Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 22)
The cover of 1994’s The Holy Bible
features a painting by British painter Jenny Saville. It’s a triptych of a morbidly obese woman in her underwear, pictured from three different angles; in each one she stares down the camera. It’s a bracing, confrontational image, one that prepares the listener for the bracing, confrontational lyrics within penned by one Richey James Edwards.
The cover of 1996’s Everything Must Go
features the three remaining Manic Street Preachers in another triptych, each assuming the same pose in their respective frame. Just below the albums title is a set of parentheses with nothing in between. Sean More and Nicky Wire occupy the left and right frames and look somewhere off camera. James Dean Bradfield sits in the center and looks right into the camera with a worried expression on his face that says it all. “What the hell do we do now?”
”Once you roared, now you just grunt lame.”
On December 21st, 1994 the Manic Street Preachers played the London Astoria. The set was, by all accounts, brutal and quick. The band burned down a set heavy on the just released Holy Bible
. At the end of their set, Richey threw himself into Sean’s bass drum. The entire band began instinctively destroying all of their equipment. It was the last time the four would ever perform together.
Richey James Edward’s disappearance is just that, a disappearance. To date no body has been found. With the evidence that exists we can assume he drove his car to the Severn View service station northwest of Bristol, walked to the Severn Bridge, and committed suicide. The fact that a body has yet to be found had led to constant speculation and an ever-growing cult surrounding the mystery.
In the 6 months following his disappearance, the Manic Street Preachers effectively broke up. If Nicky Wire hadn’t written “A Design for Life”, they probably would have stayed broken up. The band testifies that the power of this song is what saved the band and listening to it a decade and a half later its no mystery why.
What price now?/For a shallow piece of dignity.”
“A Design for Life” is a bewildering song, a crowning achievement for a band that barely managed to pull itself from the brink. Despite losing its primary songwriter Nicky Wire steps to the foreground and delivers a bracingly stellar indictment of class culture. But where “Common People” used wit to mask its anger, “A Design for Life” is just seething
with rage. “I wish I had a bottle,” sings Bradfield, “Right here in my pretty face/to show from where I came.” Then the chorus hits like a wrecking ball slamming into the side of a brick building. “We don’t talk about love
/We only want to get drunk
,” Bradfield just roars these words with the clenched fist venom of someone who has sat by for too long, “And we are not allowed to spend
/As we are told that, this is the end.” “A Design for Life” is accompanied by strings but so unlike the post-“Wonderwall” string sections that were becoming sappy drivel “A Design for Life”s strings are terrifying
. They exist only to pull the ceiling down on top of the chorus as a vicious guitar hook fights up and down the mix. It ends with 4 measures of unaccompanied drums, pounding away until they give out.
I’m still surprised “A Design for Life” didn’t strike Britpop dead on impact alone, but if it didn’t slay the beast it put another dent in its armour that had been damaged already by Pulp. Upon release on April 15th it went to number 2 on the UK Single charts, the Manic’s best showing ever.
The album that followed, Everything Must Go
, finds the band coming to grips with the departure of its key member as they balance his remaining lyrics with the new found songwriting talents of bassist Nicky Wire.
In seemingly direct reference to their songwriters own watery suicide, Everything Must Go
opens ominously with the sound of waves crashing against the shore. “Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier” is a bewitching opener, laced with streaking acoustic guitar and plucking harp as Bradfield makes melodic gold out of Richey’s notoriously thorny lyrics. “Twenty foot high on Blackpool prominade/Fake royalty second hand sequin façade/Limited face paint/And dyed black quiff.” On “Kevin Carter,” Richey sketches the life of photographer Kevin Carter, who commited suicide in 1994. “The elephant is so ugly he sleeps his head/Machetes his bed Kevin Carter, kaffir lover forever/Click click click click click/Click himself under.” Drummer Sean Moore laces the track with a beautiful trumpet part that lends the track an old world grace. “Enola/Alone” sports one of the catchiest choruses the Manics ever laid hands on. Nicky Wire tries on something new for the band and writes a love song. Well, a love song that contains the lyric “From my birth a rellik a killer” but hey, its still the Manic Street Preachers. The epic “Everything Must Go” repurposes the “Be My Baby” beat and brings those terrifying strings back from “A Design for Life” to sing a chorus that sings directly to Richey’s ghost. “And I just hope that you can forgive us/But everything must go/And if you need an explanation/Then everything must go.” It sounds like a full band apology for taking the Manics in a more commercial direction. “Freed from the memory/Escape from our history.” Finale “No Surface All Feeling” sends the album off with a power ballad that sounds like final resignation. “Just one thing before I get to sleep/Nothing here but the stains on my teeth/No not blood just liquid from you/I only wish it was the truth.”
”Want to get out in here you're bred dead quick/For the outside/The small black flowers that grow in the sky”
Album centerpiece “Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky” is a gorgeous, harp-laden ballad written by Richey. It might be the best anti-animal captivity song ever written. “You have your very own number/They dress your cage in its nature […] Pace around pathetic pound games.” It sounds immediately empathetic, a song that makes a tiny apartment feel like a cage and a night sky seem like an impossible escape.
Everything Must Go
turned the cult heroes into mainstream stars, going to number 2 on the albums chart and spawning 4 top 10 singles. The Manic Street Preachers, a band that wore balaclavas on national television and professed to leftist leanings had become the peoples band on their own terms. Indeed, Everything Must Go
isn’t a reduction of the Manics already established sound, merely a streamlining, one that allows the band to pen a catchy chorus or two. But if the Manics don’t do one thing, its effortless. All of their music sounds exhaustingly poured over and inevitably, the public tired of their shouting. After accomplishing a huge number one album and single with 1998’s This is My Truth Tell Me Yours
and “If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next” (Song is great, album is not) the Manics slipped back into cult status. Releasing a collection of albums to mild sales and tepid critical reaction, it seemed the Manics had lost the flame. But the Manics weren’t quite done; they still had one more definitive record in them.