Review Summary: Not quite the Holy Bible sequel we were sold, but great all the same.
Let's take a step back and just consider this - it is incredible just how much good-will the Manic Street Preachers can still engender in the music press, and in the average music listener, in the UK. To even be able to generate this much attention on your 9th studio album is pretty impressive; to do it after a major sonic shift toward more mature, more dad-friendly territory is almost unheard of. And then, to still have that goodwill behind you when you release an album that is a blatant attempt to recapture the glory days of an album you released 15 years ago? Wow. A lot of that credit probably goes to Nicky Wire, a man who is famously erudite, polite, and open when being interviewed, but we can't discount the sheer power of the music the Manics have conjured across their careers either - "A Design For Life" still stings like no song about class war since, and The Holy Bible
hasn't lost a drop of its impact since it was released.
With Journals for Plague Lovers
, they're calling in their goodwill. Literally no other band in the world would get away with doing this - an album seemingly built entirely from references to a man who's been missing for 15 years, and written using nothing but lyrics that he wrote just before that, it would just be seen as shocking and crass in the hands of a P. Diddy, or a Dave Grohl or Courtney Love, or even a Paul McCartney. Yet the Manics are getting away with that and more. The Holy Bible
is called to mind time and again before you even listen to the record - the artwork here is drawn by Jenny Saville (the same artist responsible for THB's artwork), and every advert and poster has even used the same typeface. When you switch the record on, it's not long before you hear a vocal sample, just like the ones that bound together the tracks on their 1994 classic. Steve Albini is even called in as a producer, just in case you weren't prepared enough for a dark, depressive alt-rock record from the mid-90s.
You'd be forgiven for bracing yourself for a train wreck. And yet, three tracks is all takes to allay those fears. "Peeled Apples", "Jackie Collins Existential Question Time", and "Me and Stephen Hawking" must all stand among the likes of "The Masses Against The Classes", "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next", and "Found That Soul" as the best songs the band have conjured since Everything Must Go
. Whatever else has happened, the tunes must be the primary concern, and these three are as good as even the band's most ardent fans could have expected.
It's after these tracks have sunk in that the sting in the tale of Journal For Plague Lovers
reveals itself - actually, it's all been a ruse, and this is not much like The Holy Bible
at all. Where that album seemed to be summed up by one of its voiceover samples - 'I think you are the devil itself' - Journal
is the trickster Loki to The Holy Bible
's black-hearted Beelzebub. It's still not a happy record by any means, but it's noticeably less dark, and its defining feature is surely its sense of humour. "Me and Stephen Hawking" boasts the great line 'we missed the sex revolution/when we failed the medical', while the chorus of "Jackie Collins" sees Bradfield/Edwards conjuring their younger selves to ask the immortal question - 'Mummy, what's a Sex Pistol?'. On a gut level, this simply can't be considered a sequel. While Richey's subject matter still often reverts to uncomfortable topics, no other Manics record has really felt like this, and it's worth wondering whether they've ever been this loose and this good-humoured. You'd probably have to go all the way back to "Motown Junk" and "Slash N Burn" to argue that they have been. The fact that Steve Albini is involved just makes things slightly more surprising - although black humour has always been part of his shtick, from Rapeman to McLusky, the album doesn't sound
like he had too much control over proceedings, even at the production stage.
So that leaves us with a rock record, a Manic Street Preachers album. That's all you can judge Journals For Plague Lovers
by, and if you do, it comes up trumps on both counts. It's a shade better than Send Away The Tigers
, itself heralded as a return to form, and in a year that hasn't really been anything special so far for straight-ahead rock, this is a standout. For Manics fans, they can revel in another added bonus - this is the album that Know Your Enemy
should have been.
Ignoring the hidden track, the album proper ends with Nicky Wire singing "William's Last Words", as simple a lyric as Richey ever wrote. It's nothing more a thank you to his friends, and it's the most poignant thing here. It's also entirely fitting. As a tribute to Richey, Journals
seems to be all about setting the record straight, remembering Richey as a human being rather than an insane dervish on the brink of self-annihilation. The lyrics here reveal a man as intelligent and well-read as the one on the first three Manics albums, but also one with a wicked sense of humour, and a very real capacity to enjoy life - for those of us that didn't know him, that's where the real revelation lies. You suspect that he would have loved it.