For Manic Street Preachers fans suffering from withdrawal symptoms (it has been almost two years since the release of the Welsh rockers’ last album Lifeblood), the release of debut solo albums from singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield and bassist Nicky Wire within a couple of months of each other must have seemed like Christmas arriving early.
While Wire’s I Am the Zeitgeist revealed a strong leaning toward post punk poetry and jangly indie pop circa C-86, Bradfield’s energetic and catchy solo effort harked back to the Manic Street Preachers’ sounds of old.
When the Manics stopped touring in April 2005, it dawned on the trio that they had been together as a band for two decades. After much discussion, the general consensus was that even though they still loved being together in a band and wanted to carry on for a long time, the one thing they needed was some clear perspective on what they were doing after such a long time in order to make sure that the next Manics album was brilliant.
“After 20 years, it is not a bad time to take year off and not write any songs for the Manics. So that’s what we decided to do, to not release a record for two years,” explained the softly-spoken Bradfield, during a recent phone interview. He still speaks with a melodic Welsh lilt in his accent despite having resided in London for the past two decades.
Just a month into the Manics’ self-imposed two-year exile, everything began to fall apart for Bradfield, who became increasingly miserable at his state of musical inactivity.
“I’m a very dysfunctional person and I realised that when I picked up the guitar again and started writing songs again, I just felt so much better, even though I didn’t know what I was writing songs for,” he confessed.
“I was shocked at how dysfunctional I was without music in my life. As soon as that month elapsed after the Manics tour finished, I realised that I couldn’t not play music for a long period of time. I had to do something.”
So what he decided to do was to channel all his musical energy into crafting a solo record despite having promised to do the opposite. After 20 years of going into the studio with the rest of Manics, recording on his own turned out to be a strange experience.
“Suddenly, all the things that I was used to having in the studio just weren’t there. You know, I’m used to turning around and seeing Nick and Sean there, asking their usual questions, playing songs, tracking in the same way – I just didn’t have that whatsoever.
“So it was a bit disconcerting and a bit upsetting for me. I kind of missed them straight away and I definitely missed them all the way through the process definitely, that friendly creative tension that only friends can have.”
If Bradfield was feeling unsure or even daunted by the prospect of going it alone musically for his solo effort, those negative thoughts did not seem to harm his creativity.
In fact, The Great Western is the kind of record the Manics would be proud of call their own.
If the songs on The Great Western are anything to go by, Bradfield’s time away from the Manics seems to have reinvigorated his muse as they are certainly among the strongest collection of tunes in his career. Opening track and lead single There Is No Way to Tell A Lie sets the tone nicely with its infectious chorus and “sha-la-la” refrain. Bad Boys and Painkillers (co-written by Nicky Wire) is another standout moment with its killer chorus and pleasant summery vibe while An English Gentlemen, written about the Manics late mentor Phillip Hall, adroitly showcases Bradfield’s lyrical prowess. Elsewhere, the pastoral vibe of Which Way to Kyffin provides some musical variety, as does the gorgeous rendition of Jacques Brel’s To See a Friend in Tears.
The main challenge for Bradfield in making The Great Western was to write the lyrics himself (with the exception of Bad Boys and Painkillers, which was donated by Wire in an admirable show of support and solidarity).
“I had only ever written lyrics once in the Manics (the deeply-personal Ocean Spray from Know Your Enemy). I was in the studio without my usual touchstones. Usually, I write music to lyrics that Nicky has given me. Lyrics have always been the inspiration for music for me. This time, there were no lyrics in front of me. I had to write them so that was a little daunting.
“I didn’t sit down and say ‘I’m going to write about this’. I just let things come to the surface and I was surprised how much of the past came up in the lyrics. I didn’t expect that so much. People that I’d forgotten also started coming out in the lyrics. I became aware of the fact that people along the way can teach you many valuable lessons but never get the credit for it.”
Bradfield continued: “I’ll admit that there are few things on this record that could have be on a Manics record. I think the one difference was that I let more of my unfashionable influences come to the surface. I’ve always loved Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John, ELO and Badfinger.”