Rank Your Records: James Dean Bradfield Rates Manic Street Preachers' 12 Albums - Noisey, 7th May 2015
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
If Manic Street Preachers are anything, they’re survivors. The Welsh trio have endured any number of obstacles thrown at them in their 29-year history. From calling their debut album “the greatest rock album ever” and predicting they’d sell 16 million copies of it (it only went Gold in the UK), to losing their songwriter/guitarist/heart and soul/best friend Richey James Edwards to mysterious circumstances, to changing their sound time and time again, the Manics have persisted in the face of adversity to become one of the UK’s biggest bands of the last quarter-century. I don’t think anyone but the band themselves would have predicted such an outcome when they first appeared in 1990 with their debut, the New Art Riot EP. Their pomposity earned them an overnight reputation as arrogant dreamers, but in retrospect, years after they said they were “a million times better than every band,” it’s hard to argue they aren’t at this point in their career. Hold up their 12 albums to any other band that has managed to do the same in that period (first, try and find another band), and you’ll not only find the Manics have maintained an impressive degree of quality control, but have done so by constantly taking artistic risks with their music. They inject their songs with fiery political statements and erudite literary references; on any one album, the Manics can sound like pissed off punks, classic rock anthem makers, AOR sophisticates, and Krautrock buffs. As a long-time fan, I can say that the band have yet to release what can truly be considered a bad album.
We spoke to singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield over the phone to see if he could survive ranking his band’s extensive catalogue of studio albums. And he did… just. “I’ve started writing things down,” he admitted at the beginning. “It’s easy to get lost. It’s really fucking hard! This is fucking hard! Because it just feels like you’re condemning your records when you do this.”
12. LIFEBLOOD (2004)
Why is this your least favorite?
I felt like we were suffering from something called paralysis to analysis in the process of writing. Perhaps we’d run out of juice, and there was another version of the band that we needed to find ourselves. So we had this MO before we went into the studio of not trusting our first idea or second idea, and we’d always chase the third idea. We’d write a song and discard our distinctive way of playing that song. Also we didn’t really play together on that record—there wasn’t much live playing. I would lay down a vocal and a guitar track, and Nick and Sean would come in and put down tracks separately. There is an element to that record where it feels slightly virtual and disconnected, and inorganic. It lacks our true instinct. It lacks the essence of what we are. I think we talked ourselves into a corner. It was an investigation that didn’t work.
11. KNOW YOUR ENEMY (2001)
I feel like this was your worst-received record.
I just think the malaise that led to Lifeblood was kind of Know Your Enemy’s fault because when we came in to do this album we were reacting to the massive success in Europe and other parts of the world. Not America. But with Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth we had sold millions of records around the world, and after This Is My Truth we kind of reacted against our own success. We thought that we had lost some of that original punk spirit that we’d had. It had kind of always been in the lyrics and some of our performances, but we thought we’d become too polished. We thought that perhaps we had fallen onto a treadmill of success, which was stupid. You look back on all this stuff and think, “What a fucking idiot I was!” You can’t help but live in the moment, and basically with Know Your Enemy we tried to be too spontaneous and too organic. We were just laying stuff down quite quickly and not worrying about the production. And we undersold some of the songs on the record. It’s not the producer’s fault, it’s our fault. We backed him into a corner and said, “No, we want to keep things fresh and do it quickly.” And we didn’t give the record a chance to breathe or sound good. So yeah, it’s no accident that Know Your Enemy and Lifeblood sit together as my least favorite records because we were hitting some kind of malaise, reacting against our own success and we were thinking about things too much.
10. GOLD AGAINST THE SOUL (1993)
Your difficult second album.
I haven’t got any great crimes to accuse Gold Against The Soul of—I just think it’s a classic second album. You know, after your first album and you’ve had some success and column inches and people kinda start knowing who you are, you can lose your direction quite quickly. And I think Gold Against The Soul suffers from that initial gloom of success and a little bit of confusion. For me it’s probably one of our weaker albums, lyrically. I always write music to the lyrics; the lyrics always inspire the music that I write. I keep the lyrics in front of me when I try to write music, and I think we were a bit off message. We had become a middle-league successful rock band in Britain, parts of Europe and Japan on our first record. And we had just lost some direction. There are more committed guitar solos on the record than there are committed lyrics. [Laughs.] It’s a bit of a malaise again really.
