Manic Street Preachers fans often tell me that aside from burning pictures of Richey Edwards, the surest way to prove you’re not a fan of the band is to like ‘Gold Against The Soul’.
Talk about a bad rap. Despite the Welsh band’s obvious fault lines – hair metal beginnings, accusations of sixth-form poetry, continuing without Richey, the Mondeo man years – the 1993 second album sticks out for lovers and haters alike as a point of contention.
The band even cite the 1993 album as a low ebb in their career themselves, claiming the initial flushes of signing to a major label caused them to wobble. “All we wanted to do was go under the corporate wing,” explained frontman James Dean Bradfield. “We thought we could ignore it but you do get affected.”
Contemporary reviewers were also unhappy. In the same NME issue Nicky Wire was suggesting travellers “should be treated more harshly” by the powers that be, the album picked up a 6/10 from Stuart Bailie, who suggested it disappoints because the band are “running out of things to moan about”, adding it was a “confusing record” that didn’t “offer many insights”, and was in conclusion “too much Slash and not enough burn”.
With its big, radio-friendly Dave Eringa production, it’s easy to see why ‘Gold Against The Soul’ caused such a stir compared to the wild, almost feral rock of ‘Generation Terrorists’ that preceded it a year earlier. However, with the band’s more beefed up, arena-friendly sound emerging in subsequent years, this album is no longer so at odds with the general Manics aesthetic. What’s more, for a band that have often been criticised for letting their albums – whatever their merits or plus points – drift on with indulgently lengthy tracklistings (‘Know Your Enemy’ clocks in at 16 songs and others aren’t far behind), ‘Gold Against The Soul’ remains snappy, driven and focused throughout its ten songs.
Opener ‘Sleepflower’ sets things off with some rock ‘n’ roll glamour courtesy of Bradfield’s riffs, which swap the hair metal extremism of the Manics’ debut for a more clipped yet more daring and dangerous-sounding approach. Next track, ‘From Despair To Where’, best demonstrates the benefits of this upgrade, exploding from its hushed beginnings into a glowering rock beast. The Manics weren’t really known for fist pumping anthems in 1993, but this is a head rush of scales, organs, strings and Bradfield putting his vocal chords on the line. It’s so insistent and such a star in its own right, it earned its own cameo as the basis of an episode for 90s British sitcom Game On.
‘Scream To A Sigh (La Tristesse Durera)’, chills things out a bit afterwards, boasting an iconic riff that allows lyricists Edwards and Nicky Wire to examine the fate of war veterans whose culture that created them finally abandons them while ‘Life Becoming A Landslide’ might possess one of the band’s most poppy, warming choruses. However, with admissions like “My idea of love comes from a childhood glimpse of pornography“, it succeeds in sneaking under the mainstream radar to deliver an uncompromising snapshot of modern living.
‘Roses In The Hospital’ meanwhile could have been written for a genuine pop idol – no wonder the Kylie collaboration later followed – with its catchy call-and-response verses and feet-shuffling drum machine, yet it also hints at a bleak outlook the band would explore further on their next release, ‘The Holy Bible’. ‘Symphony Of Tourette’ is perhaps the victim of trying to maintain an alternative outlook while hiding beneath “the corporate wing”, as its attempts to recall to the Manics’ Guns N Roses-fuelled roots get muddled in a maelstrom of needless guitar effects (it’s almost nostalgic to hear a Flanger pedal going full pelt these days).
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Closing with the title track, again there’s a needless amount of effects flying around – to the point where the song almost takes the wrong turn and ends up in U2 territory – but Bradfield’s pure, impassioned vocals ensure things remain on track, and if the album doesn’t go out with the same intensity it started with, it at least supplies a suitably noisy, riff-heavy conclusion.
So ‘Gold Against The Soul’ may not be Manic Street Preachers’ finest hour – while I like this album I’ll leave it to the real fans to decide what that is – but as an adrenalin-pumping rock album that also gives you plenty to think about, it is neither weak, confused nor a black sheep.
Let us know – what albums do you think deserve the A&E treatment?