"Quiet dignity" is a phrase one would never have associated with Manic Street Preachers five years ago, but the manner with which they conducted their difficult comeback after the still unsolved disappearance of Richey Edwards won them more admirers than ever before.
There were many who said they shouldn't have done it. Even the band themselves admitted to doubts. No one wanted to see the Manics limp on wounded, a lame dog of a band. No one wanted them to become a faceless power trio, "just another band", either.
But most people, when they heard "A Design For Life" in March, shut up and applauded. A symphonic anthem to working-class self-reliance in the face of bourgeois callousness, their most accomplished single since "Motorcycle Emptiness", the Return Of The Monies was only kept off the Number One slot by "Return Of The Mack". The sleeve design, significantly, echoed the artwork of late Joy Division/early New Order transition. This, according to Nicky Wire,was no coincidence.
"The artwork for this new single is very New Order and so is the tile," he admitted. "Clean, minimal. There are a lot of reference points. Ian Curtis killed himself on the eve of an American tour...and, between the three of us, we can still be very sarcastic and piss-taking about the whole thing and ourselves, and that helps. It's the New Order school of thought: 'Ian Curtis was a twat, cos he ruined our American tour'" Their feelings at the unprecedented success of "Design" must however, have been stomach-churningly mixed. "I suppose it could be the halcyon days ahead," Wire reluctantly accepted, "but getting to Number Two doesn't feel like such an achievement. I can't help thinking...Richey, if you could just have held on a little longer, maybe then you could have had all these things you wanted. You might have been happy."
An album, "Everything Must Go", quickly followed in May. For many, it was Album Of The Year. For most, it was the best album of the Manics' career. Even without the sleeve notes, you could spot the Richey songs a mile off (there were five, each already a work-in-progress before he went AWOL). "Kevin Carter" was a harrowing requiem for a photographer who won the Pulitzer Prize with a shot of a vulture standing on a dead Rwandan baby, then, unable to handle the guilt, committed suicide - a topic only Richey would even think of turning into a song. (It also featured a great Sweeney-style trumpet break from Sean Moore.) The beautiful, unaccompanied harp set-piece, "Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky" (almost a parody of a Richey title), which dealt with the mental torture suffered by zoo animals, was inevitably seen as a thinly-veiled allegory for Richey's own torment: "Here, chewing your tail is joy..." Classic Edwards.
The Wire/Bradfield/Moore compositions, however, displayed a new-found toughness, a battle-scarred optimism. "All I want to do is live, no matter how miserable it is..."(from "Enola Alone") was a telling line, and the title track operated both as an apology and a fuck you to the fans who thought they should've packed it in: "Freed from the memory/Escape from our history/And I just hope that you can forgive us...but everything must go"'.
At first however, playing live was traumatic. Their first hesitant step into the spotlight supporting The Stone Roses at Wembley, was for many a curiously unemotional experience. But, at a warm-up gig at the Manchester Hacienda, Nicky's feelings finally came flooding out.
"I remember the introduction to 'From Despair To Where, looking over to where Richey would have been standing, swigging at a bottle of whiskey, and these was no one there. And, when we came offstage, I virtually had a breakdown. I was just crying hysterically for about three hours, like a twat." The void at stage right where once the eye was magnetically drawn by Richey's iconic presence, will never be filled - James and Nicky never wander over to that side - and the band have no intention of hiring a replacement guitarist.
"Mind you," Wire joked, "they wouldn't exactly be queuing up for that one, would they? 'Guitar player required. Must mutilate himself onstage and carry impossible demands on shoulders forever...'"
The Manics seemed to spend most of the year as Support Band By Royal Appointment To The Gallagher Brothers, playing the Maine Road, Loch Lomond and Knebworth mega-gigs with Oasis (as well as the Phoenix Festival). Many fans were disappointed at the band's deliberately workmanlike attitude, dressed-down image (casual sportswear, no make-up, and a few extra pounds thanks to James' sporadic drinking binges and Nick's comfort eating) and uncommunicative, blank stage presence.
Whereas once the Manics would have (ab)used such festival appearances to disgust, offend, wind up (and, in some cases, hospitalise) everyone in sight, this time Nicky hid behind sunglasses while James merely barked the occasional "Cheers" or "This one's called 'Faster'". Making new converts and selling records was the game (Nicky says most of the Man City crowd thought "A Design For Life" was their first single), "We've been through Hell... now let's have success!" was the justification. When they finally did play their own gigs,the atmosphere was much more akin to Manics shows of the past. They even played some of the ultra-morbid material from"The Holy Bible": something they had previously shied away from doing.
The Manics were also chosen as special guests on Oasis' doomed American tour. Last time the Manics were preparing to take a shot at breaking the States, Richey disappeared the morning they were due to fly out. This time, it was Liam Gallagher who did the runner.
"People not turning up, people disappearing: it's good that It wasn't us this time", Wire joked. Some things just seem fated never to happen...
In October, Channel 4 screened a half-hour documentary, "The Vanishing Of Richey Manic". Disappointing and, in places, downright tacky, it was littered with fist-chewingly naff "recreations" and spooky, portentous voice-overs. Steve Lamacq and our own Simon Price spoke sense, but what the fuck Boy George and Shaun Ryder were doing in there was as much of a mystery as anything surrounding the missing rhythm guitarist. A wasted opportunity and an unfitting tribute.
Meanwhile, slowly, things seem to be getting back to something approaching normal for the Manics. At the start of the year, Nicky acknowledged his premature middle age on a B-side, "Mr Carbohydrate", which went "They call me a boring fuckhead/ Say I might as well work in a bank...People say I should get out more, but the TV's my best friend." By the autumn tour, however, The Wire was slapping on the warpaint again and misbehaving on stage. Business as usual?
Of course not
"We're well aware that we can never be the same band we were" Nicky told The Maker. But the strange thing is, right now it feels as if the Manics will always be with us.