Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Journal for Plague Lovers - A Return to Glory for Manic Street Preachers

Sometimes, one of your favorite bands hits their peak and, despite your undying devotion, just doesn't quite deliver the goods after that. Sure, they might put out a song or two - even an album - that is a cut above what else is going on in music, but for the most starting thinking that their day has come and gone. I think we all have these feelings about one band or performer that we love.

But sometimes, that same band comes back and knocks your socks off when you’re least expecting it with a masterpiece that has you believing once again. They return to glory...and they do so on the merits of new work rather than a "greatest hits tour" or the like.
This happened with me for one of my all time favorite bands, Manic Street Preachers with their new CD
Journal for Plague Lovers. For those of you not versed in the ways of the Manics, check out some info on them here, here and here.

To set up Journal for Plague Lovers, however, you need to know more than just this is their ninth studio album. Rather, we need to begin things with a short history of Manic Street Preachers.

The Band Forms
In the late 1980s, four university students in Wales started a rock band. The members had known each other most of their young lives and their goals were, among others, to shock the rock world, shake things up in a boring music scene, cause a little controversy and get people thinking. After a street vagrant described the sound of band member James Dean Bradfield as he busked for change on the street as that of a "manic street preacher," the band took that as its name. (Below right: The Manics in the early days: Sean Moore, Richy Edwards, James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire. Picture from the blog.)

By the early 1990s the Manics and worked up a set of songs, moved to London, got some gigs and were taking the music scene by storm with their direct confrontation of the prevailing rave, Britpop, “baggy” culture, authority and more.

They Produce Exciting Early Work
Citing Guns ‘n Roses, the Clash and Public Enemy as heavy influences, Generation Terrorist was their first full release and their glam punk rock and catchy hooks proved an exciting mix that certainly got my attention. In addition to the music, the lyrical content of the Manics songs emerged as worthy with guitarist and chief lyricist Richy Edwards penning songs that challenged people’s assumptions around such things as gender, government, consumerism, music censorship and more…expressing anger at these societal issues. Glory was sniffed and perhaps even partly achieved with this first outing.

Their second effort was
Gold Against the Soul. It built on their sound a bit and saw Edwards cover more personal subjects covered in songs like “From Dispare to Where,” “Life Becoming a Landslide,” and “Roses in the Hospital.” Glory was knocking.

In 1994 came The Holy Bible, their third CD. This is – in my opinion – their very best. Dark, aggressive, tender at a few times and always thought provoking, this was truly art just as much as rock and roll. This time Edwards clearly expressed his disgust with humanity and what people are willing to do to themselves and others. Glory was clearly achieved here. (Left: The Manics in the mid-1990s -- Bradfield, Edwards, Wire and Moore. Picture not taken by me...copied from the So Well Remembered blog.)

Edwards Disappears, Things Change
Soon after this, the troubled Edwards went missing and has never been heard from again. Now declared legally dead, most assume he killed himself by jumping off the Severn bridge in the UK. Perhaps this is not surprising given the progression of themes Edward explored in the Manics first thee records. However, before he disappeared, Edwards left his other band mates a folder full of lyrics for their next record.

Devastated by the loss of their friend, but deciding to carry on as a band, some of these lyrics made their way on the band’s following record, Everything Must Go, which went on to be a massive album in the UK – clearly their commercial height and solidifying them as a glorious band.

However, the bulk of Edward’s lyrics in those folders remained unused. And so it remained as the band put out several other albums including This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, Know Your Enemy, Lifeblood and Send Away the Tigers. Each of these had their high points, but each also seemed to be one slightly less interesting effort than the last with Send Away the Tigers perhaps an exception in a positive direction. (Above: The Manics in the 21st Century -- Bradfield, Wire and Moore. Picture not taken by me. Copied from The Line of Best Fit blog.)

That is until now.

Now we come to the current day and the main event. Namely, the new CD by the Manics called Journal for Plague Lovers. Last year, Bradfield and the other two members of the band – Nicky Wire and Sean Moore – decided it was time to revisit the bulk of the lyrics Edwards left them before he vanished.

With a decade to help heal the shock and sadness of their comrade’s apparent suicide, the band decided it was time to base an album solely on this last trove of Edwards’ words. Doing so was seen at the time as a risky proposition. Would 10 year old lyrics really be relevant today? Would they be able to make sense of Edwards thoughts? Would the listening public see this as desperation or a bold move?

Well, in hindsight they need not have worried because from beginning to end, the album they created - Journal for Plague Lovers - is a first class piece of rock art. Equal parts dangerous, brooding, aggressive, thought provoking and literate, the new CD evokes the best of the band's The Holy Bible high point with their subsequent chart success sensibilities. Glory has clearly been achieved again.
(Above: Cover of Journal for Plague Lovers.)

