21
Jun
09

Doors Opening Slowly: Manic Street Preachers’ Journal For Plague Lovers

Manic Street Preachers - Journal for Plague Lovers (2009)

The Manic Street Preachers have been adamant that “closure” is a false Americanized concept. I’m inclined to believe them – even more so after listening to Journal For Plague Lovers. It is a record upon which so much meaning was heaped before it was even created, it is a record that had to bear a lot of bulky history on its narrow shoulders. Rather than definitively closing a chapter of the band’s history, it has left many doors ajar, doors that will remain that way forever. Journal For Plague Lovers is not so much an attempt at being the New Testament to their Holy Bible (if we’re all honest with ourselves, we knew that could never really have happened, and perhaps, it never should have anyway), but by deliberately using Jenny Saville artwork for the cover, the band made a choice to connect the two works – almost as if to say, “Everything Must Go was a half-assed use of Richey’s lyrics, and we’ve strayed so far from Richey’s original guiding force, that this is our attempt to rediscover that rather difficult path before we abandon it for good.” Yet, because this journal, this dossier of typewritten lyrics and collage, has been hidden in drawers for fourteen years, any attempt at using them and exposing them to the public would re-open the case that is Richey Edwards. We are finally let into part of the mindscape of an artist before he effectively disappeared off the face of the Earth. JFPL ends up being open to hermeneutics of biblical proportions.

The Manics were faced with infinite choices when making this record; it would have been a daunting task trying to consider all facets of this project and all the parties involved, including the Edwards family, a passionate, potentially critical fanbase, a major record label, and their own artistic impulses. Ultimately, they chose to scan pages from Richey’s journal to serve as liner notes (at least in the double disc version I have) rather than merely print their edited versions or take them out of their context in that binder. Because they did this, there will always be a haunting, almost Derridean “trace” to those pages of unedited lyrics. The lyrics that weren’t given voice by the band in the songs themselves will always be there to be pored over, to be re-interpreted, to stand in as ghostly alternatives simultaneously speaking against the songs. This duality will continue to give the album texture and depth for years to come.

Reading Richey’s lyrics, I was compelled to mourn him all over again; not in the way his bandmates and family would, but in the way an art lover mourns the lost potential of an artist. He pulled ideas from so many different sources, high and low culture, and made so many unlikely, but valuable connections, that he couldn’t help but create inspiring, unique art. Unfortunately, I believe it would take a mind on exceptional overload to create in that manner. He also had the ability to leave his lyrics ambiguous, encouraging multiple, meaningful readings. On this particular record, one of my favourite songs is Marlon J.D., a title that itself can make multiple references at once (Marlon Brando, James Dean, J.D. Salinger, etc); its lyrical content is briefer than in other songs, but it is packed with religious imagery of a Christ-like figure. The transience of perfect beauty, the romance of destruction, the self-deprecation sitting alongside self-importance – all of these ideas exist in the same song. Even though the majority of the lyrics and notes are stamped out in the impersonal courier font of the typewriter, the scribbles, the spelling errors, the “x’s” over certain words, the choice to type only in capital letters, the self-editing lines of black marker, and the many collages, images and drawings, are all testament to Richey’s reality, to his fraility, to his mortality. These lines of prose/poetry give us a bit more insight into his mindset prior to his disappearance, but that brilliant ambiguity stubbornly refuses to comment on the whys and hows.

There are, however, some persistent themes. Possibly one of my absolutely favourite lyrics on this record is in All is Vanity:

I would prefer no choice
One bread one milk one food that’s all
I’m confused I only want one truth
I really don’t mind if I’m being lied too
(sic)

It resonates so pristinely with me precisely at this time in my life when I feel like the data smog is smothering me and the banality of instantaneous communication networks is pummeling me. The fact that Richey wrote these words well before the onslaught of mobile phones, social networking and viral niche marketing is testament to his prescience. It would have been fascinating to know what he thought of the world in 2009. This leitmotif of information overload is evident in the fragmented thoughts, the melding of ideas, literature, celebrities and philosophies; though a large part of Richey’s lyrical style had always seemed like he was trying to get too many connections, thoughts, words and feelings out, this album makes it all the more clear that he had opened himself up to so much information, that his brain was raging with dialogue and dialectic which needed to be exorcised via the keys of his typewriter. After all, art is the coping mechanism for so many overaware, oversensitive people – of course “over” being a loaded term.

