From despair to where...?

After the nihilistic fury of 1994’s 'The Holy Bible', the follow-up album by Manic Street Preachers might have proved to be the ultimate endgame. The title, 'Everything Must Go', suggested as much. Evoking the window-length posters that announce a product clearance before a shop closure, there is a sense of an ending, of the commercial failure that was perhaps to be expected from the previous album, which included frantic diatribes on capital punishment, the Holocaust and political correctness alongside first-person explorations of prostitution and anorexia.

Emerging British groups at the time were singing increasingly of hedonistic leisure pursuits and decadent lifestyles in catchy singalongs. Manic Street Preachers garnered a record number of complaints for their paramilitary appearance on Top of the Pops as they promoted their single ‘Faster’, on which they sung “So damn easy to cave in, man kills everything.” Few could have anticipated that the same band would become one of the most popular rock acts in the UK within a couple of years, and in a markedly different guise that would gain them the mass audience they had envisioned for their music ever since their bedroom days in Blackwood, South Wales in the late 1980s.

- - -

A radiant testament to the band’s commitment...

- - -

What’s more, 'Everything Must Go' was recorded following the disappearance of band member Richey Edwards, whose provocative media appearances had been central to Manic Street Preachers’ entry onto the music scene in the early 1990s and whose increasingly allusive, journalistic, and surreal lyric writing had been key to re-energising the group after a tepid second album. Once it became clear that Edwards would not soon return, it seemed likely that Manic Street Preachers would call an end to their ambitions altogether. 'Everything Must Go', however, turned out to be a radiant testament to the band’s commitment, which saw them forging another vital sound, both rousing and plangent.

But if the music takes a somewhat different tone to its predecessors, everywhere on 'Everything Must Go' there are remainders of the band’s past; characteristics which continue to define their poetic, visual and musical style. The title 'Everything Must Go' is in another respect a sign that business would continue as usual. The group’s use of an exploitative or ailing economy as a metaphor provides a throughline to their work history. Recall the entrance of 'The Holy Bible’: an audio sample in which a pimp coolly explains: “Everything’s for sale”.

The cover of 'The Holy Bible' confronted the listener with a triptych of an obese woman; the new album’s front also showed three framed portraits, this time of the band themselves, but without any of the makeup of their glam beginnings, and none of the Holy Bible-era warpaint. The same acceptance of reality, only this time more introspective than voyeuristic.

- - -

- - -

With the orchestral splendour of the lead single ‘A Design For Life’ the band quickly reached a new fanbase. The song reached number two in the UK charts following its release in 1996 and it is this anthem of working class determination that, among the band’s numerous chart singles, has continued to resonate most strongly with listeners. Although the band’s songs had been unashamedly political from the start, the sentiment and spirit of the lead single seemed more attuned to a wider grassroots feeling than their earlier anti-monarchical, anarchistic complaints.

Not long before, they had sung “I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing.” Now the band regained a stoicism and re-engagement with moral principles, following the misanthropic dead end of The Holy Bible. There was an unquestionable change in the band, however: they would more and more foreground their interest in the community and history of their native country – in contrast to their youthful boredom and disparagement towards the mining village in which they grew up. This was signalled on 'Everything Must Go' in the small dedication to the Tower Colliery in South Wales in the liner notes, and then in bassist Nicky Wire’s appearance onstage at the 1996 Brit Awards where, along with his bandmates James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore, he collected the Best Album trophy draped in a Welsh flag.

But despite the stirring string arrangments, their highest singles chart success to date and the reconsideration of their home as a source of inspiration, the group’s outlook did not sound to have lifted all that much once the album could be heard in full. On the opener ‘Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier’ Bradfield sings “The future’s dead, fundamentally. It’s so fucking funny it’s absurd,” a reminder of the Sex Pistols’s “There is no future,” with a similar sardonic wit – this was not altogether a new Manics.

- - -

The band regained a stoicism and re-engagement with moral principles...

- - -

Acoustic guitar and harp begin the album, the two instruments heard against the sound of gentle lapping waves. But the drums, bass and electric guitar soon crash in on a humorous satire on the Americanisation of England. There is more space and a richer texture to the sound than before; a more captivating, less aggressive rock style. Across the record, Bradfield strums molten, melodious chords but also strips back to let acoustic passages reveal other colours; his voice no longer excoriating but rising and falling against the changing shades of the songs. Sean Moore’s tight unshowy drumming as ever belies complexities, with elements of Brazilian rhythm on ‘Kevin Carter’ while the frantic middle eight of ‘Australia’ perfectly captures the restless urge to escape, propelling the listener forward to new Antipodean horizons.

