Fourteen years after the disappearance of Richey Edwards, his last lyrics are given voice in his band's new album.
Opening the journal
Nicky Wire, the tall and preternaturally good looking bassist of the Manic Street Preachers, is extremely relaxed and gregarious now that a day of doing press has come to an end. He is wearing plastic, white Jackie O sunglasses indoors and a large badge that bears the Andy Warhol quote "I am a deeply superficial person".
James Dean Bradfield, the group's singer and guitarist, emanates seriousness and intensity. Simultaneously laconic and cool, he is dressed in black, chin slumped on to the table top. Neither seems to have any of the arrogance or finger-clicking childishness that usually goes hand in hand with a rock band of this size and this age. In fact, it would be true to say that they seem more down to earth than the next man. They are discussing something which, superficially, is relatively trivial - a folder of lyrics given to them by their former guitarist, Richey Edwards.
Wire laughs indulgently when he says: "Basically there was a big old binder with a picture of Bugs Bunny on the front and it's just got 'Opulence' scrawled on it. Within that there are a lot of lyrics, pieces of prose; there are bits of JG Ballard, extracts from Kerouac, there are collages. It's a very tactile piece of art. He gave that to me and he gave copies to James and Sean [Moore], facsimile copies, probably between three and five weeks before he disappeared. At the time, we didn't think there was anything unusual about this because he was so prolific at this point, you know? All he was doing was reading, painting, writing, typing... watching... consuming culture. He was always handing us lyrics. But looking back, it was obviously a serious body of work that he was leaving us."
Bradfield shrugs with bathos. "I thought he was handing us something which was saying, 'There's a double album on the way.'" Of course, it turned out there was nothing trivial about this collection of writing. Now, these words have formed the foundations of the band's new album, Journal for Plague Lovers. The career of the Manic Street Preachers has been littered with grand statements. They formed in Wales in 1986, claiming that they would have a one-million selling album and would then split up. They were as equally influenced by Guns N' Roses as they were by Public Enemy. They wanted to be the biggest, most glamorous-looking and most controversial band ever.
Their 1992 debut, Generation Terrorists, was thankfully not their sole album, but it did introduce the world at large to a ragtag bunch of glam-rock intellectuals and iconoclasts who stood in stark contrast to most other British bands of the day. The only other European band to seriously take on the challenge laid down by Nirvana and Metallica was Radiohead, but Manic Street Preachers were exactly the right band for the right era.
After a disappointing second album, Gold Against the Soul, the Manics came back with a distillation of their initial desire to be world conquerors. Their new-found freedom to be sonically as well as lyrically aggressive came in the form of The Holy Bible. This album was a benchmark in alienation and indignation, the closest thing the UK had to a riposte to Nirvana's swansong In Utero. Its themes of collapse of the individual ego and the physical self set against imagery of the worst atrocities of the 20th century immediately marked it as a landmark album which has gone on to join the ranks of such statements as The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths and Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division.
In February 1995, months after it was released, Edwards disappeared. After he left, the significance of the folder became clearer to the band. Bradfield says: "I think we all read them lots about two weeks after he went missing. I think after about two weeks after his initial disappearance, we all started delving into our copies to see if there was anything in there." Wire finishes off the sentiment for him: "I dipped in there but I definitely didn't read them properly. I went through them like in a detective movie kind of way."
Although they were clear from the beginning that the words of their friend had to be used, they were keenly aware that this was a matter of some great sensitivity, not just for themselves, but for the Edwards family and their fans. Bradfield says: "There were periods where I would just get mine out of the drawer, about once or twice a year, and read them. But I'd always return them neatly because it just didn't feel like the time was right to tackle them. I just didn't want to do them the disservice of not paying them the right amount of attention. Over the years I got to read them more and more; I got more familiar with the titles and the lyrics themselves and then I got my copy out two years ago and for some reason I just couldn't stop turning pages. And that's just the way that it was. It did coincide with me feeling that I didn't want to do a follow-up to [the 2007 album] Send Away The Tigers. Perhaps that's convenient in my mind, but I did say to Nicky that I felt there was a lot of pressure to come up with another Send Away The Tigers or another This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours . I didn't feel ready and I didn't feel like I wanted to do it. And at that time, I was reading Richey's lyrics and the way my simple mind throws stuff together I just went: 'Hmm! Let's do this instead.' And I didn't feel scared any more at all. I felt like we could do it justice. I started having ideas as I went through it and it just felt comfortable."
Wire adds: "I think the fact that it had been so long, from a very simple tactful way it made sense, in terms of the family situation. And he left the lyrics so he obviously wanted them to be used. It was just a nagging sense of responsibility, really. We either had to publish them in a book or we had to turn them into songs. And they are lyrics. Yes, there are some poems and some prose but as a rule he was obsessed with the art form of writing lyrics. And lyrics should be heard as part of a song."
He pauses and observes: "They're so staccato at times, you can hear those rhythms. They don't make brilliant poetry but they make brilliant lyrics. When I looked at them in detail it made me realise how much I missed him as a lyricist and how much I envied him and his ability to cram and to compound so much detail into one line. I think it's phenomenal. With these lyrics in particular, it seems like he really has reached a peak of confidence in his art I think. It's something special."
While it might be tempting to think of Journal for Plague Lovers as The Holy Bible Mark II, it isn't that simple. It's true that not only are the lyrics the work of Edwards, but that the sleeve of the album features an arresting painting by Jenny Saville of a young girl with a birthmark on her face who bears a passing resemblance to Edwards. Yet there are several things that stand in sharp contrast. Musically, because of the passage of time, the riffs are less angular and less strident. The influence of the overbearing post punk of Wire, Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd has been replaced with a love for the pop punk and alt rock of Husker Du, Nirvana and the Pixies. The lyrics themselves are also less misanthropic, less nihilistic. Relatively. The sense is one of comparative calm after the storm of The Holy Bible. Bradfield states: "I think the lyrics are to do with the fact that he's dealing with the fallout from all the things that are expressed on that album. It's the natural conclusion to dealing with all the fallout."
Wire agrees: "I think once you've realised that with that album it seems like he has lost faith with humanity and maybe with this it feels like he is hovering over humanity. It's how it feels to me anyway." For any other band to release an album like this would signify the end of a period in their career. It would mean a change of pace or a move on to pastures new. With the Manics, however, they have already been through two or three definable periods, so it is unlikely that Journal for Plague Lovers will affect their overall sound. It has allowed the band to address some things that needed addressing; to use an American term, they will now be able to "move on".
Wire concludes: "I think the joy of this album is that we got to feel almost like a four piece again. But I think the next record will be about the smaller things in life that give joy, because among all the debris, all that is left are the tiny things."