As I can relate to Richey’s overcrowded brain, I can also understand both his paradoxical self-absorption and his obsession with transient beauty. Though it may seem strange that Richey could be so self-aware and self-obsessed (honey) yet also be so open and vulnerable to the injustices and hurts of the outside world, I think I can understand. The observation and noting of the world’s problems can eventually numb you to other people, especially those that can’t seem to see what you see, and you start to internalize that frustration and turmoil; the world’s issues become your personal issues. You can also end up repulsing yourself because you get wrapped up in the superficial while being completely aware of it. There’s a loneliness inherent in being apart from society’s shared myths, and so there are times when you have to pretend along with everyone else even as it nauseates you. This push and pull paradox of Richey’s insecurity and superiority pops up all over his lyrics like jabs and shards of bone as does his preoccupation with physical beauty that couldn’t last. Marlon J.D. raises this issue by referencing two icons of male beauty, who destroyed their own beauty, and Pretension/Repulsion includes the fantastic line “Born.a.graphic vs porn.a.graphic.” The excellent line “I once impersonated a shop floor dummy” (original: “window dummy”) from Peeled Apples is another possible acknowledgement of superficiality. Or possibly a lack of feeling and connection to humanity. Or possibly a feeling of a false pose for others to gawk at.

Also, achingly obvious in the songs found on this record is the play with religious imagery. While Richey appears repelled by religion, he definitely never escaped it as a reference point. A fair number of the images in his journal are Judeo-Christian, including a crucifix, angels, and Dante’s levels of hell (the first having been a symbol long worn around Richey’s neck, the last having been tattooed on his arm). The title track’s chorus goes:

Only a god can bruise
Only a god can soothe
Only a god reserves the right
To forgive those that revile him

The bitterness and scorn are palpable, and the recognition that religion is most used and best believed by the weakened and the wounded is a very sad statement for its worth, indeed. Was Richey always mocking, or was he working through the reason and meaning of religion’s persistence and power? Perhaps a lifelong, inner struggle is laid bare in these references as logic and despair begin to muddle the mind. Perhaps not.

Not only are we privy to Richey’s lyrical process and thoughts, but the surviving band members have opened up their musical process for all to see in showing us what was left out in the editing process. This is a facet of the process that has never been shown to us before despite us knowing that Richey and Nicky Wire used to hand in reams of unedited lyrics before they were crafted into the songs we know. The unstaunched spillage of words was curtailed for a purpose, conscious or not, and in these edits, the band has made Richey’s truth theirs, inevitably transforming his work through their own reading of it, as thousands of fans will continue to do while holding the scanned pages of his journal. In the same vein, the band has chosen not to release official singles off this record, preferring to keep the work as one, whole piece of art – stamping it with “difference” and imbuing it with weight.