Though Wire and Edwards’s words were, for the first time, given a widescreen, technicolour musical presentation on many of the tracks, the little-heard ‘Removables’ is closer to MTV Unplugged Nirvana, whose ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ the band played live during the last months with Edwards. And in one of Edwards’s final, haunting contributions, ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’, plucked and sweeping harp melodies are used to counterpoint sung descriptions of caged animals on show, torn from their natural surroundings. “All I want to do is live, no matter how miserable it is,” cries Bradfield on ‘Enola/Alone’.

- - -

- - -

Any triumphalism conveyed by ‘A Design For Life’ was everywhere underwritten with the same deep melancholy that the band had expressed on one of their earliest singles, “Adrift in cheap dreams don’t stop the rain, numbed out in piss towns, just wanna dig their graves.” Lyrically the Manics still stood out for the idiosyncrasy of their inspirations, their pessimism and the almost paradoxical longing for escape and solitude that runs through such crowpulling tunes. Edwards’s contributions provide stark, imagistic contrasts to those of Wire, but both foreground this idea of escape. Escape from the present, escape from here, “Escape from our history”.

Before the band struck their first number one in 1998 with a song about the Spanish Civil War, they entered the Top Ten with a song about a Pulitzer Prize-winning, South African war photographer who committed suicide in 1993. ‘Kevin Carter’ is based around an impressionistic portrait of Carter’s troubled life, as captured in Edwards’s concise and unconventional lines. It is driven by Bradfield’s clean, chopping guitar and features a sublime trumpet solo by drummer Moore. Bradfield’s main riff seems to mimic both the repeated click-clicks of a camera shutter and the hacking of a machete – both referenced in the song – its repeated punch creating a tight bossa nova rhythm along with Moore’s percussion.

‘Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning)’ was inspired by a television arts documentary on the abstract expressionist painter and remains the unheralded gem on the album. The song is a companion of sorts to ‘Kevin Carter’ in sound and subject matter. Bradfield’s voice reaches its characteristic soaring heights, and his bright electric guitar lines blaze, carry Wire’s resigned lyrics.

- - -

Escape from our history...

- - -

For many of these songs, art and other media serve as an inspiration for the writing, as it has so often done for the band. Though the record is lighter on audio excerpts and author quotes than previous releases, there remain links to the writing of poet Sylvia Plath on ‘The Girl Who Wanted to Be God’ and painter Jackson Pollock quoted within the sleeve – all in keeping with the band’s interests from the very start. Little has changed today, with the band’s recent krautrock-influenced twelfth album 'Futurology' carrying references to Mayakovsky, Malevich and a disillusionment with social media.

Still, it is hard to think that Manic Street Preachers prior to Everything Must Go would have composed a song quite so simple in its lyrical intent as a wish to escape to ‘Australia’, as on the album’s fourth hit single, of the same name. Though the band from the beginning isolated themselves from their peers, their lyrics had typically been used as opportunities to express a litany of grievances and politically informed observations on the modern world and popular culture in common with Situationist and other left-wing movements. Wire, taking over as sole lyric writer was beginning to find inspiration in new metrical forms and images as a result of his domestic married life and the departure of his friend Edwards, drawing the writing style away from the cut-ups and stream-of-consciousness surrealism of Burroughs and the other Beats.

As close to Larkin as Lydon at times, Wire would increasingly refer to home and landscapes, inner and outer. This was already signalled, however, in one of Wire’s main contributions to The Holy Bible, the nostalgic ‘This is Yesterday’. It finds its epitome in ‘Enola/Alone’ in which Wire writes: “I walk in the grass and I feel some peace at last/I walk on the beach and for once I feel some ease.” Edwards had written a similar line, “I wanna walk in the snow and not leave a footprint,” on the song ‘4st 7lb’ but the mental state he evoked in so doing was altogether more troubled.

The orchestral splendour and the melancholia of Everything Must Go has a character all its own. Without the fierce light of Richey Edwards, the Manics would now carry on in a new aspect, “a beautiful triangle of distortion”, reflective of the past, embodying Samuel Beckett’s stoicism: “…I can’t go on, I must go on” and despite everything, managed to find the popular audience that they had always truly intended to.

- - -

- - -

'Everything Must Go: 20th Anniversary Edition' is out now.

Words: Yusef Sayed

Buy Clash Magazine

-

Follow Clash: