On the morning of Feb. 1, 1995, Manic Street Preachers guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards checked out of a London hotel. He was supposed to join lead singer James Dean Bradfield for a promotional tour of the United States. Instead, he vanished from the face of the Earth.
Two weeks later, Edwards' car showed up near a bridge infamous as a suicide spot, but his body was never found. Instead of breaking up, the band went on to release their elegiac fourth album, "Everything Must Go," which boosted them from a serious cult item to major-league stars. Everywhere, that is, but the States.
"America was always our ultimate dream," said bassist Nicky Wire during a recent phone interview. "We have always been fascinated and stimulated by America. But, after a while, you realize it's a big world out there. We didn't want to be one of those sad bands trying to crack America while forgetting about the rest of the world."
Even as the group's fame expanded abroad, they never forgot Edwards. They stopped using his lyrics after "Everything Must Go," but continued to set aside a portion of their royalties for him, just in case. Late last year, Edwards' family had him declared "presumed dead."
"Richey has always been a part of everything we do, but not just in a band context," Wire said. "He's also someone's son, brother and friend. He's always been there with us, and we've always left his place on the stage."
And now, for the first time since 1996, Wire and the band have revisited their late friend's work. For their ninth album, "Journal for Plague Lovers," they used lyrics from a folder Edwards gave Wire a few weeks before he disappeared.
"There's a sense of time and a sense of distance that was essential to the way we made the record," Wire said. "For a long time, I had some kind of irrational fear about the folder. I didn't want to look at it. But I've always been a huge fan of Richey's words, how much culture and intelligence he could work into a song."
Released abroad in May, "Journal for Plague Lovers" became the Manic Street Preachers' biggest hit in years, earning critical praise and rapid sales. Many saw it as a sequel of sorts to 1994's "The Holy Bible," a violent, aggressive record Edwards filled with lyrics about depression, anorexia and revolution. At the time, critics inevitably compared it to Nirvana's similarly bleak "In Utero."
Wire chose the work of British painter Jenny Saville for the cover art, just as Edwards had selected a Saville piece for "The Holy Bible." The band also hired "In Utero" producer Steve Albini to record the new songs.
"'In Utero' is kind of a benchmark, me and Richey were obsessed with it," Wire said. "When we decided to do this thing, we had a wish list. We wanted Steve Albini and we wanted Jenny Saville. We wanted something that kept the thread without being an absolute followup."
The album's success has also allowed the group to tour the United States for the first time in a decade. They play the Varsity Theater tonight.
"We wanted to reward our hardcore fans in the States. We're not going to make money on this tour and, really, we aren't promoting 'Journal,' either. We just want to play songs from all of our history, to try to illustrate the whole story. In a funny way, it feels like a new country to us."