JFPL has also demonstrated quite clearly that James Dean Bradfield is greatly affected by lyrical content when composing music. Forget Send Away the Tigers, this is proof that the band has found its essence again. Peeled Apples is a rabid, fantastic opener to the album – the verses are musically raw while the chorus takes their ability to create soaring, anthemic choruses into a lyrical terrain that they haven’t been brave enough to tread for so many years. James’s vocals alternate between angelic beauty, staccato rasps, and tormented screams – an interplay that has been missing from his voice for at least a couple of albums. That opening line “You know so little about me…what if I turn into a werewolf or something?” by Christian Bale from The Machinist is also the perfect lead-in for a band so adept with intertextual soundbites and for such an enigmatic album with insomnia-infused lyrics. Jackie Collins Existential Question Time is a perfectly self-contained wonder of riffs and melody that grinds against the grain of punk on the song, which has the lines “If a married man fucks a Catholic/And his wife dies without knowing/Does that make him unfaithful,” which feels like an echo of The Clash’s “He who fucks nuns will later join the church,” and the line “Oh mummy what’s a Sex Pistol,” a phrase from badges worn during the punk period. The point at which James hits the lines “Situationist sisterhood Jackie and Joan/Separated us the question without a home,” he practically tears his own larynx out and gobs it into our faces – I love it. The start and stop and bounding romp of Me and Stephen Hawking emphasizes the surreality and humour of Richey’s lyrics:

African Punch and Judy show at half the price
100,000 watch Giant Haystacks in a Bombay fight
Oh, the joy, me and Stephen Hawking we laugh
We missed the sex revolution when we failed the physical

The song’s themes of genetic manipulation and humanity’s attempt at playing God are refracted through the lens of the outsider, who sees the manufacturing of consent in a mass media machine. This song is also an example of lyrical edits; the original line had “rice price” rather than “at half the price,” which invites what I see as a different interpretation.

The album’s title track is an excoriating and embalming piece ripping its way through bloody metaphors while soothing the pain away with sweet melody and comforting vocals. Marlon J.D. moves the Manics into a harsher, post-punk electronic element, which surprisingly works very well and includes one of those trademark Bradfield guitar solos, and, in combination with the stunning lyrics, makes it one of my top choices from the album. All is Vanity is a jagged, driven composition that pushes James’s vocals into all those visceral and immediate places that I’ve hoped for; it’s an angular bit of post-punk that feels like it could have been at home on The Holy Bible. It’s also nice to hear the kind of scansion-defying, fragmented lyrics of Pretension/Repulsion coming from James before exploding into a meaty chorus, rather than the sweeping chorus style that has been so prevalent in the last decade of the band’s output. Virginia State Epileptic Colony, which could be read as being about its namesake, or as being about Richey’s own hospitalization, or as an intertextual reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or as any other number of things, uses clanging guitars and James’s intermittent howls to breathe life into the printed words. The “V-S-E-C Piggy” chorus utilizes a simplistic, singsong feel that provides an effective accent on how one can revert to being treated like a child when perceived as mentally ill. Or maybe it’s a reference to the children chanting in Lord of the Flies. Probably both.

There were quieter, more subdued melodic moments on The Holy Bible, despite the collective memory of it being one of brutality, minimalistic darkness, and harsh lyrics; Yes is one of the most gentle, melodically playful songs in the Manics canon, which makes the bleak lyrics all the more poignant and striking. And JFPL has its quieter moments, too. James manages to make the laundry list of advertised beauty enhancements and “this beauty here/dipping neophobia” in Facing Page: Top Left, a delicate, cascading ballad that twinkles like Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky (my favourite track from Everything Must Go). Doors Closing Slowly is another ballad that limps along to echoing drums, exuding brokenness and incorporating an apt quotation from Virgin Suicides; it must be said that the numerous spoken samples that were chosen to punctuate the album are just as much a part of the craft of musical composition as the music itself by adding an extra layer of interpretation to Richey’s words. And I think the Manics did an admirable, thought-provoking job.

As with most albums by any artist, not every song is perfect. This Joke Sport Severed is a mild acoustic ballad that feels detached from the content, and She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach feels like it’s plodding around, married to an awkward Nirvana-inspired style and trying too hard to be hard. To be fair, Richey acknowledged his own weaknesses and granted his bandmates licence by leaving a handwritten note that said, “These songs are in no particular order of preference although some lyrics are better than others – infancy speed, all is vanity etc.” It begs many questions of purpose and meaning, and that title “infancy speed” (which I may be deciphering incorrectly in the first place) will remain a mystery to us who only have an excerpted version of the journal. The bonus hidden track, Bag Lady, which wasn’t included on the double-disc version but was then offered as a free download (perhaps to make up for the oversight), would have been a more effective placement on the album proper in my opinion. Its guitarwork is extraordinary and lacerating, and the lyrics, which include “Never let yourself out, I did/It ruined me/It ruined me,” seem superior to those found in She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach.

