Manic Street Preachers have finally chosen to embrace their late colleague Richey Edwards, says Ed Power
In 1994, Manic Street Preachers' songwriter Richey Edwards entrusted a folder of lyrics and artwork to the band's bassist, Nicky Wire. A few days later, Edwards, a wan 27-year-old with a history of depression and self-harm, vanished near the Severn Bridge in Wales and is presumed to have taken his own life. Through the 14 years that followed, the Manics would achieve mainstream success and critical acclaim - while always shying clear of Edwards's legacy. Now, they've finally decided to embrace it.
"Down the years I had looked at the artwork and paintings but never the lyrics," recalls Wire. "I didn't think they were something I could face. Then one day last year we were in the back of a car and somebody pipped up: 'It's time'."
From this sprang the Manics' bruising new LP, Journal For Plague Losers. Utilising previously unrecorded lyrics by Edwards, and coloured by his Francis Bacon-esque sensibilities, it is sure to be a splash of cold water across the face of those who know the Manics only for the stadium-friendly Britrock of A Design For Life and Your Love Alone Is Not Enough. But why wait until now to give homage to Edwards? "I think if we'd done it sooner we would have been accused of cashing in or of trying to revive our career," says Wire, a thoughtful 40-year-old far removed from the confrontational persona he adopts on stage. "The thing is, our last album, Send Away The Tigers, helped re-establish us and reaffirmed our love of being in a band. It made us feel relevant and important again - and gave us the artistic space to do something much less commercial."
Sitting down with Edwards' lyrics was, says Wire, a wrenching experience - but ultimately an inspiring one. "The first thing I realised, after all this time, was how much I missed him," he says. "We missed his intellect and his instinct, his use of words, his linguistics. It feels really alive to us. A lot of bands say that you get better with age - that your song-craft improves and all of that. Maybe that's true. On the other hand, there's something about reading the lyrics of a 27-year-old - someone who feels they can take on the world and is completely fearless."
More than that, Wire was struck by the sweep of Edwards' writing. "The brilliance and intelligence of the lyrics was stunning," he says. "His use of language is really humbling. He was writing about thing. like La Grande Odalisque by Ingres, Marlon Brando, Giant Haystacks, celebrity, consumerism and dysmorphia. There was a lot of genius in there."
Edwards - who once inscribed "4 Real" on his arm with a blade in front of a journalist - was officially declared dead by British police late last year, just as the Manics were putting the final touches to Journal For Plague Lovers. Wire says the anniversary wasn't some-thing they were especially mindful of. 'We'd already made the decision in our heads to go back to the lyrics," he says. The Manics describe Journal For Plague Lovers as a companion piece to their bruising 1994 album The Holy Bible. Released during the glory days of Brit-pop, the record couldn't have been more out of step with the era.
Chronicling Edwards' battles with depression, it was a stark, angry piece, comprising of short, cathartic songs that seemed to burn themselves out in a blaze of anger. "I remember when that album came out, the other big records were Parklife by Blur and Definitely Maybe by Oasis," says Wire. 'We were totally against the zeitgeist. This album is very much in the same vein. We recorded the Holy Bible with a real academic discipline and that's very much present on the new record too.' During Brit-pop the Manics, four outsiders from South Wales's post- industrial rust-belt, stood moodily apart from the lad-rock mainstream.
Today, says Wire, they feel equally distant - which explains his recent lam-basting of Snow Patrol as "Britain's most hated band". And though he doesn't go quite so far today, it's clear the lack of edge among the current generation of stadium rockers is a source of consternation.
"You'd think the music we're hearing on the radio today would reflect the world in which we live," he says. Journal For Plague Lovers was record-ed deep in rural Wales, under the gaze of storied US producer Steve Albini, best known for his work on Nirvana's In Utero and, by all accounts, not the easiest person in the world with whom to work. "He's one of the strangest, most exciting and, at times, genuinely perturbing people I've met; says Wire. "I really liked him and genuinely got on with him. I don't know if he'd say the same about me. He's pretty impenetrable. That didn't matter. What he brought was the academic discipline I've been talking about. We used analogue tape, there were no computers. That forced us to play as a band, to connect to each other. We wanted to feel isolated when we went to make the record."
On the morning of this interview, there's been a minor kerfuffle in cyberspace over the use of the 2000 Manics' hit If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next by the far-right British National Party. In future, the BNP marketing department should listen to the lyrics more closely - the song is about the left-wing International Brigade who went to fight Franco during the Spanish Civil War. "We took it down straight away. We didn't want to give any oxygen to their vile views," says Wire. "It's so stupid it's kind of incomprehensible. There's a line in it, 'If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascist.' It's a song about socialists going to fight fascists. It's just shows you how backwards those kind of organisations are."