Mechanical Animals

When asked to reflect on the events of 1996, Nicky Wire freely admitted that he defines his years in terms of sporting achievement ...

WHEN ASKED TO REFLECT ON THE events of 1996, Nicky Wire freely admitted that he defines his years in terms of sporting achievement. Thus, the 12 months during which the Manic Street Preachers had at last made an indelible impact on the mainstream pop consciousness were most notable for Cardiff beating Bath at rugby union and Nick Faldo defying improbable odds to win the US Masters golf tournament. Sure, the platinum disc for ‘Everything Must Go’ was nice, but get it in perspective: Robert Croft, Glamorgan’s pugnacious Welsh off-spinner, had just been called up to the England cricket team.

How Nicky will look back on 1998 remains to be seen. But as things presently stand, Faldo has forgotten how to putt, Welsh rugby is rent asunder by internal feuds and Crofty has lost the confidence to take wickets. As for the Manics , they’ve been taking longer than intended to make an album, their first without any input from still-missing agent provocateur Richey Edwards. Accustomed to the position of underdogs, sniping at the rock establishment with indefatigable relish, they must have begun recording their fifth LP aware of the unwelcome imperatives commercial success can bring: principally, could they do it again?

For obvious reasons, ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours ‘ is the first Manic Street Preachers album where the lyrics have been written solely by one ‘Nick Jones’ (Nicky Wire ), the fact of which has various implications. No longer is James Dean Bradfield required to turn metrical somersaults in order to translate screeds of vituperative prose into the realm of the performable. Nicky’s opaque verses lend themselves more readily to poetic contemplation, and James responds with his most incontrovertibly delicate vocals, singing as opposed to lacerating his larynx in the quest for empathy. Musically, there’s markedly less reliance on high-octane powerchordage. Not until midway through track three – the sterling New Order-meets-Nirvana turboriffmobile ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ – does Bradfield give his fretboard a hard but fair Steve Jonesing. Subtler, gentler textures abound.

Moreover, for all the advance reports regarding its Newsnight On 33 properties, much of this album addresses the state of things in the world of Hoovering house-husband Nick Jones, a place where the war on dirt takes precedence over any other. When Big issues are tackled – the tragedy of Hillsborough (‘SYMM’); the dilution of Welsh culture (‘Ready For Drowning’); clinical depression (‘Black Dog On My Shoulder’) – they are refracted through the insecure gaze of a still angry young man who feels old before his time, and has perhaps come to realise that, in the words of the disillusioned 27-year-old Bob Mould, “[I]Revolution starts at home; preferably in the bathroom mirror.[/I]”

Thus, ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, while inspired by Welsh volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, is as much a troubled homage to catatonia as Catalonia: “[I]Gravity keeps my head down or is it maybe shame/At being so young and being so vain[/I]”. The protagonist’s pacifism – “[I]I’ve walked La Ramblas but not with real intent[/I]” – means he could probably never bring himself to shoot even a rabbit, far less a fascist, much to the chagrin of his heroic principles. Reining in the anthemic euphoria they wrought to near perfection on ‘Everything Must Go’, here the Manics have created possibly their deftest and most perfectly realised instance of existentialist beauty, a notion emboldened by the fact that the song’s pinnacle of eloquence is Bradfield’s descending sigh which ushers forth the refrain: “Aaaand…“.

‘If You Tolerate This…’ is much of ‘This Is My Truth…’ in microcosm. It insinuates its multi-layered subtext, rather than applying the emotional jackboot to the groin that was always the Manics’ trademark, even on the comparatively sleek ‘Everything Must Go’. Nor is there the previous record’s bullish swagger. The prevailing emotion is resignation bordering on despair. “I’ll do anything to prove I care“, Wire implores on ‘Ready For Drowning’, before reality bites: “Fascinated by good/Destroyed by evil/What is there to believe in?“. If ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours ‘ had a posture it would be shoulders hunched forward, head slumped, the body language of the vanquished.