William’s Last Words is the conclusion of the record proper and is arguably the most edited song on the album. Nicky Wire chose to sing it himself in his shambolic, flawed vocal style over top of a rather twee backdrop while chopping down over a page completely filled with text into a few select lines. It’s a difficult track to evaluate for both that reason and for the potential interpretations. Nicky chose to distill the heavy text and use the most hopeful lines like:

Isn’t it lovely when the dawn brings the dew I’ll be watching over you

Good night my sweetheart/until we leave tonight/hold me in your arms/wish me some luck as you wave
goodbye to me/you’re the best friends I ever had

Good night sleep tight/good night God bless/good night night star/I’ll try my best

I’m just going to close my eyes/think about my family/shed a little tear

Leave me go Jesus/I love you yeah I love you/Just let me go I even love the devil/Yes he did me harm to keep me any longer/’cause I’m really tired/I’d love to go to sleep/wake up happy

It’s hard not to read the goodbye/suicide note in it. And oddly enough, the cuts generally make the song sadder and more personal than it appears on paper. The full lyrics on paper are full of archaic references as though in the voice of a post-war character actor/entertainer, using “cheerio” and parenthetical asides as though in a play, and mentioning early 20th century singer/comedienne, Gracie Fields. All those lines seem distancing, but then the very last lines of the piece, which Nicky omits, are “You can die happy but I wonder if you can wake up happy, I’m hopeless. If I sing a song I’m down a scale or up a scale. I’ve come a long way, really, even for a tone deaf singer, if you want to know.” Whether this old and tired character that Richey is speaking through reflects any of his own insecurities and weariness is a matter for everyone’s personal opinion and judgement. Should we be resisting some of the obvious readings? I don’t think so. But I also think it’s worth exploring the context of those other references, devices and sentences. There are times when I can smile hearing this song, and other times when I feel my throat catching in spite of myself.

Journal For Plague Lovers doesn’t feel so much like picking at old wounds as it does slicing open the jugular of the band’s life flow, compressing the pressure into a concentrated power that hadn’t been present for years, and admittedly may never be again. The Manics’ story isn’t complete, especially not with their intentions to already start work on the next album, but they will never return to Richey’s words – a bittersweet, romantic notion that I think Richey himself would have appreciated. Despite this rather sad prospect and sense of finality, the Manics have left us with something that is to be continually returned to afresh and is to be interrogated into new life. Through this album, we are taken both backwards and forward in time, and that band symmetry that Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield have mentioned in both the past and more recently, is regained, reminding me of what I had forgotten to miss. Forcing me to prop up my eyelids and face the meaning to be found beyond simplified facades. Prompting me to take a closer look, a closer read. Journal for Plague Lovers is an open book, not a closed chapter.

Me and Stephen Hawking – Manic Street Preachers

Marlon J.D. – Manic Street Preachers

Bag Lady – Manic Street Preachers

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4 Responses to “Doors Opening Slowly: Manic Street Preachers’ Journal For Plague Lovers”


  1. 1 leah
    June 24, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    very nicely done review – well thought-out and interesting to read. i want to also mention this blog as a whole is great and i am guided towards a lot of new artists here. thanks!

