Against all odds, Manic Street Preachers have returned with an album that more than justifies their continued existance. The Stud Brothers, for two, are glad.
Everything Must Go
Epic (12 tks/45 mins)
We were the first journalists to ever come across Manic Street Preachers. Almost six years ago, they sent us a letter and a tape. The tape was so rough cut and ready, it was almost unlistenable, a grim but brutally energetic rendition of what would be their first single, "Motown Junk". The letter, though, was fascinating. In it, the four members revealed streaks of megamaniacal ambition that bordered on the tyrannical. They used words like "alienation", "suicide" and "violence", claiming that all they knew was "destruction, sex and heroin". They promised us free smack if we came to visit them in their home town of Blackwood. Nicky Wire typed the letter but it was Richey Edwards who composed it. It read like a cross between a manifesto and a missive from a serial killer. It was also, in its own bullshitty and obstreperous way, very prescient. Substitute "alcohol" for "smack", and you pretty much have the story so far. And that was way back then.
Those promises Manic Street Preachers have managed to keep, they have kept with a vengeance. And those they have broken, have been broken with style. They have indeed become huge, though not as huge as they once claimed they wanted to be. They are glamorous in the grim and desolate way they admire in others. And they have brought themselves to the brink of self-destruction just as they said they would. Richey Edwards' disappearance can, in many ways, be seen as their nadir. His scarred, starved beauty perfectly encapsulated the Manics' appeal, their hopeless hopes, wild ambitions and bitter cravings. For some, notably The Maker's Simon Price, he was a focal point because he managed, against all odds, to master and hone his self-destructive impulses - he won through. For others, his appeal lay precisely in the fact that he seemed so utterly and selfishly doomed, so beyond help and redemption, part Narcissus, part Icarus. For those people, at least, his flight, though appalling, is somehow apt. The Manics, like all great rock 'n' roll bands, needed to lose a member.
That this record has been made at all is a testament to the three remaining members' bravery. Many of their fans, though, wonder if it should have ever been made. Some have even demanded that the band split. But, in this tide of emotions and tears, many seem to have forgotten that there has always been something of the walking wounded about the Manics, that's why we like them. So it is weirdly appropriate that they should now limp along without their most famous member. Richey's contributions to the band were, after all, lyrical and symbolic. He brought precisely zero to the sound, and though this apparently pained him, it never pained him enough to bother learning how to play the guitar. Now that he has gone, his presence seems even greater. If the band, and Richey in particular, symbolised despair, then they do so now more than ever.
"Everything Must Go" is not as a bleak a document as you might expect, it's no "Ceremony" (the record made by the remaining members of Joy Division after Ian Curtis had taken his own life). James Dean Bradfield has always had too much of a sense of the big song and the sweeping chorus to produce anything that sounds genuinely despairing. At times, in fact, Bradfield's muscular rock 'n' roll comes uncomfortably close to sounding like Bryan Adams-style bands. These are the Manics' alarming Alarm-isms, sins that led Jennifer Nine to recently describe them as a magic eye band, in which we see whatever we choose to see. Mercifully, it is only really the recent single, "A Design For Life", that falls into this category. The rest reveals a new-found subtlety.
Songs are no longer blasted out in the bullish, stentorian way that often made the Manics no more than a great idea. Instead, Bradfield delivers the words with a palpable sense of anguish and excitement. Indeed, the oddest thing about this record is how excited it sounds. Powerchords, bursts of horn and needle-sharp solos all contribute to an unlikely sense of triumphalism.
To get a feeling of the circumstances under which the record was made you have to turn to the lyric sheet. The words to three of the songs here were written exclusively by Richey: "Kevin Carter", "Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky" and "Removables". It is the first and the second of these that will be the most pored over. "Kevin Carter" is a paean to the award-winning war photographer of that name who committed suicide, while "Small Black Flowers" concerns the horrors of zoos. Bradfield affords both suitably harrowing and vainglorious tones. But Richey is best seen in conjunction with Nicky Wire. "Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier", one of their two collaborations here, is as pathos-ridden as its title suggests. Here, at last, we glimpse something of the compassion, wonder and withering wit that made Richey such wonderful company.
All of the lyrics to the album's seven remaining songs were penned by Nicky. "Enola/Alone" is the only one to deal with Richey's disappearance directly. Having said that, though, the Manics, even at their most direct, were always pretty elliptical, and this is no exception. "Australia" sees Nicky yearning for escape, and we guess you don't get much further than the other side of the world. It hasn't been a good year for the Manics.
Nicky Wire said recently, "At the end of the day, you can't feel grief because you don't know if he's dead. You feel anger, sympathy and sadness. The tragedy lies on a personal level. On a professional level, as a professional band, it doesn't come into it. You don't think, 'Oh, the band's f***ed.'" Nevertheless, the title track asks those fans who pleaded with the band to split for a little understanding. It's almost an apology, although, this being the Manics, it's delivered with desperate venom. It's the album's centrepiece and perfectly encapulates the mood of the defiance that runs angrily through this record.
We're glad they're still here. And, with this, they are all still here.
[Originally published: Melody Maker, 18 May 1996]