Over the last decade or so the Manic Street Preachers – and by extension their frontman James Dean Bradfield – have been at their very best when exploring a single, well-defined concept across one album. Take the melancholy, middle-aged nostalgia of the band’s 2013 record ‘Rewind The Film’ or the following year’s thumping pan-European epic ‘Futurology’ as two prime examples. Similarly, recent albums such as 2018’s ‘Resistance Is Futile’ have felt lacking in a grand purpose, with moments of brilliance lost in a muddled mire.
It’s a good thing, then, that Bradfield’s largely guitar-led new solo record is a straight-up concept album, based on the life and work of Chilean poet, teacher, musician, communist and political activist Víctor Jara. The revolutionary’s opposition to the dictator Augusto Pinochet eventually saw him tortured and executed. With Welsh poet (and fellow Manic Nicky Wire’s brother) Patrick Jones providing lyrics, the record comes steeped in chronological and geographic context; as a jumping-off point into a particularly charged point of Chilean history, the album has an immense amount of value.
Yet some of the record’s best moments are without words entirely. Among them: a triumphant and emboldening rendition of Jara’s own ‘La Partida’, the beautiful and elegiac ‘Under The Mimosa Tree’ and the dazzling prog-explosion of ‘Seeking The Room With The Three Windows’. Bradfield has said the latter was inspired by an image of Jara shown to him by Jones – the musician stood atop Machu Picchu with his guitar, his poncho swept up with the wind.
Bradfield has produced a podcast mini-series about Jara and his influence, which helps to further unpick that rich context. It’s a worthy companion piece, but what’s most important about ‘Even In Exile’ is that it also succeeds without the explanatory notes. You don’t have to know about the longstanding societal unrest and Cold War-influenced international meddling that led to Pinochet’s 1973 coup to feel the cloying tension of the piano-led ‘There’ll Come A War’ (and to find grim parallels with the rise of contemporary fascism).
‘Even In Exile’ maintains a lightness of touch while still doing justice to Jara’s considerable legacy and the deep emotions it provokes. Above everything else, it never descends to the realm of hackneyed tribute, Bradfield opting not to rely on performative South American textures in favour of a sound that is more clearly his own – the glorious, soaring guitar licks of opener ‘Recuerda’, the shimmering and spirited ‘Without Knowing The End’ or the sprawling, epic prog of ‘The Last Song’.
It’s a deft, heartfelt and above all personal record that pays fitting tribute to Jara’s immense legacy, all the while providing a platform for some of Bradfield’s finest songwriting in recent years.
Release date: August 14
Record label: MontyRay