  2. 2 evo
    July 28, 2009 at 2:53 am

    good to see a good education didnt go to waste ,very well written
    to me as in all this bands twent ood years playng its the genius of jimmy dean guitar playing that stand out,and hisalbility to produce melodies for some the most extreme lyrics
    the most underrrated guitarist of his generation!!
    cymru am byth


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The only certain thing that is left about me

There is no part of my body that has not been used

Pity or pain, to show displeasure's shame

Everyone I've loved or hated always seems to leave

Photobucket

So I turned myself to face me

But I've never caught a glimpse

Of how the others must see the faker

I'm much too fast to take that test

The Smiths Queen is Dead

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're happy

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're wanted

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Keats and Yeats are on your side

But you lose 'cause weird lover Wilde is on mine

The Clash London Calling

When they kick at your front door

How you gonna come?

With your hands on your head

Or on the trigger of your gun

Photobucket

Charles Windsor, who's at the door

At such an hour, who's at the door

In the back of an old green Cortina

You're on your way to the guillotine

Here the rabble comes

The kind you hoped were dead

They've come to chop, to chop off your head

Photobucket

Then you came with your breezeblocks

Smashing up my face like a bus-stop

You think you're giving

But you're taking my life away

Photobucket

Won't someone give me more fun?

(and the skin flies all around us)

We kiss in his room to a popular tune

Oh, real drowners

Photobucket

Don't walk away

In silence

See the danger

Always danger

Endless talking

Life rebuilding

Don't walk away

Walk in silence

Don't turn away in silence

Your confusion

My illusion

Worn like a mask of self-hate

Confronts and then dies

Don't walk away

Photobucket

You don't want to hurt me

But see how deep the bullet lies

Unaware I'm tearing you asunder

Oh there is thunder in our hearts

Is there so much hate for the ones we love

Tell me we both matter don't we

The Associates Affectionate

I don't know whether

To over or under estimate you

Whether to over or under estimate you

For when I come over

You then put me under

Personal taste is a matter of gender

Photobucket

I wake at dusk to go alone without a light

To the unknown

I want this night inside of me

I want to feel

I want this speeding

I want that speeding

Photobucket

You'll never live like common people

You'll never do what common people do

You'll never fail like common people

You'll never watch your life slide out of view

And dance and drink and screw

Because there's nothing else to do

Vanilla Swingers

All I have is words, words that don't obtain

And I feel I'm a stain on your horizon

So I stay away - it's easier that way

And there won't be no-one I need to rely on

Is it him, is it me

Or is there something only I can see

How did I get here, why do we blow around like straw dogs on the breeze

I'm a special one, what they used to say

But I've to stay on, finish levels-A

You don't need exams when you've read John Gray

The Indelicates American Demo

And nobody ever comes alive

And the journalists clamour round glamour like flies

And boys who should know better grin and get high

With fat men who once met the MC5

And no one discusses what they don't understand

And no one does anything to harm the brand

And this gift is an illusion, this isn't hard

Absolutely anyone can play the fucking guitar

JAMC Darklands

And we tried so hard

And we looked so good

And we lived our lives in black

Photobucket

Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her leg and then he was a she

She says, hey babe,

Take a walk on the wild side

Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side

Photobucket

Hide on the promenade

Etch a postcard:

How I dearly wish I was not here

In the seaside town...that they forgot to bomb

Come, come, come - nuclear bomb

Photobucket

Back when we were kids

We would always know when to stop

And now all the good kids are messing up

Nobody has gained or accomplished anything

Wire Pink Flag

Prices have risen since the government fell

Casualties increase as the enemy shell

The climate's unhealthy, flies and rats thrive

And sooner or later the end will arrive

This is your correspondent, running out of tape

Gunfire's increasing, looting, burning, rape

Photobucket

Well, maybe there's a god above

But all I've ever learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It's not a cry that you hear at night

