Happy 10th Anniversary to Manic Street Preachers’ ninth studio album Journal For Plague Lovers, originally released May 18, 2009.
Journal For Plague Lovers is the ninth studio album by Manic Street Preachers and one that contains lyrics penned by Richey James Edwards, the band’s former lyricist and guitarist who in early 1995 vanished without a trace. Edwards’ whereabouts to this day remain a mystery seeped in rock & roll mythology, but also represents a very sad turn of events for a young, handsome, smart, yet obviously troubled individual.
The conspiracies and theories will have to be set aside here. What is factual is that weeks before Edwards disappeared he handed a binder of lyrics and imagery to his band mates Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore to peruse over the 1994 Christmas period. These were intended to be used on the next Manic Street Preachers record, a follow-up to the deeply disturbing, yet quite brilliant The Holy Bible (1994).
With Edwards’ vanishing, this binder of lyrics took on a deeper meaning for the remaining band members, one that could not be fully understood in the immediate aftermath of such a harrowing event. Instead the band persisted and continued on as a three piece releasing a collection of lush, well rendered and beautifully melancholic records that touched on the dominant Britpop scene, but ultimately transcended it. These records, 1996’s Everything Must Go and 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, gave the band immense worldwide adoration and featured an array of hit singles and massive tours.
Then something happened. A blip, if you like. Following on from this incredible success, the band’s punk rock ethos of the early years re-emerged once again and they released Know Your Enemy (2001), a sixteen-track mutant record of indie dirges, punk rock, west coast rock and disco anthems that by all intents and purposes was created to destroy the good graces of fans and re-establish the band’s more obtuse tendencies from earlier in their career. It still sold by the truckload, but its critical reception caused a crisis of confidence that led to the glacial pop of 2004’s Lifeblood.
Bewildered and uneasy, the band took a hiatus for a few years in the mid 2000s, which allowed both Bradfield and Wire to muster up solo records and shore up some creative juice for the next Manic Street Preachers venture.
Released in 2007, Send Away The Tigers was a triumphant comeback that fused the band’s old school glam rock chops with glittering stadium sized anthems. Rather than confuse and alienate the audience, the band played up to expectations and married intelligent lyricism to thrilling Guns N’ Roses style rock. It was a smash and placed the band firmly back into the popular psyche.
So, rather than follow-up this triumphalism with another bash of glamorous rock & roll, the band decided it was time to revisit those remaining lyrics penned by Richey Edwards.
This was a masterstroke. Released at any other time, a record that trod on old ground could have been accused of a cash-in. But coming after Send Away The Tigers, Journal For Plague Lovers sits more as an isolated artistic act in the band’s catalog than a proper record.
With distance, it also can’t be considered a follow-up to the dark and troubled The Holy Bible. In fact, considering the set of lyrics contained on Journal was written around the same time, it shares very little in musical style or subject matter.
There was, for example, not much humour or hope to be found on The Holy Bible (though Manics fans might find grim hilarity in songs like “Revol” or “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart”). Songs like “Archives of Pain” (pro-death penalty), “4st 7lbs” (pro-anorexia) and “Intense Humming of Evil” (subject: The Holocaust) offered very little in the way of laughs. This can’t be said for Journal. The song “Me and Stephen Hawking” is one long in-joke that even features a proper joke in the line “Overjoyed me and Stephen Hawking we laughed / we missed the sex revolution when we failed the physical.”
The sheer audacity of songs like “Peeled Apples” which feature incomprehensible couplets like “Riderless horses, Noam Chomsky's Camelot” and “A dwarf takes his cockerel out of the cockfight” are utterly absurd yet provide thankful light relief. Then there’s that cheeky repeated refrain found in “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time” of “Oh mummy, what’s a sex pistol?” Oh how we laughed!
Journal has moments of light humour. Not many albums that spill from this band can claim the same.
But it is really the contemplative hope that permeates Journal that is most apparent and sets it aside from its spiritual predecessor. The Holy Bible offered little of this in its claustrophobic worldview. Journal is different. The lyrical content of a song like “This Joke Sport Severed” might not radiate much warmth lyrically, but its musical complement of strummed acoustic guitar suddenly breaks into the most beautiful orchestration the Manics have set to record (and they know a thing of two about drenching their songs in strings). The mood shifts from dour to the clouds breaking and sunshine pouring through.
Perhaps the most hopeful song on the record comes in the form of what might be considered its most defeatist. “William’s Last Words” is considered a parting shot, a goodbye note of sorts. Lyrics such as “Wish me some luck as you wave goodbye to me” would certainly indicate the desire of its author to leave behind life. Yet the song conjures up some beautiful imagery, such as the opening line of “Isn't it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew?” that whilst eternally sad, at least allows for the possibility of a new dawn. The standout line of “I’m really tired / I'd love to go to sleep and wake up happy,” whilst defeatist, offers the listener hope that there is the desire from its author to at least awaken and continue on.
There are some obvious pointers to The Holy Bible. Firstly, the record’s artwork is produced by the same British artist, Jenny Saville. The work that adorned The Holy Bible, titled Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face), showed the same obese partially naked woman from three different angles, the expression on her face was of contempt. The art work perfectly suited the record’s dour view of humanity and the accusatory nature of that record (“Whose responsible? You fucking are.”) Journal’s artwork, titled Stare, shows what appears to be a young, though androgynous, girl, bruised and bewildered. It’s a startling image and one that brought the band some controversy when UK supermarkets refused to display the record without a covering sleeve.
Another aspect that points back to The Holy Bible is the production. From 1996 onwards, the Manics (with the exception of Know Your Enemy) had been known to produce lush and polished compositions. For Journal, the band roped in famed producer and record engineer Steve Albini, whose work on countless indie records is overshadowed by his work on Nirvana’s In Utero (1993). Albini’s in-studio methodology is to record bands live. The sound produced on Journal certainly conjures up a rougher audio experience, dispensing with the lavish sheen of earlier records and stripping back to a more basic and bombastic sound.
So what is Journal For Plague Lovers?
Is it an attempt to relive past glories of furious youth? The exploitation of a past band member who was missing, presumed dead, and therefore unable to comment on or guide the music and overall artistic outcome in any way, shape or form? Is it an attempt to re-spark the creative flow and boost declining record sales?
It’s none of these things. The record is a strange, though welcome, anomaly that exists outside of Manic Street Preachers’ regular releases. Whilst it cannot outperform its towering spiritual partner, The Holy Bible, nor does it quite equal the lyrical tirades of that record, it does complement and add other layers to the darkness that existed within that record. It adds dimensions of lightness and hope to an otherwise hopeless perception of humanity, and depth to a lyricist who is sadly missed.