Here's a run down of the songs on Journal for Plague Lovers:
  • Peeled Apples – a dark, aggressive opener with a killer guitar riff. This song open things up on the right note and lets you know that serious business is afoot. Firing off sets of imagery in each verse that set up ironies or fears, the chorus pays these off with a couple ways to deal with those. The one suggested I like best is "trespass your torments, if you are what you wanna be."
  • Jackie Collins Existential Question Time – a catchy tune with a funny, disturbing and thought provoking theme that’ll have you pondering a number of things. Situationist sisterhood of Jackie and Joan, indeed.
  • Me and Steven Hawkings - a song about (I think) the dangers of cloning and using chemicals/genetics in farming. What will such activity lead to? How would "me" and scientist Steven Hawkings feel about that? Just some of the fun territory explored in this romper of a rocking tune.
  • This Joke Sport Severed – things slow down here. Starting with just Bradfield’s voice and acoustic guitar, it builds musically with strings and more instruments. This is a sorrowful song in which the distraught person (Edwards presumably) is seeking "the place where I became untethered." There is a well placed "disconnect" in music to underscore this point song about half way through.
  • Journal for Plague Lovers - a mid-paced rocker with radio-wave guitars, this song tackles the power, improbability and perfection of deities. At least that's my take. The song opens with some doubting lines about how "pretend prayer and pretend care makes everything fair" and then the song goes on to state that "Only a god reserves the right to absolve the ones who revile him." Heavy stuff and not easily deciphered. But that's the cool part. You can ponder it. Plus, making logical sense of great poetry, art or Richy Edwards' lyrics isn't meant to be easy.
  • She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach - the driving rock riff and emotional belt-it-out chorus return here with a song about...well, I'm not too sure. There are some clear lines in here about what a person would do for love and the power of love. So, I'll go with it's about the power and pain of love.
  • Facing Page: Top Left - this is a beautiful song with simple acoustic guitar. Clear divided between contemplative versus and a more upbeat chorus, Bradfield delivers perhaps the best vocal on the entire CD as he expresses Edwards' thoughts on how he feels truly down in side - both at times ready to smile and at other ready to cry.
  • Marlon J.D. - kicking off with an electric drum beat, this is one of the more musically interesting songs on the album. The lyrics suggest an admiration for certain type of discipline - in particular the ability to live very basically "without clutter or luxury" well as the ability to take abuse and loneliness. All of these are traits from the character played by Marlon Brandon in the movie Apocalypse Now and this is referenced in a few different ways here. Musically, the song does not disappoint. Another highlight.
  • Doors Closing Slowly - here we have the third slower song on this CD. Heavy on imagery again, Edwards seems to be communicating his despair with the way society is going...and the loneliness of knowing that, but not being able to do anything about it.
  • All is Vanity - a very straight forward and powerful song in terms of music and lyrics and very strong for that. This song simply says that the question in life is not "what's wrong?" but rather "what's right?" What is the right thing to do? And for that, it's also a comment on the phoniness many people display or put up with every day. These are the "facts of life - sunshine" as the song's searing chorus repeats.
  • Pretension/Repulsion - lyrically, this song is the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollack painting. It's scattered, going in different directions with a jumble of phrases that don't seem to go together. Musically, it rocks hard...and for that you can enjoy it thoroughly.
  • Virginia State Epileptic Colony - a nice mid-paced rocker that lyrically describes what it might be to live a life inside an institution.
  • William’s Last Words - this one is sung in the flatter tone of the band's bassist, Nicky Wire, and it's a clear "song for departure" penned by Edwards as he pondered whatever he felt he needed to do. Deploying a slower, acoustic, almost plodding approach musically as Richy Edwards articulates his farewell wishes to his friends and family. A sad song in that respect and a testament to the the love they felt for their friend that the band decided to record it.
  • Bag Lady - perhaps more similar to the sound of songs on The Holy Bible than any others on Journal, this song to me is about the fallacy of following the the path of narcissism and self delusion about the world. The music, combined with Bradfield's powerful deliver makes for a powerful ending to the set.
I highly recommend Journal for Plague Lovers for anyone looking for authentic, legitimate rock and roll - rock as a statement, as art, as catharsis, as a release and certainly in this case a tribute to a fallen comrade. These guys are producing stuff you ain't gonna hear about or get anywhere else. Throw in the compelling performance by each band member and the diversity of sounds you hear, this is a record you can listen from beginning to end...always something I look for. I suggest you check it out.

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