No. 23. Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers (2009)
The Manics were on dangerous ground in 2009. After hitting a seemingly irreparable artistic low with the turgid and faceless Lifeblood in 2004, they stumbled upon a career-saving single in Your Love Alone Is Not Enough, and salvaged their reputation with the up-tempo and up-beat Send Away The Tigers album. Given the wildly varying quality of the band’s recorded output, the obvious option would have been to play it safe and churn out another set of crowd-pleasing anthems. Of course, being the most contrary band of all time, The Manics instead elected to hire one of the most avowedly uncommercial record producers ever and craft an album based on the unused lyrics of their missing, presumed dead rhythm guitar player; a de facto sequel to The Holy Bible, their coruscatingly dark masterpiece of fifteen years earlier. Without doing any promotion, and without releasing a single.
The fact is, based on music alone, there are several contenders for singles here. The second track has huge chiming riff and a lovely swelling chorus which you could easily imagine on the radio. It has been used in its instrumental form on Match Of The Day. The problem is it’s titled Jackie Collins Existential Question Time and features the opening verse “Tonight we beg the question: If a married man fucks a Catholic and his wife dies without knowing does it make him unfaithful, people?” Viking FM decided not to take up the option.
Richey’s blood is all over this album, but where horror and death and misery were branded onto the twisted grooves of The Holy Bible, here is to be found warmth and occasionally even levity (“We missed the sex revolution when we failed the physical.”) It is far from a happy record, She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach describes a woman so controlled by her lover she will burn her skin to please him; Virginia State Epileptic Colony details a One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest-style mental asylum; and the album as a whole is filled with astonishing imagery (Bruises on my hands from digging my nails out.) but where The Holy Bible was bleak, Journal For Plague Lovers is blank, tired and sad.
It is clear from the first track that James Dean Bradfield is playing out of his skin, elevating the staccato prose with riffs both muscular (Peeled Apples) and tuneful (Me and Steven Hawking) but, perhaps fittingly for such a sombre album, it is the acoustic tracks which provide the stand-outs. The stately This Joke Sport Severed is the closest the Manics have ever got to Achtung Baby-era U2, and Facing Page: Top Left is a gorgeous wistful Nick Drake-style lament for a world obsessed by appearance and flippancy. Then we have Doors Closing Slowly. When they previewed the album on MTV, rather than play the song, they simply had Bradfield read the words to camera, as if the audience wouldn’t be able to cope with the sheer gravitas of the music. A thudding march and the incredibly sensitive vocal deliver one of the greatest lyrics of modern times. The final battered snare drum coda and sampled outro fade into the sound of a ticking clock. It is one of the most utterly hopeless songs ever written.
Tucked away at the end of the album is William’s Last Words, and the question will forever remain, “Is it a suicide note?” It could be taken as such, but it is apparently a song based on the Laurence Olivier film The Entertainer, about a music hall performer who refuses to accept that no-one wants to see his show anymore. Nicky Wire sings it, his first vocal performance since the disastrous Wattsville Blues, and on this occasion it fits perfectly. He is clearly absolutely terrified at being in the vocal booth, as his voice shakes and tries desperately to lose its accent, but that gives this most human of songs its human touch. It is an unbelievably direct song and for all the Manics desire to shock and wind people up, if nothing else this album proves that they are at their best when conveying emotion, no matter how difficult to handle it may be.
One final aside that exemplifies why this album is so important; if you scroll back up to the top you will see the album’s sleeve. A Jenny Saville oil painting of a boy with a blood splattered face. When I wandered down to my local branch of Morrisons to buy the album, this image had been censored to the supermarket shoppers and the CD was encased in a plain blue sleeve with minimalist type on it. Next to it festered an album by something called The Pussycat Dolls. The sleeve to this record featured four or five surgically sculpted women with a post-watershed amount of flesh on show posing with fingers suggestively in mouths/on thighs having been painted orange by a computer programme. This was apparently acceptable. But that little boy, cover star of an album that explained so eloquently why the world doesn’t work anymore, had to be covered up.
Deary deary me.
Best Tracks: This Joke Sport Severed, Doors Closing Slowly, Marlon J.D.
Best Moment: From William’s Last Words: I’m really tired/ I’d love to go to sleep/And wake up happy/Wake up happy.
If you don’t get a lump in your throat, then you are probably Kim Jong-un.
Like this? Try: Candy Apple Grey by Husker Du, 1986
Allen Miles is 31 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 20 month-old daughter who is into The Ramones. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of 18 Days, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written by someone from Hull. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/8d2pysx