 May 2009]