Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 11)
Released on the same day as Oasis’ Definitely Maybe
, The Holy Bible
is its maladjusted younger brother. They both share similar ambitions; they want to mean everything to a certain set of British teenagers and make a loud statement with distorted guitars and big chorus’. But where Defiantly Maybe
drips with cool confidence and eager sing-a-long anthems, The Holy Bible
is viciously thorny and lyrically impenetrable. It’s the most difficult album I’ve ever heard that could be classified as “pop”. Having any of these songs stuck in your head feels like a violation of privacy, like overhearing a conversation you know you weren’t supposed to and having it shamefully run through your head all day.
Friends since primary school but formed in 1986, the Manic Street Preachers originally consisted of singer and lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire, and drummer Sean Moore. Richey James Edwards, originally a roadie for the band, was brought on as a rhythm guitarist although he had little to no guitar playing talent; his real contribution was as a lyricist. His stark, eviscerating honest writing and role as bandleader is what became the central driving factor behind the Manics. He was the primary influence on the Manic’s entire sense of style, from their army fatigues to their music. He touted their debut album, Generation Terrorists
, as the “greatest rock album ever” and claimed it would sell 16 million copies. It wasn’t, and it didn’t. But it was solid and their way with interviews along with their electric live shows netted them a following around Britain.
As the bands fame grew, Richey became a heavy drinker and started cutting himself. Most infamously, when journalist Steve Lamacq questioned the bands integrity, claiming “the way you portray yourself, the way you look and portray yourself, don’t really show off your depth [and] may mislead people. People might not actually think you're for real.” Richey responded by carving “4REAL” into arm with a razor blade. This well publicized act of self-harm earned Richey a cult following of kids that modeled themselves in his image. A fan even sent him a set of knives with a note enclosed that said, simply, “Cut yourself for me”.
Imagine you’re the lead singer of the Manic Street Preachers. You’ve been working hard on this song for your new album. It’s coming out really well, it has a really catchy guitar line and you’ve got an idea of how the vocal melody is going to go in your head. It’s coming together so well in fact, you think it would make a perfect opener for the album. You show it to the rest of the band when your rhythm guitarist claims he has the perfect lyrics for it. He grabs his notebook, flips open to a page, and slides it your way. You scan the page. The opening line is “For sale/Dumb cunt’s same dumb questions”. Theirs a part during the chorus that goes:
”He’s a boy/You want a girl so tear off his cock/Tie his hair in bunches, *** him, call him Rita if you want”
Richey James Edwards wrote lyrics with little to no regard to rhyme or melody. The reason it works is because the topics he’s covering on The Holy Bible
are so brutal that his words grab you by the face and force you to listen. Theirs nothing to hide behind here, meanings are barely concealed, its simultaneously painful to witness and impossible to look away from. On “Die in the Summertime” he grapples with self image through thorny imagery offset by desperate nostalgia, “Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals […] I cant stay a fixed ideal”, “Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene/See myself without ruining lines/Whole days throwing sticks into streams.” “4St 7Lb”, his finest moment, is the most terrifying exploration of the anorexic mind ever laid to tape. It opens with the line “Days since I last pissed” and gets no less abrasive from there. “Stomach collapsed at five/Lift up my skirt my sex is gone.” “I want to walk in the snow, and not leave a footprint” is putting it gently, “I want to be so skinny/that I rot from view” is more apt. Halfway through the song masterfully folds into a ballad where the lyrics become even more empathetic and haunting, “Self-worth scatters, self-esteems a bore/I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau”. His unwavering dedication to brutal honesty carries these songs into the realm of madness; they feel like an uncompromised portrait of human suffering.
So if you’re the lead singer, tasked with setting these lyrics to melody, what do you do?
Probably tell him to *** right off then.
This is what makes James Dean Bradfield’s contributions so vital. Not only does he not do that, he actually takes Richey’s diary ripped confessionals and makes them catchy. Part of that is due to his massive vocal chords. On songs like “Of Walking Abortion” and “She is Suffering” James scrapes the top of his range and still make the notes roar with fury. He channels the rage and venom of Richey’s lyrics with aplomb but the production never shines the spotlight on any member. A previously unreleased US remix surfaced on the 10th Anniversary Edition in 2004, featuring boomier drums and a more airy mix. This version is more accessible but also wrong. The Manic’s, along with Steve Brown, original production is shrill and murky. The lyrics are all but unintelligible; you can listen to the album multiple times without figuring out 10% of the words. Many songs are bookended with snippets of dialogue from various television programs and films that give the feel of being cooped up in a dimly lit bedroom for 3 days straight, the TV flickering in the background. The guitars are fed through pedals marked “Self-Loathing”. The purpose behind this obscuring is the album asks you to make a commitment. It demands you crawl inside it before you can get anything out of it.
And commit, people did. Upon release it became the Manics highest charting album and spawned three top 30 singles. More importantly than sales, it earned them a devote cult following of teenagers who took the albums title very seriously. The Manic Street Preachers had seized the attention of thousands of frightened kids across the nation, but it was only the beginning of their ascent that would leave one member lost to the wild.