by Peter Murphy
Fourteen years after Richey Edwards disappeared without trace, The Manic Street Preachers have summoned the courage to fashion an album from the lyrics he left behind.
We resume where we left off. During our last encounter with the Manic Street Preachers two years ago, we discussed, among other things, the notion of the band's then current single 'Your Love Alone (Is Not Enough)' as a hypothetical conversation between a potential suicide and a loved one. We talked about Richey Edwards, the band's guitarist, minister for propaganda and aesthetic avatar, who disappeared from the Embassy Hotel on February 1, 1995 and was declared presumed deceased last year (the band's forthcoming ninth album Journal For Plague Lovers features lyrics culled exclusively from the notebooks Edwards left behind - more of that later). And we talked about the mysterious clusters of serial male suicides that periodically occur in areas as disparate as Enniscorthy, Nantucket and Orkney. The Manics' first UK Top 10 hit, you might remember, was a cover of the M*A*S*H theme 'Suicide Is Painless' back in the early '90s.
"It's weird because it's one of those themes you feel a tiny bit ashamed of, because you feel it's linked with adolescence," the band's singer, guitarist and musical powerhouse James Dean Bradfield says when we catch up with him on a recent afternoon. "But as you get older you realise it's not an adolescent fantasy or anything like that, it's just something that exists. Not many people know it, but 'Your Love Alone (Is Not Enough)' was the actual last line of a suicide note of a friend of somebody we knew really well."
No matter how wide the band's frame of cultural reference, it seems the subject of self-obliteration constantly reasserts itself in their work.
"Obviously you're aware of the Bridgend thing?" James continues. "Me and my wife go down to that area, the beaches, all the time. I go down to Southerndown beach just to clear my head. And I cannot, cannot, cannot tap into why that has become the suicide capital of Britain. I won't be as corny as saying it's like an episode of Twin Peaks or something, but there are certain parts of Bridgend which remind you of the past, the coastline is just fucking amazing, I go down there to feel better about everything, and it makes it even more scary; I can't connect how it's happened down there."
He pauses to reflect on the subject a moment, before deciding this:
"People have just absolutely fallen out of love with the possibility that boredom gives you. Boredom is the gestating period for everything that's good."
And perhaps it was boredom with the sublime but sober soundscapes of the Manics' Lifeblood era that ensured 2007's Send Away The Tigers was a conscious return to the amped-up audacity of their earlier records. But when the Tigers campaign (which included a tour of former Soviet states alongside the usual festival and indoor venues) came to an end and the band returned home to consider their next move, something unexpected happened: they felt at last able to revisit the lyrics left behind by Edwards and to think about forging them into a set of songs. Not as straightforward a process as one might imagine: in Manics mythology, that notebook had taken on an almost talismanic significance; for the Holy Bible-ite subset among the band's fanbase it was close to a fetish object.
"Well, that's why it took us so long," James admits. "It just did. For years and years all of us probably kept it in a drawer, and we'd get it out and look at it and want to do something to it and then hurriedly put it back in the drawer and say, 'I just can't do it.' And that's probably because we were, not fetishising it, but slightly in awe of it, slightly scared of it... I suppose I'm describing a fetish!
"But it took a long time for myself and Nick to simultaneously one day go, 'Will we have a look at that book of lyrics soon?' It felt different for the first time. It was strange not to feel as if you had to keep it in the fridge because it was too scary to countenance making something creative with Richey again. And that's when we realised we had to do it, because we felt good about it, like we wanted to cohabit with Richey's thoughts, and it didn't seem scary... until we were in the studio for the first day."
And what were they scared of?
"The biggest thing is we were just scared not to do a good job. We were scared not to connect with the lyrics. If there was any fear it was on a creative level, it wasn't on some Freudian emotional level."
So why did they choose Steve Albini (The Pixies, Nirvana, The Stooges) as a producer?
"Because we didn't want direction, we didn't want production. The songs came out very naturally. We had mostly acoustic demos, we left them really un-fleshed before we went into the studio, but we knew how we wanted them to sound. It was a very simple meeting, it was just like, 'Okay, let's go out and win this thing.' We just wanted the sounds to be right and we didn't want much interference. I mean, I'm not saying it's the most fiercely searing bare-bones album, it's not, I know that, but we just wanted what came out to be untouched, really. We wanted to feel as if we had the same deck of cards as Richey: he couldn't do anything to the lyrics and how they were represented by us; once the tune was written we didn't want to have any recourse to make things sound more produced or better or more convincing, we wanted to see what would happen if we gave ourselves the restraint of just writing a song and recording it and not working on it."
As James indicates, the result is not quite the unmediated In Utero-meets-Holy Bible howl of anguish one might expect. If anything, it's the least graphic album Albini's produced in a long time.
"Yeah, he said to us at the start, 'Y'know, I know you guys love In Utero, but that's the way they sounded and this is how you sound.' I suppose the closest it comes to that is 'Peeled Apples', just a cavernous drum sound, but the rest is... he has integrity. He only made one arrangement suggestion on the entire record. He does what it says on the tin, he's quite utilitarian in that respect. He turns up and he does things right and I really enjoyed working with him."
