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11 Underrated Songs: Manic Street Preachers - Gigwise, 29th January 2021

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11 Underrated Songs: Manic Street Preachers
Publication: Gigwise
Date: Friday 29th January 2021
Writer: Cameron Sinclair Harris

Manic Street Preachers: punks, poets, persistent pioneers. The Welsh rock icons fervently exploded into the early 90s, an intentionally antagonistic reflection of the emerging sparks of “Cool Britannia”. Since then, they’ve spent the past 30 years crafting a world of spiky guitar riffs, fierce intellectualism and working class anthems. On a surface level, they were outspoken, edgy and mouthy, yet they never once betrayed their authenticity or commitment; always speaking truth to power, creating art from the abyss of human emotion.

The Manics are one of those rare bands who if you’re into them, you’re REALLY into them; as they have recently teased the release of their 14th studio album, you can tell the devotion by the fervently excited reactions. Whether you’re clad in leopard print and feather boas at their gigs, or whether you comprehensively trace the literary references and quotes splashed into their lyrics, album booklets and setlists, there are no half-measures when you’re a Manics fan. Ergo you will love every album track and B-side as if it were its own single. Here, we’ll be celebrating those tracks that slipped past the radar, which may not have hit number one, but left an undeniable impact in the Manics’ dazzling discography.

Drug Drug Druggy
Concerning the first three Manics albums, their sophomore effort Gold Against the Soul is often regarded as the overlooked middle child, which is an unfair perception. It’s a much tighter, more focused piece of work than Generation Terrorists, and all 10 tracks have something to love. ‘Drug Drug Druggy’, described by former co-lyricist Richey Edwards as an “ambivalent” reflection on drug taking, is merely one of those hidden gems. Here, we see at their most metallic- James Dean Bradfield’s vocal snarl and screaming guitar solos alleviate the track into instant memorability. The production is harsh and striking, and the lyrics contain the same one-liners (“I’m not barbaric, I just care”) we’ve come to expect from the band.

4st 7lb
Admittedly with an album with such acclaim and status as The Holy Bible, it’s hard to pick a track which one may consider “underappreciated”. The record is an unrelenting, intense and emotionally heavy affair; amongst the standouts such as ‘Revol’, ‘Faster’ and ‘Archives of Pain’, ‘4st 7lb’ doesn’t appear as frequently. It’s hardly ever a visible setlist fixture, which is forgivable considering the subject matter. A semi-biographical reflection of Richey’s struggles with anorexia, the track details a young girl tracking her weight loss in excruciating detail- the title ‘4st 7lb’ is a reference to the minimum weight one can medically measure before death is unavoidable. The music is forceful, yet delicate, arguably it could fall into goth-rock, but it’s the haunting lyrical content that makes this track unforgettable. The mind-set captured in the lyrics is one of unflinching honesty (“problem is diet’s not a big enough word, I want to be so skinny that I rot from view”), the impact it leaves will be felt long after the needle lifts.

The Girl Who Wanted To Be God
With the release of fourth album Everything Must Go in 1996, all eyes were on the Manics. In the aftermath of Edwards’ disappearance, the album came to redefine the band; it was a collection of catharsis, spawning the exuberant hit singles ‘A Design for Life’, ‘Australia’ and that anthemic title track. ‘The Girl Who Wanted to Be God’, however, is perhaps the greatest single the Manics never released. There’s a musical surge of positivity within the track, the polar opposite to The Holy Bible in many ways. Lyrically, it was a late collaboration between Edwards and Nicky Wire, with the title directly quoted from Sylvia Plath and the rest shrouded within mystery and ambiguity. But there’s nothing ambiguous about that lifting, exhilarating chorus, backed by a heavenly string section and screamed by Bradfield like a crowd of demons being exorcised.

My Little Empire
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is an album full of morose and contemplative toe-tappers, and amongst the set of megahits the album produced, ‘My Little Empire’ built a home for itself under the radar. It seems quite at home there, happy to nestle itself between rousing hit ‘Tsunami’ and the forlorn ‘I’m Not Working’, but the weight on its shoulders is unavoidable. Being the first Manics album where Wire was solely responsible for the lyrical content, and the subsequent responsibility of that haunts the track. This is deftly illustrated with Wire’s low-register voice accompanying Bradfield; “My little empire is as good as it can get” they sing, settling for their unconventional success. The depiction of disillusionment and depression is achingly familiar, but aptly personal.

