Manic Street Preachers waited nearly fifteen years to use the lyrics Richey Edwards had left them before his disappearance. The resultant album is as good as anything they've ever done - they speak to Niall Doherty about why they felt the time was right to turn to the past...
It was back in November when Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore dropped the bombshell. In a posting on manicstreetpreachers.com, they revealed that they were in the studio making music - which was normal. They were recording it with Steve Albini - which was interesting. And, umm, they were USINGRICHEY'SLYRICS - which was the moment Manics' fans jaws hit the floor. The excitement notcher-upper didn't stop there, either - "Musically, in many ways it feels like a follow-up to 'The Holy Bible'", they explained. Albini producing? Richey's lyrics? And a sequel to 'The Holy Bible', something not even Christ himself managed? Manic Street Preachers have always been kings of racking up expectation, but here they were setting anticipation levels to bursting point and, in the process, erecting a rather huge hurdle that they'd have to make sure the record stratospherically leaped.
It's nearly six months later that The Fly heads to Cardiff to meet the trio at Manics HQ, where they're rehearsing for their upcoming UK tour. As ever, the leadweight pressure of expectation has culminated in the Manics hitting peak form; the hurdle nothing but a speckled dot on the earth, 'Journal For Plague Lovers' is their best record for a decade, stunningly vital, visceral music that underlines not only their missing friend's lyrical genius, but also their musical own, Its with a reassured confidence, then, that Nicky Wire strides into the room to introduce himself. On the wall behind him is a giant print of the Jenny Saville painting that adorns 'Journals...' front cover. You imagine its presence, like Richey himself, looming large over every song and every chord played in this room. Nicky, not as tall as you imagine, is charming and affable - a far cry from the feisty, aggro-spitting gobsworth that The Fly grew up with, anyway. Wire once described himself as 'Mr Carbohydrate' on a Manics b-side; going on this afternoon's form, 'Mr Charismatic' would've been more suitable. We head upstairs to the band's recently refurbished lounge. A punch-bag hangs from the wall and, judging by his knuckle-gripping handshake, we assume it belongs to James Dean Bradfield. Bradfield isn't as short as you imagine (I've been a Manics fan for years and, having read so much about Wire's height and Bradfield and Sean Moore's lack of it, I think a part of my brain has arrived expecting a Gandalf and Two Frodos scenario. I'm glad I'm wrong), but he certainly lives up to his reputation as Rock's All Round Good Bloke. Moore, polite and unassuming, is in the building too, but opts out of our interview, chatting downstairs until he's needed for the photoshoot.
It's two weeks before the release of 'Journals...' and the hype around it being a sequel to 'The Holy Bible' is dying down - aside from a shoddily written few, most reviews have treated the Manics' new album as a fully-fledged, brilliant record in its own right rather than a pastiche hark to the past. Besides, 'The Holy Bible 2: Richey's Back' wouldn't really have been their style, would it? "I think that was my fault," smiles Nicky."I always get carried away with an idea and I think I did push James too much. I was saying, y'know, we really need to follow through on that claustrophobic singing-in-a-telephone-box idea but I think it became pretty apparent with 'This Joke Sport Severed' and stuff like that that it was gonna be much more of a broad rock album. I'm glad he didn't listen to me cos I was almost trying to contrive a situation."
"If you'd taken words like 'Facing Page: Top Left' or, obviously, 'This Joke Sport Severed' or 'William's Last Words', if we'd have tried to fit them onto a 'Holy Bible' template, it would've just been contrived," interjects James. Just as Nicky takes his sunglasses on and off every time he speaks, James gently closes his eyes when he talks. "We just had this rule to 'let the words guide you' because Richey wasn't that involved in the musical part of being in the studio. You know, obviously he did have a general aesthetic in his mind or what he wanted things to sound like or what he liked. Obviously we didn't have that, not that he directed much in the studio, but still, we all contributed in some kind of way in terms of direction in the studio and because he wasn't here for this, we just had to let the lyrics guide us. And, if you read a lyric like 'Facing Page: Top Left', if you don't have an air of resignation to it, if you don't kind of recognise the slightly sarcastic gentle soul that's writing those words, then you're just betraying the lyrics so that's why it's dealing with the fallout of The Holy Bible, rather than being a follow-up."
