The new Manic Street Preachers album uses lyrics that founding member Richey Edwards handed bassist Nicky Wire a few weeks before disappearing in 1995. Wire tells Tony Clayton-Lea why now feels like the right time to bring the lyrics to light
They're damned if they do and cursed if they don't. Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers have finally crossed their own Rubicon by looking death in the face. The story of their founder member Richey Edwards - a fiercely intelligent but troubled individual, who suffered from anorexia and a nervous breakdown before disappearing without trace in 1995 - has long been documented. What hasn't is that a few weeks prior to his disappearance Edwards handed a journal of lyrics and writings to fellow band member Nicky Wire.
Wire, along with the other founder members, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore, has long since been a dignified and respectful keeper of the flame with regard to the memory - but not, crucially, the lionisation - of Edwards. The band members have also been held in high regard for the nature of their loyalty towards their former school friend, who, some would claim with cautious justification, fractured the spirit, soul and raison d'être of the band the day he abandoned his car at the Severn Bridge. Yet while it's true that the band has occasionally wobbled in the interim period (2004 album Lifeblood in particular was the work of a band drowning, not waving), there have been notable instances where they have matched, if not transcended, their early promise (specifically, 1996's wonderful post-Edwards album Everything Must Go, and 2007's atypically widescreen, windswept Send Away the Tigers).
One Manic Street Preachers album defines their Edwards-era emotional ferocity - 1994's The Holy Bible. Lyrically bleak and brimming with self-loathing, Edwards's morbidly poetic musings include "I wanna be so skinny that I rot from view, I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint" ( 4st 7lbs ) and "Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals" ( Die in the Summertime ). The music is similarly corrosive. It stiffed on release, but has since attained cult status; indeed, for many, The Holy Bible remains the apogee of rock music's ability for brutally honest self-laceration. For Nicky Wire, it is the distinct if distant reference point for the band's new album, Journal for Plague Lovers, which throughout uses lyrics from the papers Edwards casually (wittingly?) bequeathed to his friend.
When he first began to think about devising an album around Edwards's lyrics what thoughts sprang to mind? "I was travelling in a car with James," says Wire, a languid, smart Welsh gent, a 40-year-old father who occasionally still wears dresses, feather boas and eyeliner onstage.
"With Send Away the Tigers we had a glorious couple of years, which reaffirmed our faith in the band. Then we got the Godlike Genius Award from NME, and James said that perhaps the time was right to look at Richey's lyrics, that it would - metaphorically speaking - be good to have him back in the room. The academic challenge of it was intriguing, and then there was the fact of us just getting off the treadmill a little bit and doing something different - treating something more as a piece of art than a record. All those things, really, and then reading the lyrics, studying them, and realising how much I missed Richey's lyric writing and input. So it all came together around then, and we all felt it was the right thing to do."
Richey's folder of lyrics has been in the band's possession for almost 14 years. Wire says he had looked at them on and off, but because life got in the way he had never really taken them in. "They came with a lot of artwork. Richey was a very illustrative person with his words, so every song came with collages, images, and I tended to look more at the pieces of art than the lyrics. I looked at the titles, which were a mixture of the brilliant and bizarre - totally him - and when I sat down with James and Sean, we just knew they needed to be worked with."
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The band is expecting to be accused by detractors of some form of exploitation in using Edwards's lyrics as the backbone to the new album. Wire is dismissive. "There are always people who are going to have a certain point of view. If we'd done this after Lifeblood, which wasn't our most well received album, we could have been accused of some kind of cash-in or a career salvage, but not after Send Away the Tigers, which is our most successful album to date.
"With Journal I think we've done as much as we can, but there are always people who think that there's no need to do it. We looked at one album in particular - Wilco and Billy Bragg's Mermaid Avenue, which put music to previously unused lyrics by Woody Guthrie, and it proved to us that you can make something glorious out of something perhaps tragic. We also just wanted to show his lyrics off a bit; there isn't that much out there that is as stimulating."
Despite the band's hard-line political rhetoric - which tends to veer towards lack of sentimentality and tolerance, one gets the impression that Wire still regards Edwards as a member. It's a theoretical situation that calls for emotional balance and psychological rigour as much as honest-to-goodness pragmatism. Nonetheless, his answer is infused with the kind of protectiveness that comes from loving the memory (if not more) of a dear and close friend. "We always still see ourselves as a four-piece band, because it was when we had perfect symmetry," states Wire. "We've made better music since, and we've written better songs since, but we've never had that sense of completion or symmetrical beauty a four-piece of friends gives you. It's a weird thing to say, but we've never considered ourselves as being a three-piece; the original ethos of the band and the original people is still ingrained deeply in us all."
With The Holy Bible as artistic and personal reference, Journal for Plague Lovers reverts to a heavier and nastier sound, particularly following the epic, classic rock mood of Send Away the Tigers. The lyrics, says Wire, dictated the sonic mood. "The reason why we've never sounded like the band behind The Holy Bible again is because we've never been to those dark corners again. And yet it felt perfectly natural to return - you just feel the power of those lyrics and you remember that intensity. The lyrics liberated us to all those influences we had buried for a while, be it Pere Ubu, Magazine or Nirvana. All that kind of stuff came flooding out again. When you're 40 it's hard to feel that same level of rage and intensity, but what's important to remember is that we were working with lyrics written from a 27-/28-year-old's point of view."
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Wire is under no illusions as to the differences between the commercial breadth of Send Away the Tigers and the virtually one-take rough edges of Journal for Plague Lovers. He is not expecting, he says with a wry grin, the new album to fly out of the shops or to be heard much on the radio. "We see this record as being very much a cult album, and very much separate to the trajectory we're on."
And, indeed, a batch of new songs has already been written for the band's next album, which is slated for release in the first half of 2010.
"When The Holy Bible came out," says Wire, "it was around the time of Blur's Parklife and Oasis's What's the Story (Morning Glory)?, and from our point of view it was good to feel that sense of isolation. We feel that's what this record is, too - it's coming out at a time when electro-pop and pop reign supreme. Once again the zeitgeist is totally against us."
Journal for Plague Lovers is released on May 15. Manic Street Preachers play Dublin's Olympia on June 4, Belfast's Ulster Hall on June 6 and Oxegen festival on July 12
[Originally published: The Irish Times, 22 April 2009]