Close My Eyes
The B-side to ‘The Masses Against the Classes’ (the first UK number one of the 21st century for pub quiz trivia fans), ‘Close My Eyes’ is a lo-fi oddity. It’s both evocative and timely, a throwback yet relevant too. Sean Moore’s drum loop is evocative of Ringo Starr’s on Beatles B-side ‘Rain’, and Bradfield’s guitar exuberates fuzz. It might be one of Bradfield’s finest turns as a guitarist- every lick and flourish is utterly inspired. He plays about 4 phrases at once backed by staccato piano chords during the chorus, all the while giving desperate life to Wire’s lyrics that brim with anxiety about the bands’ position as the biggest act in the country at the time (“Close my eyes and then I count to ten, sign some papers and then they are my friends”). Whilst it’s hidden away as a B-side, ‘Close My Eyes’ shows the Manics at their most inventive and gritty.

Time seems to have turned around on Lifeblood. Whilst heavily divisive at the time, it feels like more and more people are coming to see it as the pensive, understated, melancholic gem it truly is. Lifeblood is a poetic deconstruction of the gusto that defined the band in the early 90s; once vowing that they’d “never write a love song”, yet here we have ‘Glasnost’. The subtle piano and Bradfield’s picked guitar line seem more reminiscent of Keane than the band behind ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, but it is still unmistakably them, with the same uncertainty and unease lingering behind it (note the phrasing of “IF we can still fall in love”). ‘Glasnost’ resonates as a bittersweet ballad, but sung from a familiar Manic language, complete with some sneaky political subtext; perhaps Lifeblood wasn’t as huge a departure as was made out.

The Second Great Depression
After a brief hiatus, the Manics returned with 2007’s widescreen Send Away the Tigers; a brash, melodically confident piece that sees the highlight arrive at exactly the halfway point. ‘The Second Great Depression’ is a waltz that conveys both personal and political readings from the lyrics. Whilst the similarities to ‘A Design for Life’ aren’t exactly subtle, the track is far from a vain attempt to recapture the former’s glories. What we do get though is a slice of intelligently crafted pop music, with plenty of pain behind the words (Collapse or come together, what happened to forever?”), and with a gloriously elegant string section to boot.

This Joke Sport Severed
2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers was an album with a mission. Before his disappearance, Richey Edwards left reams of words behind which finally saw themselves utilised by the band in this record. Journal is a fantastic tribute to the sharpest lyricist South Wales has ever seen; there is no attempt from the band to make the album sound like The Holy Bible 2, it stands completely on its own merit. Henceforth, we get ‘This Joke Sport Severed’ early in the record’s runtime. Starting out as an acoustic Bradfield outing, it evolves beautifully into an elegiac affair with a fittingly haunting string section. The track wouldn’t sound out of place on This Is My Truth, demonstrating the legacy of Edwards’ genius- not bound to a singular sound, the power of his words is truly universal.

(I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline
Furtherly flexing their creative muscles, 2013 saw the Manics all but ditch the electric guitar with Rewind the Film. Addressing nostalgia, middle age and former glories, ‘(I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline’ considers the nature of touring itself. Wire’s lyrics are laced with irony (“feeling like an alien is so much fun, this place somehow feels like a second home), but sprinkled with enough sincerity to not feel bitter. Synthesisers and a stirring violin line accentuate the track; as a listener you get the feeling as if you really are stuck in the sky or in a smog-filled city packed with strangers. A lovely track on an equally lovely album.

Dreaming A City (Hugheskova)
As popular as the Manics are, as instrumentalists, they all are hideously underrated. This instrumental piece arrives towards the start of the second act of 2014’s krautrock-inspired Futurology, and sees the band jam like they’ve never jammed before. Wire’s opening bassline ranks up with ‘Archives of Pain’ as one of his very best, and we’ve only just started. Moore’s drumming is subtle and effective, and Bradfield’s guitar carries the primary melody of the chorus line superbly. Much like the title suggests, it’s utterly futuristic; electronic blips sparkle throughout the track, the sci-fi vibe is unlike anything the band have ever done before.

The Left Behind
The closing track to their most recent album, 2018’s Resistance Is Futile, is a melancholic coda to what may be the most optimistic Manics LP. We’ve been taken on a journey through the bands’ influences, figures from the past dazzling through the lyrics, and here we have Wire (in a rare lead vocal turn) quietly worrying about irrelevance. Much like the samurai warrior adorning the artwork, Wire stares in the face of obsolescence; “I never wanted it to change”, he confesses as he and his band of visionaries oversee the slow demise of rock ‘n’ roll. But they and the samurai have one thing in common: both are fully equipped in armour and weaponry. They aren’t being forgotten without a fair fight. Because if there ever was a band who were born to “rage against the dying of the light”, it is the Manic Street Preachers.

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