If Manic Street Preachers were the Rolling Stones, this would be the year they release Dirty Work. Which is probably their worst album. The very idea provokes an extremely satisfying guffaw from the Manics’ guitarist-vocalist James Dean Bradfield, on the line with the Straight from a hotel room somewhere in England’s capital.
“If we’d been the Rolling Stones,” he muses, “I probably would have been out of the band by now, because I would have been Ian Stewart. I would have been the clumsy fella that had no glamour but some musical talent.” Bradfield goes on to offer a persuasive defense of another perceived stinker, “Undercover of the Night”, but all Sucking in the ’80s critical revisionism aside, the point is that Bradfield and his bandmates Nicky Wire (bass) and Sean Moore (drums) - in their 23rd year together - have somehow managed to produce their best effort ever.
And if Journal for Plague Lovers isn’t the Welsh band’s masterpiece, it’s barely lagging behind The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go, the two key records MSP released in the ’90s. The first one would set the tone for the rest of the Manics’ career in some ways, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. As Bradfield admits, “I’m always aware with this record that you’ve got to give people context first, you’ve got to tell people the story for them to perhaps appreciate it.”
He says this for the benefit of North Americans, who haven’t lived with the epic saga of Manic Street Preachers for the last two decades like the Brits have. Arriving like a sore but very beautiful thumb back when the U.K. was tits-deep in laddism, ecstasy, and the Stone Roses, the Manics were four fiercely intelligent, transgressive, and pissed-off gutter Situationists who dressed like Hanoi Rocks and promised to immolate themselves on Top of the Pops.
That never happened, but five months after releasing a corrosive, postpunk-modelled third album, 1994’s The Holy Bible, guitarist-lyricist Richey Edwards disappeared off the face of the earth. The Holy Bible thus stands as a document of almost bottomless despair, placing Edwards’s battles with alcoholism, self-mutilation, and anorexia inside its larger indictment of a world laid waste by evil.
Eventually carrying on as a three-piece, the Manics released Everything Must Go (1996), folding the tragedy into their work with characteristic grace and sensitivity, and emerging - unexpectedly - as the biggest band in Britain. Significantly, they couldn’t make a dent stateside.
When Edwards was officially presumed dead last year (still absent a corpse), the Manics returned to a portfolio of lyrics he “bequeathed” to them, in Wire’s words, before vanishing.
“I think for once in our lives we timed something perfectly,” Bradfield offers, “which is probably the thing that we shouldn’t have done for our career. But we did it, and it’s at exactly the right time for the most pure reasons. And it took us a long time to feel ready to put the music to these lyrics. I would look at these lyrics down the years, and I would look and look at them, and I must admit, for years I just didn’t connect.”
The result is an album of succinct and razor-sharp rockers, opening with the ecstatically heavy whump of “Peeled Apples” before piling through a 30-minute array of heat-seeking riffs. But it’s Edwards’s typically humane and splenetic last words that are front and centre.
“We knew this was our last chance to be in a band with Richey,” says Bradfield, explaining the Manics’ “mission statement” for the album. “As I was reading the lyrics and Nick was reading the lyrics, the one thing we could be absolutely 100-percent certain of was that this was somebody that didn’t give a fuck about having a hit single anymore. And we knew that we had to let the lyrics guide us and they had to be the main energy of the record.”
Equally, and because Edwards had wanted to work with him, the Manics honoured their lost friend’s memory by not only enlisting Steve Albini, but convincing him to make the trek to a Wales studio. Albini, naturally, knew fuck-all about the Manics’ colossal mystique in Britain.
“He didn’t want anything to do with our history,” Bradfield elaborates. “Didn’t want to know anything about any context, which I was glad of because we could take care of all that. We just knew that he was going to treat the microphones as if it was a science project. And we needed somebody who would actually stand back and not be precious about any of Richey’s legacy, because we have enough of that to contend with ourselves.”
Bradfield realized just how effectively Albini had managed to screen out their back story about two weeks in.
“He said, 'Yeah, I had some dinner with some friends and apparently your best record is The Holy Bible,’ ” Bradfield recalls with a soft chuckle. “I was like, 'Yes Steve, I told you that on the first day,’ and he goes, ”˜Sorry man, I wasn’t fuckin’ listening.’”
Him and the rest of North America. We’ve already lost 23 years - it’s time to start fuckin’ listening.