It's not somebody who's seen the light

It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah

Photobucket

And what costume shall the poor girl wear

To all tomorrow's parties

For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown

For whom none will go mourning

Photobucket

My body is your body

I won't tell anybody

If you want to use my body

Go for it

Photobucket

Oh it's opening time

Down on Fascination Street

So let's cut the conversation

And get out for a bit

Because I feel it all fading and paling

And I'm begging

To drag you down with me

Mansun Six

And you see, I kind of shivered to conformity

Did you see the way I cowered to authority

You see, my life, it's a series of compromises anyway

It's a sham, and I'm conditioned to accept it all, you see

Japan Gentlemen

Take in the country air, you'll never win

Gentlemen take polaroids

They fall in love, they fall in love

Photobucket

We just want to emote til we're dead

I know we suffer for fashion

Or whatever

We don't want these days to ever end

We just want to emasculate them forever

Forever, forever

Pretty sirens don't go flat

It's not supposed to happen like that

Longpigs The Sun

There's no perfume I can buy

Make me smell like myself

So I put on perfume

To make me smell like someone else

In bed

Calvin Harris I Created Disco

I got love for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

I've got hugs for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

Photobucket

Does his makeup in his room

Douse himself with cheap perfume

Eyeholes in a paper bag

Greatest lay I ever had

Kind of guy who mates for life

Gotta help him find a wife

We're a couple, when our bodies double

Simple Minds Sons and Fascination

Summer rains are here

Savaged beauty life

Falling here from grace

Sister feeling call

Cruising land to land

No faith no creed no soul

Half a world away

Beauty sleeps in time

Sound and fury play

Bloc Party Silent Alarm

North to south

Empty

Running on

Bravado

As if to say, as if to say

He doesn't like chocolate

He's born a liar, he'll die a liar

Some things will never be different

Photobucket

LCD Soundsystem

Well Daft Punk is playing at my house, my house

I've waited 7 years and 15 days

There's every kid for miles at my house, my house

And the neighbors can't...call the police

There's a fist fight brewin' at my house, my house

Because the jocks can't...get in the door

Johnny Boy

I just can't help believing

Though believing sees me cursed

Stars Set Yourself

I am trying to say

What I want to say

Without having to say "I love you"

Josef K Entomology

It took 10 years to realise why the angels start to cry

When you go home down the main

Your happy smile

Your funny name

Cocteau Twins Bluebell

Photobucket

Doesn't she look a million with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Yes, she's a beautiful brunette angel from heaven with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Augment a beautiful brunette

New Order Power Corruption

How does it feel

To treat me like you do

When you've laid your hands upon me

And told me who you are

Photobucket

You must let her go

She's not crying

Photobucket

Baiting

Feeling like I'm waiting

Modern times

Valentines

Hating

Hating to distraction

Just leave them alone

Whipcrack

Girls in the back

Girls in the back

Puressence Don't Forget

They say come back to earth and start getting real, yeah

I say come back to earth and start getting real

I know I can't

Photobucket

So I walk right up to you

And you walk all over me

And I ask you what you want

And you tell me what you need

Photobucket

The problem of leisure

What to do for pleasure

Ideal love a new purchase

A market of the senses

Dream of the perfect life

Economic circumstances

The body is good business

Sell out, maintain the interest

Photobucket

Sitting in my armchair thinking again and again and again

Going round in a circle I can't get out

Then I look around thinking day and night and day

Then you look around - there must be some explanation

And the tension builds

Psychdedelic Furs

India, India

You're my love song

India, you're my love song

In the flowers

You can have me in the flowers

We will dance alone

And live our useless lives

Ladytron Light Magic

They only want you when you're seventeen

When you're twenty-one

You're no fun

They take a polaroid and let you go

Say they'll let you know

Photobucket

No consolation prizes

Spit out your lies and chewing gum

Cut off your hair yeah that's it!

If you look like that I swear I'm gonna love you more

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All the neighbors are startin' up a fire

Burning all the old folks, the witches and the liars.

My eyes are covered by the hands of my unborn kids

But my heart keeps watchin' through the skin of my eyelids

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Prince charming

Prince charming

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Don't you ever, don't you ever

Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome


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