Indeed, there might be a scattering of playful references to 'The Holy Bible' on 'Journals...' - the use of audio samples, the stab of phaser-laden guitars, vocals with that unmistakable bilious bark-but, more than that, there's signposts to all eras of the Manic' back catalogue; the taut, near-electro drums of Lifeblood' cropping up on 'Marlon JD', Gold Against The Soul's anthemic riffola on 'Peeled Apples' 'Small Black Flowers...'s stark beauty on 'Facing Page: Top Left', Know Your Enemy's college-rock fun on 'Virginia State Epileptic Colony', the self-references accidental and deliberate at the same time. These are songs dispatched with such militant discipline it's almost as if the blueprint of Richey's lyrics/Jenny Saville's artwork/Steve Albini's production is foolproof; that, giving themselves such strict diameters to work to, the new album just couldn't go wrong.
"I think it's an element of that," says Nicky. "I actually had a wishlist. The wishlist was Richey's lyrics, Steve Albini and Jenny Saville, that was right from the start, really. James had the idea to start the record and usually our albums are a reaction against the previous one, this is not, even though it sounds different. 'Send Away The Tigers' we're actually really happy with, we're really proud of, it's just a classic rock record. It had just been nagging at us that these words, he had left us these words. I think the last 3 or 4 years, you can see in interviews we've been much more open to talking about Richey. The Godlike Genius award definitely felt like it was for four of us not three. All of those things compounded together."
"It's just massive relief," states James. "Sometimes you just get bits of hyperactivity with Richey, it hits you when certain anniversaries come along. You used to have all those bogus sightings of him, then you'd have people theorizing about where he was and you'd have people theorizing about...people actualising him as a myth rather than as a person. It was a relief to actually deal with something real connected with Richey, rather than some kind of myth, or rumour, even somebody idealising him, rather than dealing with all that, we're dealing with his words, something he wrote, as close as we can get to some kind of reality with Richey, we were dealing with. Its' kind of a relief after all that other stuff."
Until last year, both James and Nicky had shied away from giving Richey' lyrics anything beyond a cursory glance. It's easily understood; revisiting the anguished state of a best friend you haven't seen for nearly fifteen years is hardly skipping into Narnia, and given that Richey's words were penned in the aftermath of his breakdown and subsequent hospitalisation, they'd undoubtedly start picking at old wounds. Originally, there was rumours they might surface in a volume of poetry, but the success of 'Send Away The Tigers', coupled with the band warming to the idea of putting them to song - and, in a way, to rest meant that 'Journals...' was fast becoming the unlikeliest of likelihoods. "I think if this album had come after 'Lifeblood' it wouldn't have been right," explains Nicky. "We probably would've been accused of trying to salvage our career with Richey's lyrics, "band on a downturn", all those kind of things, and 'Send Away The Tigers' really reconnected us with a youthful feeling that had gone. It felt like a technicolor rock album that we could tour and enjoy, and that sounds odd, but it did give us the space there to do this. I don't think we could've done it otherwise."
The names on Nicky's wishlist were ticked off (well, almost - he also wanted Christian Bale to play Richey in a video he imagined for 'Pretension/Repulsion') and the band headed to Rockfield Studios in Wales to record with Steve Albini. If it didn't quite feel the same as when Richey was in the band, it didn't feel like any album they'd recorded since, either; as Nicky says, it wasn't that they necessarily felt like a four-piece again, but that they weren't just a three-piece." There's a certain symmetry we had as a band while Richey was still around which we've never been able to get back," he concedes. "We've made brilliant records and we've done brilliant gigs, all that stuff, but the actual symmetry of the four of us, it did feel like that balance had been restored and that was a lovely feeling for me. I had no problem not writing the words, it was a relief because I've written a lot over the last few years anyway."