Would you say it had any influence on The Holy Bible?
I suppose I would. I’ve never done this before, so it’s kind of an interesting process. But I the one thing I’ve become aware of as I say this out loud to you is that people always say, “What’s the biggest influence on this record?” And you’ll quote other musicians or other music. But invariably, which I didn’t realize until this conversation, is that the biggest influence on your new album is probably your last album. So, yes The Holy Bible took on a move proto-punk, organic and more angry, more intense stance because of Gold Against The Soul. We’d realized we’d had a step in the wrong direction, and we’d become a bit too rockist, a bit too bloated in our stance. We just kind of shook ourselves out of it and felt we had to make a record that had “no compromise” written all over it, but was still unique in its own way. So yeah, Gold Against The Soul is a very important process of making The Holy Bible, definitely.
9. JOURNAL FOR PLAGUE LOVERS (2009)
This is the one that featured so many of Richey’s lyrics.
For me this record was something that we needed to do. We needed to honor an unwritten contract with Richey. When he disappeared—obviously the story has been told many, many, many, MANY times—but the one thing that is common knowledge is that he left us all with lyric books. We spent time with those lyrics. They were in our drawers in our houses, those three books, for years and years. We’d always had a bit of a tacit agreement that we’d do something with them some day because if a friend, who writes lyrics and who you’ve had a working relationship with for years leaves you lyrics then he’s done that for a reason. So there was this thing hanging over our heads for some time and we felt we had to carry out this honor. When the time actually came I think the experience was more important than the actual outcome. It was great for us to have that final moment where we felt we were in the band with Richey again. Without sounding too overdramatic or trying to be too symbolic about anything, it was the closest we could ever get to having him in the room with us again. Putting music towards his lyrics and making up his anthem, but also trying to second guess what he would’ve liked in the writing and recording process. Sometimes talking with the children to see if he’d like it like this or that. So I’ve put Journal For Plague Lovers here in this list not because of any faults, and not because of anything we had done on this record, it’s just the experience of writing music for those lyrics, and then going into the studio and doing it and feeling like a four-piece again. That was more important for me than the actual outcome. I didn’t realize it at the time but I realize it now.
You didn’t release any singles from this record.
No, I mean there weren’t any singles on this record, I don’t think. There were no lyrics that wanted to be singles. We would have compromised the lyrics, we would have compromised Richey’s process, if we had tried to turn any into singles. That is something that became very obvious to us early on.
Nicky said he thought this album could damage the band in a commercial sense. Did you feel that way?
I suppose. There’s always a confusion amongst our fans. Some just love the Everything Must Go, This Is My Truth and Send Away The Tigers type of Manics, the anthemic, classic rock kind of vibe. And then some fans love the early days of the Manics, The Holy Bible, Know Your Enemy, the more obtuse, willfully pretentious side of us. The last record Futurology was like that, which is very far away from Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth. There’s always a tension there between the audience and the band.
8. GENERATION TERRORISTS (1992)
Your debut album.
I have nothing but good memories making Generation Terrorists, and I like the fact that it sounds so dated. It doesn’t better. There are some crimes on this album, undoubtedly. The re-recording of “Spectators of Suicide” is an abject failure. The re-recording of “You Love Us” is kind of more LA than South Wales. [Laughs.] But I still like the delusion and the fantasy of it, and I like how we placed air-brushed rock next to a situationist credos. It’s just like going through a photograph album. You’re gonna see haircuts, you’re gonna see coats, jeans, trousers, sneakers, trainers, you’ll see things where you think, “What the fuck was I thinking?” But that’s kind of cool; it shows a life lived. That snapshot of that time just proves you’re loving life in a fucked up way or a convoluted way, it doesn’t matter. Generation Terrorists just has this indestructibility of youth. There are things on there that you can criticize… but it kind of still stands up on its own two legs because it’s committed. And not entirely original, but unique.
You guys once predicted that this album would sell 16 million albums and then you’d split up. Neither of those things happened.
Oh god, I’ve talked about having the dichotomy between the two versions of the band and the two versions of our audience, and there is a dichotomy within the band as well. Sean and I we’re not quite as maverick as Nick and Richey. They were very much about shooting from the hip and setting standards that were impossible to reach. But you almost got the feeling that Nick and Rich almost loved failure as much as they did the idea of success. They love the art of falling apart as much as graceful splendor. So I kind of understood what they were going for by setting this unattainable goal and enjoying the circus—watch the freaks do something impossible—and that was us. But that was not the kind of thing I would ever say. I’ve known Nick all my life, he’s been my best friend my whole life, and he loves living through self-willed fantasy, and I was cool with it. I found it entertaining to be part of that madness.
