Know Your Enemy, Dotmusic, 19th March 2001
Once again, a new Manics album is an event - although not for the reasons 'The Holy Bible' was so anticipated by the kohl-black masses in 1994 or 'Everything Must Go' was greeted with curiosity by just about everybody with a passing interest in British music.
This time, the reason is the band's pronouncement of that old music business adage: "We're going back to our roots". Last year's stand-alone single 'The Masses Against The Classes' was supposedly the first salvo of this back-to-basics policy.
That track contained a typically ire-raising lyric, "We're the only thing left to believe in". The question this new album most readily provokes is: are they? Here's our track-by-track guide to 'Know Your Enemy':
'Found That Soul' Despite receiving considerably less airplay than its companion single, 'So Why So Sad', this should be familiar to most fans. It's a typically splenetic Manics rocker, with some rock'n'roll piano pushing the track on, an anthemic chorus and a gut-wrenching guitar solo. An impressive start to the album.
'Ocean Spray' James Dean Bradfield's debut as a lyricist is a fine mid-tempo acoustic ballad, written about his mother's death from cancer. After the choruses, the song moves into a heavier, distorted passage and samples of what sounds like Japanese, demonstrating the influence of additional producer David Holmes. Features a fine trumpet solo from Sean Moore.
'Intravenous Agnostic' Another high-octane track reminiscent of the band's early singles, again featuring some distorted, fuzz-laden guitar. Notable for its abstract lyrics - "Secular mosaic distracted at birth" - rather than its fairly predictable though still exciting music.
'So Why So Sad' Easily the most un-Manics track on the album and, as such, is a huge leap forward. Featuring a big Phil Spector-style production, some great harmony backing vocals and a bizarre theremin solo. Their boldest step since 'A Design For Life'.
'Let Robeson Sing' Written about the African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson, who was also the first black All-American football player and a fervent anti-fascist. This gentle acoustic ballad sounds like it comes from another time and is all the better for it. Contains a sample of a booming voice promising the arrival of the "freedom train".
'The Year Of Purification' Another uptempo track with its insistent bridge of "Run away, run away as fast as you can". Much more polished than the spiky 'Found That Soul' and 'Intravenous Agnostic'. The chorus features some more excellent harmonies.
'Wattsville Blues' Another first - Nicky Wire's vocal debut, and he makes it on a suitably misanthropic track. It's a lo-fi production number with a distorted guitar and programmed drum backing, although it goes more organic on the chorus. Ends with Wire proclaiming that he "Don't want no friends" and chorusing "Every single organism" before whispering "dead". Despite this sudden and slightly chilling end, the repetitive lyrics and dirge-like music make for a pretty uninspiring track overall.
'Miss Europa Disco Dancer' The Manics do disco, with funky bass and guitar lines blended with sweeping orchestral swathes. The lyrics attack the 'Ibiza culture' with Wire repeating "Braindead motherf**kers" over and over at the track's end.
'Dead Martyrs' This track kicks off with a bassline and shuffling drums borrowed straight from the Joy Division songbook before transforming into a typically big Manics chorus. Weird electronic noises abound throughout.
'His Last Painting' A mid-tempo track with a lyrical theme about the loss of identity - "It's not my life anymore". Features a brief distorted solo, which is in direct contrast to the carefully-layered sound of the rest of the track with a discreet organ rounding out the band's sound. The instruments gently fall away at the end.
'My Guernica' The most uncompromising track on the album. Has a big, noisy and distorted production and contains a typically oblique Manics lyrical reference - in this case to T.S. Eliot's character Alfred J. Prufrock. Strangely, the ending sounds like the opening of a track by a 60s garage band.
'The Convalescent' Allegedly written as a riposte to tabloid reporters who mocked Wire's supposedly humdrum life away from the band, as highlighted by the lines, "Kleenex kitchen towels and Teletext TV/ My favourite inventions of the 20th century". Namechecks American golfer Payne Stewart and Brian Warner (better known as Marilyn Manson) who apparently has "a tasty ass". An awkward and overlong track that would have been better as a B-side.
'Royal Correspondent' Another lyrically clumsy track - "Dream of the Daily Mail/It is the holy grail" - attacking those members of the 'fourth estate' who pursue the monarchy. To compound the misery, it features a repetitive and dull guitar line running throughout.
'Epicentre' Despite beginning like a close relation to the earlier 'Ocean Spray', this track actually reveals itself to be more strident, driven on by an urgent piano. A welcome blast of vitality after the complacency of the previous two tracks. Like 'My Guernica', it completely changes tack at the end, morphing into a passage that sounds uncannily like 'Everything Must Go'.
'Baby Elian' Written about the Cuban baby Elian Gonzalez, who was at the centre of a recent adoption row, and another chance for the band to declare their support for the Cuban administration. After the lyrical aberration of 'Royal Correspondent', this track contains some of the most potent images of the album - "Read my token lips" and "We follow a shining path/That you will never destroy" are particularly powerful.
'Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children' Another dig at the capitalist West - "Bomb the Chinese embassy" and "Laugh at the hammer and sickle" - but musically nothing to write home about. A pretty flat ending to the album, except it's not actually the end of the album at all.
'We Are All Bourgeois Now' A secret track hidden five-and-a-half minutes after the end of 'Freedom Of Speech', this cover of 80s agit-popsters McCarthy's track seems to stand as a final proclamation of the band's reclaiming of their revolutionary roots. Written at the height of Thatcherism, it sounds slightly anachronistic but one suspects the band thought its lyrics about the betrayal of one's roots fitted in with the debate surrounding 'New Labour' and their abandonment of a primarily Socialist manifesto. Almost tinny-sounding in comparison to much of the distortion/booming sound that has gone before it.
So there you have it - 17 tracks, over half of which are under four minutes long. Despite the punk rock rhetoric surrounding its release, this is far from a jagged, wired album. Indeed, in the context of the expectations surrounding the band, it could be argued that the likes of 'So Why So Sad' and 'Let Robeson Sing' are the most punk things on here - breaking away as they do from much of the band's previous material.
What the album also suffers from is too much throwing of material at the wall in the hope it will stick. It's overlong and the similarities with the sprawling nature of their debut, 'Generation Terrorists', are hard to ignore. It's unfortunate that the band have repeated the same mistakes and not been able or willing to edit themselves. A bit of judicious pruning to remove the filler tracks would have resulted in a cohesive, dynamic album that would have easily been their best release to date. Instead, they get full marks for effort but ultimately...
- Simon P Ward