Vinyl Frontier: Retro Reviews Manic Street Preachers - Journal for Plague Lovers
Manic Street Preachers - Journal for Plague Lovers
By Andrew David James
The Manics hardly seemed to have been away long. Their previous album ‘Send Away the Tigers’ was only two years before but in the Spring of 1999 this relatively quick return was a pleasant surprise from a band prone to taking substantial breaks between albums since 1998’s ‘This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours’.
The chief reason for this being that the lyrics and therefore concept for the album ‘Journal for Plague Lovers’ was already in place. Here is the last material from estranged and presumed dead band member Richey Edwards. With the lyrics all supplied by Edwards, only the musical responsibilities fall to the other three which makes for a different dynamic in the band.
Nicky Wire has been in the chair for the last five albums providing lyrics with occasional contributions from Bradfield. The consequence of Edwards speaking almost from beyond the grave is that this sounds like it’s caught somewhere between 1994’s ‘The Holy Bible’ and 1996’s ‘Everything Must Go’ both stylistically and musically.
With many die hard Manic fans believing the Welsh outfit have lost their edge of late perhaps this was not a bad thing. The nettle is firmly grasped on ‘Peeled Apples’ which might as well be off the aforementioned ‘The Holy Bible’ as they employ their trick from that album of using taped quotes from popular culture to introduce the song. The telling opening line “the more I see, the less I scream” is a foreboding insight into Edwards state of mind before he vanished in February 1995.
Gritty and classy, big and ballsy; Bradfield is in commanding form and we know this is going to be a time travelling trip as the more mainstream gloss of recent Manics is instantly chipped away. The poppier sound of ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’ poses the question “if a married man fucks a Catholic and his wife dies without knowing does that make him unfaithful?” Bathed in a sumptuous guitar at the bridge with a chiming chorus which reminds one of the high points of ‘Everything Must Go’, things are going very nicely indeed thank you.
The Manics have been overblown in the post Richey years (with the possible exceptions of ‘Masses Against the Classes’ and ‘Know Your Enemy’) so the production of Steve Albini of ‘In Utero’ fame keeps things clipped and the band’s songs and music can breathe. ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ betrays the date it was written with musings about genetic experimentation on farm animals and a reference to 1980’s wrestler ‘Giant Haystacks’.
‘This Joke Sport Severed’ takes a breather for Bradfield to deliver what sounds like a solo acoustic until the rambling percussion and orchestra join in. The lyrics take centre stage once again however as the fragile, almost desperate sentiments roll from the lips of Bradfield. The song ‘Journal for Plague Lovers’ feels like a few throw away statements from Edwards melded into a distinctly forgettable affair.
Almost Manics by numbers and the living members should hold their heads in shame for being so lazy with one of the poorer set of lyrics thus exacerbating the problem. ‘She bathed herself in a bath of bleach’ kicks off with a catchy guitar riff (nicked from ‘The Rolling Stones’ perhaps) but it’s over in a flash.
Musically ‘Facing Page: Top Left’ bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘Cardiff Afterlife’ from 2004’s ‘Lifeblood’ but is a patchy affair indicating that the band were struggling to put the lyrics to a decent tune. The hand doesn’t quite fit the glove (a problem they often had prior to ‘Everything Must Go’) and that troubles them throughout this album. ‘Marlon J.D.’ muses upon the dignity of Brando’s character in ‘On the Waterfront’ something Edwards clearly admired and seemed unable to gain given his battles with alcohol and self mutilation. Certainly one of the catchy songs on offer, its urgent meaty guitars and raw vocals are vintage Manics.
After plenty of wobbles, ‘Doors Closing Slowly’ is a stand out track. Unfortunately it is over too quickly but the sentiment of the song is echoed on the album sleeve with the George Bernard Shaw quote “a life spent making mistakes is…more useful than a life spent doing nothing”. A gold star. ‘All is Vanity’ gets us back to ‘The Holy Bible’ era and the music and lyrics sit well together for the most part. ‘Pretension / Repulsion’ reads almost like a suicide note and there is an inescapable pervading air of doom as with ‘Doors Closing Slowly’.
‘Virginia State Epileptic Colony’ is one of the most rounded songs with a stirring chorus on which the band sound uncharacteristically Welsh. It took a while to stop thinking Gruff Rhys of the Super Furries wasn’t singing it! The bridge is immense and Bradfield, as ever, does not let us down on the vocal front.
The sign off ‘William’s Last Words’ where Nicky Wire sings to his departed best friend using his own words is both touching and profound. Typical of the duality of a very unique album. ‘Journal for Plague Lovers’ is a curious entry in the Manics catalogue. Anachronistic to bursting point, you might want to listen for a wander down memory lane to hear the old Manics. But this is undoubtedly a poor relation in comparison to the albums they produced in the mid-nineties which were powerful as they were majestic. On the other hand, some might be fascinated to hear the last of Edwards work put to music.
Although interesting, for the album to have worked you often feel that Nicky Wire should have contributed a few songs on top to give it some much needed balance. Anyhow, this is a must buy for Manics fans probably more so than their last two albums. For those of you less enamoured with the Welsh rockers, there is just enough going on here to make it worth a few listens but it ultimately might not see the light of day very often.