Join Manics frontman James Dean Bradfield for a trip aboard The Great Western. Words by Keith Carey.
After a gig at London's Hammersmith Paleis in April 2005, The Manic Street Preachers boldly declared to their audience, "You won't see us for two years". This left diehard fans baffled: they felt the last Manics record, Lifeblood, was a return to the commercial peak that was the ubiquitous Everything Must Go. So where would the group go from here? The inevitable greatest hits had already been packaged and promoted via Forever Delayed in 2002 so music cynics predicted a split.
For Manics front man James Dean Bradfield, the speculation couldn't have been any further away from the truth: "After Lifeblood, we decided that people deserved a rest from us, and we're not exactly the best people to get distance from it ourselves," he says. In fact, it was never Bradfield's intention to make a solo record, but after becoming addicted to the sports channel ESPN and living like the archetypal student, he knew he had to fall back into the daily work routine. "It sounds horribly sincere and earnest but I really missed music in my life," he explains.
After nearly a year of learning to cope an his own musically, Bradfield created his debut solo album The Great Western, so-called because of the cumbersome amount of train journeys he took between Cardiff and Paddington. The record handpicks the high water marks from the Manics' envied back catalogue with pop flourishes reminiscent of Everything Must Go to the agitated punk of The Holy Bible.
The record was spilt between borders with recording taking place in The Square Studio in Hoxton and Sir Studios in Cardiff where Bradfield appreciated "the smaller studios and their murky and 70s-esque cloaked sound".
The lyrics are painfully honest and took time to make the transition from train carriage to final mix. Bradfield's first experience of penning a pop song was with the Manics' understated single Ocean Spray the deeply personal meditation on his mother's death. Bradfield muses: "It wasn't remotely Jungian or Freudian or in fact like therapy. That lyric came out of death and I couldn't see myself writing another one for a long time after it."
But the first song to make it to paper on the new album was also sparked by the sad demise of someone else who had a big impact upon his life and career. An English Gentleman, which is also the new single, is a fitting tribute to the late Phillip Hall, who had taken the young Manics under his watchful management during their early 90s escapades in London. The youthful lyric, "With sleeping bags under our arms" clearly sums up those adventure-filled early days. Bradfield was in awe of Hall's incredible modesty. "Phillip wasn't this big, fat-cat, cigar-in-mouth Londoner," he smiles. "In saying that, there was still something quite swashbuckling about him."
There is a distinct duality on the record - a double life that hovers between James Dean Bradfield the rock musician in London and James Dean Bradfield the salt of the earth boy from Blackwood. It forms the backbone of The Great Western.
Between all the beauty and introspection, there's still a great deal of sloganeering, no more so apparent than on the album's lead-off single That's No Way To Tell A Lie. The harrowing riffs and lush synth hooks borrow heavily from the likes of Joy Division while the narrative takes a swipe at the way religion has maintained AIDS as an epidemic in Africa.
Manics bass player Nicky Wire contributes with the wordy Bad Boys And Painkillers a rumination on the dark allure of chemicals mixed with Rock and Roll. The track has clear shades of the Manics' missing member Richey Edwards, in his search for perfection. Bradfield sums up the ideology behind the song: "Richey was always looking for something perfect, whether it be a girl or a nation or a place. Perhaps he only found perfection in something bleak and nihilistic."
The longing for Wales and home reverberates vibrantly on the closing track Which Way To Kyffin?another tribute of sorts, this time to the late landscape artist Sir Kyffin Williams. Bradfield explains the motive behind the song: "I was in West Wales last year and I really didn't want to go back to London. I just felt like driving up to Anglesey to find Kyffin Williams. Like the chorus says, I was trying to paint myself a different life, like you can be captured in the painting and don't have to leave it."
The Great Western is more than just a stop-gap between Metrics albums and its reception on the road has been emphatic. Bradfield's solo live jaunt began with a humble set of venues where the capacities were so small that fans were literally bellowing requests into Bradfield's face. But for all the personal glory that's been reaped from this project, Bradfield still misses the band interaction. "It may sound corny but I realised the great telepathy you have with people you've grown up with and played music with since you were 15, I will never take that for granted again," he says.
Away from the music, Bradfield is glad to see his team Nottingham Forest playing some half=decent football in League One but gets riled about the way people fail to appreciate boxer Joe Calzaghe's achievements. "I was proud when Joe beat Jeff Lacy up in Manchester, but he doesn't get the credit he deserves," Bradfield says passionately. "People should be kissing his feet."
And on the new Manics record? I tell Bradfield that I saw Nicky Wire play his first solo show at the Hay-On-Wye Festival. Wire described one of the tracks on the new record as sounding like Aerosmith circa Pump. Despite this wild musical comparison, Bradfield has drawn his own conclusions on the recording process: "To compare, my album is quite introspective whereas the new Manics record is sounding a lot more inclusive." But that's all to come. For the moment Bradfield is enjoying a great sense of individual satisfaction. "Actually seeing 'words and music by James Dean Bradfield' written down made me feel happy," he says. "For once I've lost a bit of my insecurity."