Manic Street Preachers: Journal For Plague Lovers

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by Pete Paphides

(Four stars out of five)

In life, the fading memory of a lost friend can free people to make all sorts of outrageous assumptions on their behalf. With every passing year, surviving Doors squabble to determine whether Jim Morrison would have wanted his songs to advertise Cadillacs. Brian May seems to labour under the sincere belief that Freddie Mercury is up there in Heaven, clapping along as another theatre full of unsuspecting tourists are freighted into watch the p***-poor We Will Rock You.

Similarly, it would be easy for Manic Street Preachers to say that their ninth album is what their guitarist Richey Edwards "would have wanted". They certainly would have more reason than most to assume so. Between the 1994 release of Manic Street Preachers' third album, The Holy Bible, and his disappearance the following year, Edwards handed bassist Nicky Wire a sheaf of lyrics around which, 14 years later, Journal for Plague Lovers has been built.

The Holy Bible II? For a band so sensitive to people's expectations, a return to the airless, windowless, strip-lighted ambience of Edwards's swansong was never an option. Indeed, the most affecting songs on Journal for Plague Lovers make no attempt to go back. Edwards's final dispatches may be oblivious to the world wide web, the War on Terror or the 21st-century obsession with celebrity. And yet, the passing of time - and the wisdom brought with it - is crucial to the way the remaining Manics have approached these songs. On This Joke Sport Severed and Facing Page: Top Left, ornate acoustic embellishments create vital distance from which to behold the ceaseless sensory rush hour of Edwards's mind.

Despite pre-emptive proclamations of radio-unfriendliness, Peeled Apples unwittingly interpolates Heaven 17's 1983 hit Temptation to fulfil the basic criteria of a decent pop song. Similarly, if there's a reason that Jackie Collins Existential Time isn't being played on the radio, it has less to do with the "Oh, Mummy, what's a Sex Pistol?" hook and more to do with its allusions to a "married man f***ing a Catholic".

But if he was barely coping then, the hair-shirt nihilism of Bag Lady and All Is Vanity - two of several songs that make effective use of Steve Albini's dense anti-production - suggests that perhaps Edwards just wasn't made for these times. "I would prefer no choice/ One bread, one milk, one food," James Dean Bradfield sings on the latter, perfectly capturing Edwards's exasperation at a world increasingly looking for happiness in the wrong places.

We now know, of course, that Edwards had no clearer idea of where to look for it. Indeed, the achingly pretty final song, William's Last Words, sounds like the work of a man who had long stopped trying. Here, it's left for Nicky Wire to bravely tackle lines such as, "Isn't it lovely when the dawn brings the dew/ I'll be watching over you". What ensues is that sound of a stiff upper lip trying to get to the end of the song without wobbling. He manages it, but you might not.

(Columbia, TS £12.72)

[Originally published: The Times, 15 May 2009]