7. THIS IS MY TRUTH, TELL ME YOURS (1998)
This was not only your most successful album, but also the first where Nicky wrote lyrics all on his own.
It’s probably the biggest selling album: four and a half million around the world, which is, you know, big enough. There was an emotional impact of Nick losing his lyric-writing partner, let alone his friend. It’s almost easier for other people to gauge vicariously than it is for them to imagine how hard it was for him to recalibrate as a lyricist on his own. Nick and Richey had written lyrics like “Motorcycle Emptiness” together, 50/50, “You Love Us,” 50/50, “La Tristesse Durera,” 50/50, and even a couple of songs on The Holy Bible together, 50/50. So they were an amazing partnership that would trade off lines the way musicians trade off licks together when they’re jamming. It was as literal as that. There are some tracks where I can tell that Nick is free of the trauma of losing both his lyrical partner and his friend. A lyric like “If You Tolerate This” is perfectly formed—there is no spare meat on it—it’s a statement of fact, a statement of intent. I think it’s an amazing lyric. And there are other lyrics on that record like “My Little Empire,” which have an amazingly eloquent and introspective quality without being self-pitying. They are very succinct and have a beautiful weight of judgment: there is no pity or anger or delusion. There are some lyrics on here that are my favorites, but it’s still hard for me to completely embrace that version of the band because it is highly polished. There is a noise reduction on that record, that punk genesis we had at the start, which still exists on other records, which is definitely stripped away on This Is My Truth. It’s very much an album in that it’s just trying to present the songs. There is no subterfuge or subtext, it’s just about the songs. And while I loved making it and being part of the success, I still sometimes find it to 100 percent embrace.
6. POSTCARDS FROM A YOUNG MAN (2010)
This was apparently your attempt to get back onto the radio after Journal For Plague Lovers.
Yeah, according to Nick! [Laughs.] He said it was “our one last shot at mass communication” and I understood what he was saying because pop was beginning to take over again with all of these reality shows in Britain. So the gathering horde at the gates of the guitar rock revival were just about to take over again. Even at this point when Postcards From a Young Man came out we were beginning to see that guitar music was leaving the top 20 and guitar bands weren’t having hits anymore. So there was a bit of a subconscious direction with that. We still believed in writing a three-and-a-half minute guitar rock anthem with subterfuge of our lyrics beneath it. There are just some great lyrical moments from Nick. “All We Make Is Entertainment” is a great political lyric wrapped in a kind of soft metaphor. And then there are some that are political with a subtle demeanor, like “(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love,” which is about post-ideology, about third wave politics and the impossibility of believing in a political credo post-New Labour. I think the subtle political lyrics are an achievement in itself, because if you do write about politics, inevitably you get accused of being cranky, and I don’t think Nick was on this record. And I just really enjoyed making this record.
5. REWIND THE FILM (2013)
For me, this was a very different side to the Manics.
I talked earlier about how a band can go through paralysis to analysis when they go and try to find a different version of themselves, but I think Rewind The Film is the opposite. We knew that we wanted to make this acoustic album for a long time. We had talked about it in 1993 when Richey was around, and he said that he’d love to make an album like Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen. But it’s the opposite of trying to find another version of the band—it was just sitting here waiting for us. As soon as we wrote the songs we knew they were very much acoustic-based, that they didn’t need much orchestration or the power of a rock band or my guitar solos, etc. I like Rewind The Film. It is a different direction for the band but it came naturally. And again it pulls off a trick. It’s rewarding for me to know that we can be introspective, we can be investigative in our lyrics, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to be political. We don’t have to have three or four political songs on a record—if there’s just one that’s enough. I like the fact that this was a success in Britain. We sold quite a lot and it wasn’t a particularly typical Manics record, which was rewarding.
4. SEND AWAY THE TIGERS (2007)
I think this marked a real turnaround for the band.
