If we have to define Manic Street Preachers’ ninth album ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, then let’s begin with what it isn’t. This is not ‘The Holy Bible Mark II’. This is not another state of the alienation address.
In 1991 the balance of power in rock music shifted dramatically after the release of two albums: ‘Nevermind’ by Nirvana and the eponymous ‘Black Album’ by Metallica. The former showed that transgressive and complex lyrical matter was no bar to mass appeal, while the latter proved that oppressively anvil-heavy sonics had become a positive virtue outside of the world of metal.
These reverberations caused a stylistic rift in the UK, with proto-Britpop groups such as Blur choosing to occupy parochial, retro territory with only a few hardy souls such as Radiohead rising to the challenge set by the brash Yanks. Smart cookies the Manics were already a step ahead of the game however. Originally their MO had been to subvert from within, sugar-coating disturbing ideas in a radio-friendly glam-rock shell, but by 1994 it was their response to the resultant tectonic shift that set them sonically free.
What emerged was an album that seethed. Its labyrinthine lyrical concerns of collapse of the self set against the worst depravities of the 20th century was an equal and unholy marriage of militantly abrasive lyrical content and punishing music. It may have echoed Nirvana’s swansong ‘In Utero’, but ‘The Holy Bible’’s true antecedent was Public Enemy’s assault on all fronts, ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’.
When he disappeared six months later, Richey Edwards bequeathed more than just his role in one of the towering artistic statements of the ’90s, however. His parting gift to bassist Nicky Wire, guitarist/singer James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore was a collection of his writing. Some of these lyrics ended up on ‘Everything Must Go’, but mainly they were left respectfully untouched.
Now with enough time passed and, importantly, the band’s critical and commercial fortunes riding high (they have cited both the Number Two chart position of ‘Send Away The Tigers’ and NME’s Godlike Genius Award 2008 as contributory factors), they felt like they could tackle the project without being accused of prurience or trying to kick-start a stalled career. On first contact you could be forgiven for thinking you were holding the New Testament to ‘The Holy Bible’’s thunderous Old Testament.
Another arresting Jenny Saville image graces the cover. An androgynous young girl (who bears passing resemblance to a young Richey) stares at the viewer, her face marked by a port wine stain, her gaze shockingly vulnerable. Press play and this view doesn’t evaporate quickly, either. ‘Peeled Apples’ opens with a queasy sample from The Machinist, a film that features an horrifically absorbing turn from Christian Bale playing a man haunted by insomnia and anorexia.
A caustic bassline triggers a Pavlovian reaction: yes! Except, it’s not ‘Yes’. Bradfield has swapped the stuttering staccato post-punk guitar for the swaggering dynamics of the Stones’ ‘Undercover Of The Night’. And from this point on it’s clear that you’re listening to a totally different album to ‘The Holy Bible’.
In fact there is only one song here that would have sounded entirely at home on either release and that is hidden track ‘Bag Lady’. Its clangorous rumble of bass is like caterpillar tracks rolling over shattered buildings, while the guitar sounds like Keith Levene’s tinnitus.
This, though, is just a notional bridge between ages. The change of pace here is necessary and natural. The band themselves have been affected by the time that has passed and Edwards, as a voice, feels calmer, more level-headed, his vitriol somewhat spent. The band are sensitive to this switch in gear. They take in the pop-punk of Sugar mixed with the chiming guitars of Echo & The Bunnymen (‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’); the acoustic and fey soulfulness of Elliott Smith (‘This Joke Sport Severed’); the fizzing arena grunge of Nirvana (‘She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach’) and even a hellaciously groovy nod to perm-damaged stadium prog-rockers Rush (‘Journal For Plague Lovers’). Steve Albini, the most famous guy ever to press ‘record’ on a tape machine, has done a sterling job in capturing a balance between their aggressive live assault and their recorded pop sheen.
In years to come, this decade will be characterised as one of cheap and cowardly irony and obfuscation. In the realm of alternative rock Manic Street Preachers will be regarded as notable for successfully balancing sincerity and intelligence, regardless of what value those particular commodities hold at present. ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ is an outstanding album in its own right and is not ‘The Holy Bible’. But then again, what is?
What do you think of the album? Let us know by posting a comment below.