Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers

A stirring return...
Journal For Plague Lovers

“Riderless horses, Chomsky’s Camelot bruises on my hands from digging my nails out.” Welcome back, Richey.

Now officially declared dead following a decade-plus of mystery surrounding the circumstances of his disappearance in February 1995, Richard James Edwards’ bandmates – who’ve grown into a considerably more commercially successful outfit since unintentionally becoming a trio – are closing the book on the lyricist and so-so guitarist’s Manic Street Preachers input by featuring a wealth of his left-behind words on ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, the group’s ninth studio album. James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore have always maintained hope, however slight, that Edwards might return to their ranks, putting 25 per cent of their royalties aside for him. Suffice to say that if the man were alive, he’d surely have cashed in by now.

But the money remains unclaimed, and it seems that the Manics have laid the ghost that wouldn’t quite quit to rest with this collection, where they pay homage to their departed friend and colleague while maintaining the mainstream-pleasing attributes which have seen their profile soar ever since the release of 1996’s ‘Everything Must Go’ – ‘The Holy Bible’, Edwards’ visceral farewell to recording released back in 1994, this certainly is not. That said, with renowned punk-rock engineer Steve Albini at the helm for much of the record – additional production is provided by the rather more palatable Dave Eringa, a long-term Manics collaborator – ‘Journal…’ packs a weighty punch as and when it needs to.

And that's something that’s made perfectly apparent at the very outset with ‘Peeled Apples’, from which that opening quote is taken: while it resonates with a structural similarity to two songs so fucking familiar I can’t name them right now – check the comments below to see if their titles suddenly come back to me – the song’s among the most aggressive pieces the Manics have penned since the days of ‘Faster’, thundering drumbeats propelling it to juddering climax, while Wire’s bass work has rarely sounded so pant-wettingly threatening. Bradfield typically hits all the right notes – maturity has rounded his voice into an essential weapon in the Manics’ arsenal – and the whole piece comprises a cracking introduction to what is immediately an enticingly different record compared to its preceding pair of ‘Lifeblood’ and ‘Send Away The Tigers’.

Of course, a sense of familiarity in the instrumental compositions soon settles into place – the Manics have operated in this unit for too long to truly diverge from an overall atmosphere that lends itself not to sweaty clubs but absolutely to vast arenas – but ‘Journal…’ delivers its share of genuine surprises. Lyrically, as even the most fair-weather of fan would anticipate, it fluctuates between the graphically engrossing and the borderline absurd, and each and every fan will have a different favourite on said front – personally the biting line of “listen to the selfish ones, they are the voice of accomplishment” on ‘Doors Closing Slowly’ is a highlight, as is the parting reminder, regardless of what’s come before, to “wake up happy” on closer ‘William’s Last Words’ – but sonically its flirtations with genuinely arresting noise are welcomed. At its very best, ‘Journal…’ argues a strong case for its makers feeling invigorated like never before, pre- or post-Edwards’ disappearance.

Thematically, Edwards’ poetry – never of a base-level “the cat/the hat/the mat” schooling, of course; just imagine the outrage if his words were ever censored so – seems to tackle excessive beautification, escape via substances, fractured love and the accepting of inevitabilities beyond one’s control; complete dissection would a) take months and b) completely ruin this collection of, well, eulogies for the fallen. Experienced in a single sitting, there’s rather too much to successfully take in, but this gifts ‘Journal…’ something lacking on recent Manics albums – essential longevity. ‘Send Away The Tigers’ was an improvement on the lacklustre ‘Lifeblood’ (and let’s simply ignore the horror of ‘Know Your Enemy’. We can do that, right? Okay…), for sure, but only the hardest of hardcore has returned to it since its 2007 release; ‘Journal…’, though, sounds as if it’s plenty more to give after a series of fairly cursory listens and a couple of focused investigations – I’ll certainly be returning to it soon after these words are published.

There are times where, compositionally, the Manics are clearly aping familiar influences and echoing their own past rather than setting out a new musical agenda purely of their own, but with nine proper albums behind them one can forgive the occasional lapse of sonic singularity, especially when the combination of the trio at their best and Edwards’ lyrics presents forth highs enough to qualify ‘Journal…’ as the band’s best album since ‘Everything Must Go’. That said album of 1996 was the last to feature lyrical contributions from Edwards, and this the first since then, is or isn’t a coincidence depending on your perspective – personally it’s more about the overall package than the constituent pieces, but nevertheless Edwards’ presence on this long-player does stir up feelings for the band not felt since teenage years.

By looking into the past, the Manics have arrived at a present that sounds fresher and more vibrant than the work of dozens – hundreds – of acts claiming to have dibs on the rock of now; they have opened a new chapter of their story where the pages are filled without compromise, without worry, without fear, and what’s just as exciting as this return to form is the possibility of what comes next.

The spirits have lifted, the future is clear. Welcome back, Manic Street Preachers.

8/10

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