Yes. This was a comeback record for us. We hadn’t split up, but we’d taken some time off. Nick and I had both done solo records, and we’d come off the back of the Know Your Enemy and Lifeblood malaise. It was lovely to be in the Manics, especially while we made Send Away The Tigers, because we didn’t know whether we could make a classic rock album with anthemic undertones where we sneak politics in the backdoor. I think this was the start of Nick being able to write the lyrics on his own and also the music in an emphatic sense. It was nice to get to that point where our writing roles could change, and we could swap things around a bit. And it was nice to glide. We all sat together and played together on this record. We went back to the way we used to play in my parents’ front room in Wales. We just wrote a song and if it didn’t work in ten minutes we’d just chuck it away and start with another. We were at that point where musicians say, “We lock eyes with each other and lock in with each other.” We’ve known each other for so long we don’t even have to do that: We just lock in with an idea or song or we don’t. And the album did so well for us in Japan and Britain. It was nice to ride the coattails of that record and make people sing.
3. FUTUROLOGY (2014)
You released this less than a year after Rewind The Film. Are they companions?
It was a two-album cycle, but no, they are only companions in the sense that they were written and recorded at the same time. When we were in the studio we couldn’t stop ourselves and we realized that we were doing two distinct albums. But when we got to a point where we’d written 12 songs, we sat down and there were seven songs that formed the basis of Rewind The Film. And then there were these other songs that formed Futurology, and we realized that lyrically they shared an obsession with culture and politics of mainland Europe, and they had a Krautrock edge to them, this motorik beat. It happened by accident that we were writing two separate albums at once. A sensible band would have said, “OK, let’s just do the one album.” But we said, “Fuck it! Let’s indulge in this schizophrenia and record both of these albums at the same time.” So that’s what we did. I like the fact that we made this record so late in our careers. It’s really cool that we made a record that perhaps Richey could have really bought into, in terms of subject matter and some of the musical styles on it. I like the idea that this was an album we really wanted to make. I’m not saying it’s the most experimental album of all time, but the writing is definitely not obsessed with singles. A lyric like "Europa Geht Durch Mich," which is sung half in German and half in English, or a song like “Black Square” are not attempts to get into the charts. It’s indulgent, but it’s what we wanted to do. We reconnected with the engineer who recorded The Holy Bible, and it has a little edge to it. I think this record is more representative of the people we are day-to-day with, in terms of what we talk about, perhaps some of our attitudes towards life. We’re still really excited by the past, the present and the future.
2. THE HOLY BIBLE (1994)
You are currently touring this album. How has that been going?
It’s been brilliant. I said to you earlier that the closest we ever got to having Richey back in the band was writing and recording Journal For Plague Lovers. I think there is a misapprehension on other people’s part that that in playing this record we will feel like we’re closer to Richey, but that’s not the experience I’ve had. I just enjoy the technicality of playing this record. The Holy Bible is steeped in some kind of proto-punk spirit, but it’s got quite a few different time signatures, everything is interlocked, the musicality is based on being tight and knowing what you’re doing. The amount of lyrics I have to sing on this record means I never get to be carefree up there. A lot of the songs have this push and pull to them. My solos are very atonal and go in different areas, and sometimes the bass is just completely connected to itself and nothing else. So you’ve got to commit to playing the music. You can’t fuck around with it. People ask, “Is it upsetting trying to connect with these lyrics again? Is it upsetting looking to your right and not seeing Richey there?” I’m sorry to disappoint people but I’ve been so busy with the technicalities of playing these songs that I never get wrapped up in those things.
What about when you were recording this album? Was it difficult to sing Richey’s lyrics, considering how dark they were and what he was going through?
For me it was more about the technical challenge. It was more a challenge of trying to match the ferocity of the music as the music was trying to match the ferocity of the lyrics. So once you’ve got the lyrics in front of you and I’ve written the music for the lyrics, and have all of the vocals on top, it really was a physical battle for me. The game kept getting higher and higher. You look at the lyrics and you’re like, “Fuck me!” They you write the music for them, and you’ve done it. Then you try and record it, and you go “Fuck!” Then you try and sing it, and it’s “Jesus Christ! This is like an endless game of Jenga.” That’s what it was like recording this record. I remember having to ask Richey about some of the references lyrically. There were some things in there that I didn’t I didn’t get at the time. Especially in a song like “Of Walking Abortion,” which had two names I didn’t know about. So I had to go do my own research. I remember asking some clarification on some things, but 90 percent of the time it would be our message within. That’s the experience I remember making this record. It was a battle because these songs have so many words in them, but a really cool, sporting battle. The strange thing about us, even Richey, is that we’re all massive sports fanatics, which is kind of an indie transgression to a certain degree. This was like, “Let’s get ready to rumble! It’s time for a fucking fight!” Which was good. I liked it. I liked the sporting element of making a record.
Do you understand the rabid fascination with this record?
I understand it completely. It’s a snapshot of a definite period in time. A lot of people think that the qualifications of a “classic” rock record has got to be that it transcends its time. Well, I disagree. I think that sometimes a classic record is a snapshot of its time. It doesn’t transcend the ensuing years, it just stamps that place and time, and that’s what The Holy Bible does. We were young men coming out of the back end of fucking Reaganomics from across the pond. Ten years before we were fucking obsessed with American politics. There was some pretty terrible stuff going on that we found enthralling to watch from a distance. You’re getting stuff like that in “Ifonlywhiteamerica…” after the fact, of course. You’re getting stuff like “Of Walking Abortion” that is steeped in post-war American history, which Richey was a particular student of. And you’re getting stuff like “Archives of Pain,” where the left and right throughout 1990s Europe were becoming indiscernible from each other. Just all of those subjects were locked into that time. Some of it might miss its target now, but that’s how we viewed things then. I wouldn’t ever say we’ve made anything as good as the Clash, but the first Clash album never transcends the time that it was made in. That album just sounds brown, it sounds like the 70s. And The Holy Bible has that kind of discordant confusion, that post-ideological fucked-up-ness of the pre-mid-90s. And I really appreciate the fact that it is an album that does that.
1. EVERYTHING MUST GO (1996)
I wasn’t sure if you’d pick this or The Holy Bible.
In a strange way, it’s kind of hard to separate Everything Must Go from The Holy Bible. That’s why I put them beside each other. You could say that Everything Must Go was the last record we did with Richey. Obviously you’ve got “Kevin Carter” on there that is quintessentially Richey, isn’t it? You’ve got “The Girl That Wanted To Be God,” which is half of Richey’s lyric. You’ve got “Small Black Flowers,” which is pretty much all of Richey’s lyrics. “Removables,” which is pretty much all of Richey. And “Elvis Impersonator,” which is at least 50 percent Richey’s lyrics. There are so many ways to look at this record. Would Richey like this record? I’m not sure. I don’t know. But I know that the last song me and Richey listened to together in the basement of the Embassy Hotel on Bayswater Road before he went missing, after we came back from doing demos in Surrey, we listened to “No Surface All Feeling” and “Small Black Flowers.” And as we pulled into the carpark “Small Black Flowers” faded and I asked which was his favorite and he said “Small Black Flowers” by a mile. So I knew that he really liked that song, and there were five songs on that record he was involved with. So there is an argument to say this was the last time we worked with Richey, even though he wasn’t in the studio when we did it.
There’s an abiding, bittersweet feeling to the ensuing success we had with Everything Must Go. There was a bit of serendipity in that even though we weren’t Britpop we got co-opted into Britpop, which I didn’t give a fuck about. It didn’t bother me. To some degree people even saw “A Design For Life” as the epitome of that. But “Kevin Carter” was a song that Richey could have seen how it was possible to be a hit single. Which is a crowning achievement itself: A photographer who killed himself and who actually saw how important real war photography was, and how it led to his destruction. I wish Richey could’ve seen that it was possible to have a hit single with something that traditionally wouldn’t fucking get near the top ten. I wish Richey could have been part of that success and seen that you didn’t have to sell out or whore out yourself to do that.
“A Design For Life” definitely stands in its own right in terms of lyrically wielding how the celebration of class has triumph in it. The first line of one our biggest ever songs is “Libraries gave us power / Then work came and made us free / What price now for a shallow piece of dignity.” There’s no selling out with that lyric. It’s saying what we want to say just in a much more succinct way. And like we said before, the biggest influence on Everything Must Go is The Holy Bible. We decided that we couldn’t go in the same direction as The Holy Bible because we would have fallen into self-parody. It would have been comic abyss, comic gothic. And we knew we had to go somewhere else and let the music breathe. We had to try and say what we meant but with less words. And with some more oxygen in the music and the words. Everything Must Go owes as much to The Holy Bible as it does to any records in our collection.