Opener ‘The Everlasting’ remembers the band’s early days – smiles were genuine”. The irony is, of course, that in the beginning the Manics had nothing but their iron-clad convictions of self. Now, successful and comfortable, but notoriously bereft, they find little reason to exult, as ‘The Everlasting”s graceful, sting-drenched elegy appears to acknowledge. The album’s title comes from a speech by Aneurin Bevan, fulminatory socialist orator, architect of the National Health Service, a Welsh icon. Respect. But what of the inheritors of Bevan’s torch? Today sees Benn, Livngstone, Scargill, even Kinnock, all marginalised; irritants and mavericks rather than major players. Good men one and all, but not winners.

So with the weight of the world on his dodgy back, Nicky Wire searches for that workable design for life. ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ appropriates a line from the poem [I]Reflections[/I] by RS Thomas, an octogenarian cleric and Welsh nationalist, whose sombre meditations on life west of Offa’s ‘Ready For Drowning’ is apparently partly inspired by the flooding if welsh villages to siphon water to Liverpool, but its scope is at once broader and narrower than mere nationalist fury. The most successful extrapolation of the broader Manic musical palette, like all the best laments it manages to uplift as well as mourn. Ditto ‘My Little Empire’, a morose piece for cello and guitar, clearly inspired by Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged’ performance: “[I]I’m sick of being sick/Tired of being tired/Bored of being bored/ Happy being sad,/I>”.

After a compelling run of six song ‘Tis Is My Truth… “s second half is little too relentlessly mid-paced. ‘I’m Not Working’ is the watershed, a frostily impressive grind tat summons the bizarre spectacle of American Music Club covering Madonna’s ‘Live To Tell’. Thereafter ‘You’re Tender And You’re Tired’, ‘B Natural’ and ‘Black Dog On My Shoulder’ all throw the requisite shapes (respectively Bacharach, Boston and Jimmy Webb) but the diligent execution can’t expunge the suspicion that these are triumphs of artifice over art. It feels like the Manics have reunited themselves in excessively, strived too hard for the perfect artefact, and in the process rather stifled the transcendent qualities for which they’re rightly revered. Only once, on the pretty sitar-strung ‘Tsunami’, so we encounter what could even possibly be an impromptu act: James’ insistent repetition of the word “[I]in-between[/I]” to form a bridge between verse and chorus. It’s a moment of sheer elation.

Meanwhile, the already infamous ‘SYMM’ is a run item. Why not call it ‘South Yorkshire Mass Murderer’? If there are potential legal difficulties, these are surely still going to arise come what may, so the acronym simply looks like a cop-out. With the track itself, it’s almost as if the subject’s gravitas defeats them: “[I]The ending for this song/Well I haven’t really thought of one/There’s nothing I could ever say/That could really take the pain away[/I]” . It’s the one time when Nicky’s quest to nail simple lyrical truths – exemplified by the gauche but quite lovely ‘Born A Girl’ leads him to the purely banal. With its dislocated drums and portentous guitar strafes, ‘SYMM” makes for an anticlimactic finale. ‘Nobody Loved You’, a thrilling glammy paean to Richey (“[I]It’s unreal now you’re gone/But at least you belong,/I>”) would have concluded ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours ‘ a good deal more satisfactorily. Ultimately, the fifth Manics album is awesome in scope, perpetually fascinating in content, but somewhat lacking in cohesion. That said, its considerable virtues outweigh its flaws. Non-believers will be repelled, of course, while the committed shall still regard ‘The Holy Bible’ as the terrifying, magnificent apotheosis of Manic Street Preacherdom.

As for the three individuals concerned, they can reflect that although they might now be sitting a pop’s top table, their co-option into the establishment remains inconceivable. Perhaps they’ll reflect too on the words of RS Thomas’ [I]Welsh Landscape[/I] – “[I]There is no present in Wales/And no future/There is only the past/Brittle with relics…And an impotent people/Worrying the carcass of an old song[/I]” – and allow themselves a sad little smile.

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