Despite the back-story, Plague Lovers is the sound of a healthy band, full-blooded and brawny, but subtle with it. And although the Jenny Saville cover art and sampled film dialogue acknowledges the iconography of 1994's The Holy Bible, their last album with Edwards, Bradfield insists it's not a sequel.
"Well, you take the premise of the record, which is the lyrics obviously," he says, "which stylistically were the same, but thematically I thought they were pretty different to the lyrics on The Holy Bible. Standing at a distance, The Holy Bible was what happens when your anger turns to disgust. I'm talking on behalf of Richey really, but most people's anger usually mutates into something much more comfortable. And at a distance I can see the Rubicon, the crucial point for Richey was, 'What is disgust turned into?' We - especially Nicky - faintly had the same process. But with Nick it turned into something much more engaged and trying to be more positive about things, whereas with Richey anger turned into disgust which turned into flat-line doubt. And that's probably why we ended up where we are now."
Therapists will tell you that unexpressed anger eventually manifests itself as depression. But Edwards' expression of that anger through the medium of his lyrics seemed to offer little relief from the vapours.
"I don't want to argue whether expressing anger was ever healthy for him," James says, "I definitely think that when your disgust dissolves into doubt, that leaves everything flat-lining. We all started at the same doubtful place, because as I've said many times, where we were growing up, everything we'd been taught that was traditional and good for us was systematically wiped out in front of our eyes. Richey came full circle, it came back to doubt again."
He pauses to consider what he's just said then cracks up laughing.
"Hey, we've made an album just for the biggest economic downturn of our lives! Brilliant! Barack said give people hope, we say give 'em Journal For Plague Lovers!"
Well, Mr Edwards was not without a sense of humour.
"Even in his darkest moments, Richey had an almost effeminate way of interspersing a sly little joke, just in the course of a day," James affirms. "An 'Oh well, perhaps we should all kill ourselves, but we'll soldier on,' kind of thing. And you can see it in some of the lyrics: 'Me and Stephen Hawking/Oh how we laughed/We missed the sex revolution/When we failed the physical'. And 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time', which is the only song I don't really know what it's about, but I can feel his sense of humour in that. So even though there's so much doubt expressed on the album, it's just not as angry as some of the things expressed on The Holy Bible, and some of the tunes had to be more satirical, just as the words were."
For some reason the song 'Doors Closing Slowly' suggested to this listener the question of whether beauty is its own justification, in the Wildean aesthete bourgeois-decadent sense, or if something must have functional worth to be truly beautiful.
"It's really strange you say that, because I think that's one of the only things Richey had left in the end, that he could actually just love things that were beautiful, but as soon as he would enjoy that moment, things would dissolve in front of his eyes. That's one of the only things that he could momentarily latch onto in the end, just revelling in beauty, and the contradictions that existed within it. And like you said, I suppose beauty was like a bad dream for him: he would look at it and admire it and love it and write about it, and then it would all start turning to shit, and that would come out in the writing too. But I do think that was one of the only constants he had by the end."
Which leads one to conclude that if aesthetic ideals are ephemeral and dissolve, then beauty isn't worth a curse unless it's functional.
"Yeah, I think so. God, this album's just not gonna work in the marketplace man! But I think that he'd worn out functional beauty. I think he preferred the mirage of beauty as form. I don't want to talk in terms of any relationships or anything like that because I really couldn't tell you, but I think by the end he'd done some working out to get some more muscle, he'd found his perfect look, he'd found his perfect wardrobe, and all those aspects of functional beauty which he'd found in his life still didn't help him out of the hole that he'd found himself in. I think he just liked the mirage of beauty more than anything by the end. Which probably doesn't serve any purpose, but all he cared about was what he felt."
Strangely enough, songs like 'Marlon JD' and 'William's Last Words' make Plague Lovers a more Biblical album than The Holy Bible ever was.
"Yeah, God pops up a lot in the lyrics. I think that's disgust at what you called functional beauty. The substance he found in it was the iconoclasm of religion in the end. I think he really tried to explore the functional beauty of how religion is supposed to liberate your soul in the present and in the passing on, and he didn't find it whatsoever. I mean he went to church quite a bit when he was young, but the veneer of beauty is really how religion comes in on the record. For him the functional was dead and the veneer was alive."
If you look at the 'Faster' video clip from 1994, it's a head-on collision between the decorative and the utilitarian, the aesthetic and functional. The band exhibits all the mascara-eyed decadence of your classic glam-punk mob, but they're also clad in the uniform of a military unit.
"For all intents and purposes that was just to forge our sense of togetherness even closer than it already was. Sometimes I feel embarrassed trying to interpret Richey, because I'm kind of still baffled by his intelligence really. It's hard to actually convey what a real conversation with Richey was like, and that's why it's so much easier to write a song."
Did they feel like they had a license to be as free as possible in terms of the music, secure in the knowledge that Edwards' sensibility infuses every word?
