i was wondering if the new album from the Manic Street Preachers, Journal For Plague Lovers, would ever make it here. it has, sort of - apparently the album has been listed as being by the "Manic Street Preache", which is why searching for it has mostly turned up blank thus far. never mind, it, and the bewilderingly controversial cover, are at last here.
Journal For Plague Lovers is the 9th album by the band, although strictly speaking it should have been their 4th or perhaps 5th. as has widely been reported on, this album features lyrics left behind by Richey Edwards, the charismatic Manic who has been missing, presumed dead since 1995. well, legally presumed dead at the least. in terms of tone and content, it would certainly fit as a follow up to their much celebrated, arguably greatest work, The Holy Bible. then again, Richey had also delivered some of the lyrics for the album that would be the bands' official 4th release, the brilliant Everything Must Go. whether his lyrics from that album were meant to be included with the ones he left the band that have become this album or if he was working on two different albums at the same time is unknown, and certainly hasn't been commented on thus far.
in the end, it doesn't matter. what very much does matter is that the world once again, in a bizarre scenario, hears the Manic Street Preachers as a four piece band again. as tempting as an awful line like "welcome back, Richey" is to include in a review, it's not the case. instead, we need to go back to Richey and the time he wrote these songs, presumably 1993-1994.
and how things change. when Richey wrote these lyrics, there was no "internet" as we know it these days, and certainly no downloading music. that's right, if you wanted to hear some music, you had to go to a store and buy it. no cellphones either, no laptops, no ipods, not much in the way of satellite/cable tv, and no tv shows dominated by people famous for being famous alone. not that the album is in any way "dated" as a consequence, Richey never really made overt social commentary anyway. he did, however, live in a world free of 24/7 "multimedia" bombardment, and lived in a time where you focused on making an album full of lyrics as good as you could, not now when people seem to make songs that they think might make rather good ringtones for phones.
after the somewhat mellow sounds of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours and the rather popular, hit-craving sounds of Lifeblood and Send Away The Tigers, the band have done Richey's lyrics a considerable justice by returning to the harsher, confrontational music style that prevailed on the records with Richey in the studio with them. a melodic, catchy and captivating sound certainly, but with a ferocious edge.
and what of the actual content of the album? well, let me make a bold statement up front that i am rather happy to live by - i defy anyone to find an album which starts off with three tracks of astonishing, audacious genius like this one does. perhaps The Stone Roses with the rather different direction from this, but that's about it. the three opening tracks, Peeled Apples, Jackie Collins Existential Question Time and Me And Stephen Hawking are three slices of outstanding music which demand to be played again and again, with each progressive listen being done so with the volume a touch louder than the last, your feet and shoulders tapping and shaking ever more. lyrically all three are of course a riotous journey - Peeled Apples is confrontational (the Levi jean will always be stronger than the Uzi), Jackie Collins is just plain catchy (oh, Mommy, what's a sex pistol?) and Me And Stephen Hawking is bizarre, bittersweet comedy (We missed the sex revolution when we failed the medical").
these opening tracks are as close as you can get to instant classics. just one of them would give most acts an entire career, for the Manics it's just further substance to James Dean Bradfield's rather bold claim from a few years ago; "not everyone can be a musician. not everyone can do this. only we can do this."
and the rest of the album? well above average. without listing them all, there's really not a bad song or "filler" to be found on this whole album. everything has a place here. Nicky Wire has commented that he was always a bit frustrated that he could never inspire James to write music the way Richey's lyrics did. whilst some of the stuff Nicky wrote alone ranks as the best the band has done, his frustrations are justified for all to hear here. it's a fact of life, sunshine, to quote All Is Vanity. James was lucky to meet a gifted lyricist as Richey, and Richey was very, very, very lucky indeed to meet such a sensational voice for his words and ideas as James is.
if it is possible to have a *** SPOILER WARNING *** for an album, then this is it. the last track, William's Last Words is, no matter how much they downplay it in interviews, an eerie, sad, depressingly beautiful end to the album. they have Richey's dear friend Nicky "i can't sing" Wire recite instead of sing this, under the claim that it was intended as "prose, not a song".
no one knows for certain if Richey ran away, disappeared under bizarre or mysterious circumstances or, despite his frequent denials that it was something he would never contemplate, committed suicide. the lyrics to this song / work of prose, however, pretty much make it clear that whatever did happen to Richey, he's not coming back : "Goodnight my sweetheart, Until we leave tonight, Hold me in your arms, Wish me some luck as you, wave goodbye to me, You're the best friends I ever had, Goodnight, sleep tight".
whereas the band have suggested fans do not read "too much" into the track, well, not only did they go ahead and record this, they recorded it with his non-vocalist friend doing vocal duties, and made it the last track on the album (excluding "hidden track" Bag Lady). this isn't the band saying he's dead or still out there, but it is difficult not to see this as them saying "sadly he's gone away, but remember him in this beautiful, eloquent way".
Richey Edwards was/is a beautiful, eloquent creature, someone who the world needed a good deal more than they needed the world. if this is really to be his epitaph, well, rather this beautiful, outstanding collection of songs than the memories of an abandoned car, a missing passport and vast sums of cash withdrawn from the bank, i guess. but as the album ends, it's like losing this cherished, loved being all over again.
if there is any crime or something amiss with Journal For Plague Lovers, then it's probably the bands' decision not to promote it beyond a limited amount of TV appearances, one or two interviews and a short tour, on which they play the album in full. as mentioned, the first three tracks are killers, and any of them would make stunning, classic and long remembered singles. to this end, the decision not to release any single is really odd, since they have gone to the trouble of making a promo video for perhaps the best, certainly the most catchy of the three, Jackie Collins Existential Question Time.
well, a video for it and a "special" clean radio edit of the song, since the premiere of it on radio featured the line "if a married man does a Catholic". the album version is somewhat more direct, shall we say. considerably more descriptive and direct than does, believe me.
after the all too brief and all too limited to Europe tour finishes, Nicky Wire says they are heading back to the studio to work on the next album. whereas it's great that they are not going to sit back and bask in the glory of this qualified masterpiece, well, i hope it's not a sign of them being prepared to casually forget about this album and the great songs on it going forward.
so, should you go and buy this album? oh hell, yes. whether you go for the standard version or the "deluxe" edition (the second disc of demos is not bad, but hardly essential), this is an actual, proper album, instead of a batch of songs just slammed together and released. unless Ian Brown delivers something astonishing later this year, Journal For Plague Lovers will unquestionably grab the title of best album of the year, and could well by the end of next year be seen as the greatest album of the first decade of the 21st Century. buy, embrace and cherish the artistry and sheer pleasure of this album; it has been a while since anything this good has come along to remind us of just how important music is, it could sadly be some time before we ever hear anything this good again.
and, as the band signs off every show, goodnight from Richey.