The story of Manic Street Preachers is rife with tragedy, political confusion and transcendental musical moments. Their sixth album "Know Your Enemy" sees them claw back musical ground and credibility lost on their last album. Dave Roberts meets James Dean Bradfield
That Manic Street Preachers have made it to their sixth album almost defies belief. A brief album biography, in chronological order, begins with the sprawling Guns & Roses influenced rock of "Generation Terrorists". It led to the more refined but less than perfect "Gold Against The Soul". Both were solid and occasionally inspired rock albums, neither of them prepared anyone for what was to come.
The cliché of difficult third album was never so apt. When long-time, manager and mentor Philip Hall passed away it was obvious that the Manic Street Preachers were on a downward emotional spiral. With guitarist Richey Edwards undergoing some serious physiological and physical problems, the album "The Holy Bible" was dense and claustrophobic, reeking with the evil of two world wars, fascism and inferred suicide. That it culminated in the disappearance of Richey was not in the game plan.
Despite the column inches generated by losing a member and dear friend, there was never any guarantee that the Manics could pull off a comeback. That they could return with a single like "A Design For Life" was astounding. It touted the accompanying album "Everything Must Go" as their artistic zenith and perhaps more importantly showed they would survive as a three piece. It was so successful in the U.K. that musically there was literally nowhere for the Manics to go.
"This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" was prove positive of that. For a band who had imbued themselves with the spirit of The Clash, "This Is My TruthS" was little short of disastrous. One couldn't help feeling that the subsequent trio of Brit awards were presented for endurance and the overdue recognition from the establishment rather than artistic merit. It's still impossible to listen to that album without the tired refrain of "in the beginning, when we were winning, when our thoughts were genuine" echoing throughout. To the long-time fan it sounded like the Manics were prepared to give up, the masses were still buying their records but bar the excellent first single "If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next", the magic and passion had almost gone.
When we meet to discuss new album "Know Your Enemy", singer James Dean Bradfield lets me in on the band's feeling about the last album. " I think Nick and Sean were sick and tried of it at one point. That was one album where we did everything the way we were supposed to do it. We did all the gigs we were supposed to do. To their credit they're not like me, they won't just plough on and get through something. They're a bit more principled than me, they'll say stop. It's really bad that you can only look at things in retrospect but we look back on the last album and realised that sometimes we thought about things a bit too much. It sounds a bit overwrought in terms of how we approached it. Yeah, it might have been a subconscious way of being tired."
The good news is that "Know Your Enemy" is a far more enticing proposition. There are some Manics landmarks on it too. There's James's first song, Nicky's singing debut and their first disco song. Straight off, it seems Manic Street Preachers may be enjoying what they're doing again. There are also three collaborations with David Holmes ("the songs were 85% finished when we gave them to him on "Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children", "The Convalescent" and "Dead Martyrs".
For Bradfield, the album is "much more physical, more instinctive, more relaxed". Like much of their best work, some of the sub text is personal tragedy. Bradfield's lyrical debut "Ocean Spray" was written when his mother was dying and relates his desire for both of them to be able to drink the cranberry juice on her bedside table. "They give it to you in hospital to stop you getting infections. I was a bit inspired by the fact that you could see someone dying and put your faith in something so small for a cure. Actually we still haven't broached the subject of getting the clearance for the title."
There is, though, no defining sound to this album. In fact you can pick something from it from which sounds like every previous Manic Street Preachers era. "The biggest trouble we've had was choosing the first single. Both "Why So Sad" and "Found That Soul" are totally unrepresentative of the album which is why we went for the two together". The exception is their first foray into dance floor boogie, "Miss Europa Disco Dancer'. "It's criticising Ibiza uncovered, Jamaica uncovered, The Villa and Big Brother TV. I like the idea of people dancing to it and not realising it's stabbing them in the back. The first record I ever bought was by Diana Ross although I think this sounds a bit more like "Club Tropicana"."
Tellingly, the lyrics on "His Last Painting" are poignant and seem to be written in the third person (by Nicky Wire) about missing member Richey Edwards understanding, perhaps, that the band no longer fulfilled him: "It's not my life anymore/All of the hopes and the dreams ripped apart at the seams/Seems like I've lost myself to everybody and everything else." Bradfield is not denying it. "If I don't know what the lyrics mean to a song I usually ask. For "Why So Sad" and "His Last Painting", I didn't. "
Future plans are already mapped out. "After this, we'll probably have to do a greatest hits, to be honest. It's massive already, we want to get it chronological. Now there'll be three albums with Richey and the three albums we've done ourselves, it's the proper thing and time to do it."