Not only is 'Journals....' the first Manics album not to have any of Nicky's lyrics on it ('The Holy Bible' saw a 70/30 split in Richey's favour), it's also the first not to have any singles on it. For a band whose back catalogue reads like an arsenal of great singles - 'A Design For Life', 'Faster', 'Motorcycle Emptiness', 'Motown Junk' - it's a bold statement, lending the album an aura of completism, a feeling that no song is bigger than the other.
"At the start, we were all obsessed with chart hits," offers Nicky, "we all grew up with Guinness Book Of Hit Singles and we all said we wanted to be huge, but around the time of 'The Holy Bible', Richey was becoming far less concerned with that side of it and I think this is the logical conclusion of that, hes not writing these lyrics to get hits. It's kind of the purest form of writing I think he ever achieved cos there's no other force involved other than him and his creativity. It just made me realise how much I miss his lyrics and this kind of fierce intellectual, it's like reading Martin Amis or something. It's stuff I could never do. I can do my own thing and do it good but I could never do this."
As brilliant as Richey's lyrics on 'Journals...' - dark, witty, cutting, delicate and disgusted - are, it's not hard to imagine moments in the studio where the words might have cut a little too close to the bone. In the past, James would wince at, or entirely avoid, the "Cant shout/Cant scream/Hurt myself to get pain out" line from 'Yes' when they played it live; it seemed a little masochistic that here they were giving themselves a whole new batch of songs to feel unsettled by. Nicky says, for the most part, though, it wasn't an issue - the band were so well drilled before recording that emotion hardly came into it. "The discipline thing is there," he explains. "On 'The Holy Bible', we were really well rehearsed and really tight and using Steve Albini, we knew we had to do that. In the musical sense, it was almost academic, we had a real academic thing and the emotion came when we'd finished really."
"On 'Doors Slowly Closing', maybe," states James, "that was the first time where I thought, 'fucking hell'. There's not even a shred of optimism. In some of the lyrics, there's a moment of levity and wee hit of humour and all that, but 'Doors Slowly Closing' felt like someone addressing themselves, not an audience. But, I gotta say, there was no moment of, y'know," he lets out a mock sob, "there was nothing like that. Like Nick said, actually being disciplined in the studio."
If there's one song that could break even the Manics' stern resilience, though, then its 'William's Last Words'. Closing the album proper before the vicious seethe of secret track 'Bag Lady' kicks in, it casts Richey in a different light than any other lyric he's ever penned; for much of 'Journals...' and 'The Holy Bible', Richey sounds detached from everything around him, an impenetrable Teflon-hearted lyrical conqueror. On 'William's Last Words', he sounds bruised and broken, a man exhausted by the everyday strains of life.
"I really enjoyed editing that," says Nicky, who chopped it down from a page and a half to thirteen short, plaintive verses, "just me and my guitar, being guided by these beautiful words. I think that's the most poetic..."Isn't it lovely when the dawn brings the dew/I'll be watching over you", it's just a gorgeous line, like John Betjeman or something."
There's nothing abstract in there. It just sounds human. "I agree. I've always held onto the memories which are nothing to do with rock'n'roll, if you know what I mean, those are the ones that you keep. Everything else becomes quite blurred and you actually question your own memory at times and these lyrics just allowed us to place it as a human tragedy or whatever. Although I think there's some kind of uplifting nature to 'William's Last Words', there is a rational man speaking. The decisions he's come to might be quite grim, but he has come to them rationally. He's been through a process of just doubting everything, he seems to have found his only way of dealing with it."
"I can't get away from the fact I think the album starts in a perfect manner and ends in a perfect manner," concludes James. "You can't get away from that fact. Those two songs just always seem to make perfect sense, the one song says 'shut up, listen, please take me seriously,' and the other song, it just sighs softly and doesn't even make a massive effort to try and communicate to the world, it just says what it says."
There's a resignation to his voice, a reminder, perhaps, that, after all the column inches, all the "Where's Richey?" articles, James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore are the people who knew Richey Edwards best. That 'Journal For Plague Lovers' is as a compelling, enthralling tribute to their friend and their past as it is a thrilling snapshot of their present is exactly the sort of glorious contrariness that Richey himself would've approved of.