"I can't deny that not having Richey to answer back at times made me judge every song as it came along. And if it felt right then we just went with it. And not in a mystical sense, not like he was in the room, but it did actually feel as if we were a complete band again, I had that old feeling as if I was trying to please him again. I remember when he used to give me lyrics to stuff like 'IfWhiteAmericaToldTheTruth...' there would be a sly little grin at the corner of his mouth: 'See what you can do to that, ya prick!' And I'd come back and say, 'Yeah, I can sing that easy.' Now and again I felt that challenge that he'd laid down, and felt myself - and Nick and Sean the same - coming back at him and going, 'C'mon, gimme what you got.' And that was a good feeling; it felt like a complete band in terms of what you remember of that era. I've gotta be careful here because people can go, 'Oh so you feel incomplete without Richey?' but it's just all so much more complicated than that. (Laughs) I'm answering criticisms before they even arise!"
Well, just as the self is not a fixed entity, so too the identity of a band has to be fluid if it's to evolve.
"Yeah, I suppose after Richey's disappearance we kind of lay in ruins as what the Americans might call a 'failed state', because obviously Richey carried a lot of the belief system around in a glass bowl with him, so it felt strange after that, but we did actually realise that we were a band. Initially, strangely, the band started out with myself, Nick and Sean, we were writing what set the templates for the Manics at the start before Richey joined, and it made us realise that we all subtly affect each other all down the years, irregardless of people disappearing or not quite functioning etc, and it just makes you realise that you do actually ebb and flow with each other."
Nevertheless, James rejects the notion that Journal For Plague Lovers represents any kind of closure.
"There's never a healing or a moving on," he says. "'Just live with it,' sounds over-dramatic, but you realise there's no closure, there's no end, there's no having to edit somebody's B-movie script about it, no setting the facts straight, it's just there and it happened. I will always say what we went through is miniscule compared to his parents and his sister. Once you realise all those things, you don't have to carry that around and say, 'When am I gonna get closure? When will the search be over? When will I get answers?' You just don't. And you realise that in other incidents in your life, like when my mum died. There will never, ever be a voice, there will never be a gust of wind, just pictures and memories, that's all you've got. You've got to realise that. You've just got to. And you've got to be really careful not to have the transferral of pain and add it to what you imagine to be your own tragedy. Y'know, the transferral of death to your own self-pity can be a really dangerous thing. You've got to realise, 'It's not me that went through it; it's somebody else.' That's why I don't like crying at funerals."
Again, James erupts with laughter.
"Fuck me, Jesus Christ, Pete man, I fuckin' knew when we did that interview where we were talking about Inside The Actor's Studio this was going to be a dangerous conversation. This is like a fuckin' black hole which will just suck the world down it!"
Well, corny as it sounds, music is a powerful antidote to that black hole feeling. It may not cure clinical depression, or physical illness, or cancel anybody's debts, but even the worst aspects of old school testosterone-driven rock 'n' roll can help restore a person who feels depleted and denatured.
"Music, especially the kind of music you're talking about, made me go out running and stuff like that from the age of 14 years old," James says. "Early Aerosmith, early Who, Appetite For Destruction when it came out, it was my gym master, it was somebody that just said, 'Come on you fucker!' And when you hear that music you realise they were working with great engineers and great producers, but there wasn't much they could do to make those bands any worse or any better, there just wasn't. It's still an art form. It's still easier to make an experimental album than a really convincing rock album, it just is, because when you're dealing with experimental music you're dealing with space and effects and absorbing the silence and being tasteful. With really good rock music there's none of those comforts of space and effects doing the work for you. You've either got it or you haven't, and I know that because we've not been it quite a few times, but when you hit your stride it's just like, 'Jesus, we've got it back!' It is voodoo. Good rock music is fuckin' voodoo.
"I gotta be careful here because I gotta make sure I don't become the old guttersnipey Manic that we were accustomed to in the past, but there's a whole obsession amongst a certain class of people whose melancholia and introspection is never ever dosed up with a bit of aggression. There's a whole class and a culture and a generation in audiences and musicians that find aggression or loudness disgusting. They want to be fed their daily diet of autumnal leaves etc. For me, melancholia's only ever good when it's added to a good dose of aggression. That's just me. But everybody really admires the comfort of melancholia way too much these days. Everybody loves their troubadour, and I love a good troubadour, but you need something else to counteract it. Everybody seems so disgusted by somebody just going, 'You want a solo? I'll give you a fuckin' solo!' 'Ooo that's disgusting.' Where I come from that's not acceptable! That's why The Smiths were so brilliant, because they were zestful, it was in your face, The Smiths were still an attack for me, Johnny Marr was a buccaneer, he was fuckin' amazing. They were going, No, you will fuckin' listen!' It's a big difference.
"I had a rich palette of stuff when I was young: I'd listen to June Brides to understand my fragile side, I'd listen to Toys In The Attic before I had a sex life if I wanted to feel like I was a horrible scuzzy sex rock god. I really fed off it beautifully. But it's weird, whenever I have that horrible (feeling) when my stomach turns into a windmill, once or twice a year, the only thing I can ever do is go running until it goes away. And I'm convinced it's a simple thing of just getting the endomorphins to redress the balance in your body basically. And that's what rock music does for you."
[Originally published: hotpress.com, 14 May 2009]