Fourteen years after the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards, the last of his lyrics provide the basis for the band's ninth album, Journal For Plague Lovers. Intuitive, tender and powerful, it writes the final chapter in Edwards's legacy.
Faster Recording Studio, the operations base for the Manic Street Preachers, is located in a nondescript two-storey redbrick building close to Cardiff Central railway station. It's where the Welsh band rehearsed and demoed their never album, Journal For Plague Lovers, a collection based on the last writings of Richey Edwards, the band's troubled former guitarist and lyricist, who disappeared on February 1 , 1995 and officially declared dead only last November.
Cardiff holds many memories for the Manics. Just 300 yards from Faster is Soundspace, the small studio where the band recorded their last album with Edwards, The Holy Bible. A few streets from there stands the huge Millennium Stadium, where the Manic Street Preachers played the biggest show of their career to an audience of 80,000 on Millennium eve.
Sitting in the upstairs lounge area at Faster, guitarist/vocalist James Dean Bradfield and bassist Nicky Wire are carefully explaining how and why they came to use their lost friend's lyrics for their new album. Edwards gave these lyics to Wire just four or five weeks before he vanished on the eve of a US tour. His typewritten manuscript was presented in a folder with art collages and paintings. In the years that fallowed Edwards's disappearance, Wire looked through the folder many times, but found it difficult to linger on the words. It was only in 2007, after lengthy deliberation, that Bradfield suggested they use what Edwards had "bequeathed" to them.
"The idea came before writing any songs," Bradfield says. "I voiced the idea to Nick and he said yes. The first song we wrote was All Is Vanity, and it just felt right straight away. The things we used to do with Richey's lyrics hasn't escaped us."
"We were guided by the lyrics," Wire adds. "When I looked at the words again, I just fell in love with them. What an amazing lyricist, kind of a cross between Norman Mailer and JG Ballard. We really wanted this album to be a celebration of Richey as a writer. These are the writings of a 27 year-old man at his peak as a lyricist."
In undertaking this project, with all its attendant emotional conflict, the Manic Street Preachers felt an acute sense of responsibility: Above all, there was Edwards's family to consider. Says Bradfield.' "After writing a couple of songs, putting music to his lyrics, our main concern was asking his family if they were okay with this. They didn't voice any objections whatsoever,"
However, even with the family's approval, Wire has reservations. A recent magazine feature on the band was accompanied by the most famous and disturbing photograph of Edwards, taken after a gig in Norwich in 1991. In response to a journalist doubting the Manics' authenticity, Edwards had there and then carved '4 REAL' into his forearm with a razor blade. The wounds needed 17
stitches. This was the first overt sign of the mental instability that led to Edwards's disappearance, For Wire, seeing that photo again created a deep sense of unease. "It's opening up that Pandora's Box..." he sighs. "I feel sorry that his family have to deal with a lot of shit, but they're really dignified, and we've tried to be dignified about it too."
Wire also feared that the use of Edwards's lyrics for a new Manics album might be viewed as exploitative. "I was really frightened of that," he says. "I kind of wobbled and thought: 'It's opening up so much, let's just burn the fucking tapes."' But the success of the band's 2007 album Send Away The Tigers, their biggest seller since 1996's triumphant past-Edwards comeback Everything Must Go, gave them the confidence to go ahead. "If we were doing this when we were on our arse," Wire says, "maybe people would have accused us of trying to revive our career, but not now."
"When we started writing the new songs, the overriding feeling was a responsibility to do justice to the lyrics," Bradfield recalls. But then there was the excitement of doing it; the challenge, the same old feeling of when Richey gave me lyrics, like, 'Here you go, try doing something with that!' It's hard to ignore those emotions."
Journal For Plague Lovers is, in Nicky Wire's words: "A tribute to Richey and a tribute to the album as an art form." Widely acclaimed as the Manics' best work since Everything Must Go, the new album was recorded by Steve Albini, the American underground-rock maverick who dislikes the term 'producer'.
Famed for his ascetic, anti-commercial sensibilities, Albini was enlisted by Nirvana for their final album In Utero, a record much admired by the Manics. Albini was, Wire offers, the perfect choice for an album that returns the Manic Street Preachers to the edgy alternative rock of The Holy Bible. "We've got two natural habitats," Wire says. "The connect-with-audience, brilliant rock songs like A Design For Life, and this post-punk Nirvana-esque rock territory. Richey's lyrics push us into different places as a band."
When describing the overall sound of their new album Bradfield uses the words "angular" and "pointed". While not as unremittingly bleak as The Holy Bible, it has what Bradfield calls a similar sense of "anxiety", a stark tone and visceral quality. "Doing this record has brought a lot of memories back," he says, "but it hasn't dragged me down in any sense whatsoever. The lyrics are different to The Holy Bible, more serene." "The disgust of The Holy Bible is replaced by conclusions. Pretty bleak conclusions, but they do seem to be well thought through," Wire adds.
Most poignant of all is the album's final track, William's Last Words. It has a valedictory air, sung by Wire, in the deadpan style of Lou Reed. In places - 'You're the best friends I ever had', 'I'll go nice and quiet' - it reads like a suicide note.
"I feel conflicted by William's Last Words" Wire admits. "It's analogous to his [Richey's] own situation, undoubtedly. But although it's very melancholic, at least there's some sense of control. It's not like a man losing his mind, it's a rational man deciding that whatever he's done he hasn't done it in a mental panic. I'm loath to say it has real connotations of a goodbye, but it certainly resonates with The Entertainer, the Laurence Olivier film he used to love; the idea of the performer at the end of his career, I just can't say for certain. Sometimes I feel I've made it more melodramatic by picking out those lines."
Bradfield reflects; "Over the years it's been quite exasperating to hear of these sightings and these little myths about him: the icon of Richey. It gets reduced to something that you don't recognise. And actually dealing with something real for once, something he typed on paper something tangible that came from Richey, it's a fucking relief. That's what I hope, that people don't have that idealised version of him in their heads, that they get a real sense of the person he was: someone that was quite contradictory, sometimes very mischievous, but somebody that just couldn't stop internalising everything he came across."
As Nicky Wire concedes, Richey Edwards was an enigma even to those closest to him. "The man who was disappointed at getting a 2:1 for his history degree," Wire says, "and the man who fucking carved "4 Real' into his arm." Wire's fondest memories of Edwards date back to the time they were at university together in Swansea: "Him writing my essays at university for me, cooking a Fray Bentos pie, chips and peas... just getting pissed together and listening to music." But, he concludes, "I'd like for him to be remembered as a writer. That's the driving force behind us doing this."