Thursday, 18 June 2009
Album of the 'Week': 'Journal For Plague Lovers'
The Manic Street Preachers are, as Simon Price argues in his brilliant and infuriating masterwork 'Everything', the band that mattered the most to their fans since The Smiths. Arguably this title was wrestled from them by The Libertines, partially because The Libertines are more interesting in terms of narrative, but largely because of the Manics' truly staggering backslide in terms of musical quality.
From 1994's 'The Holy Bible' to 1999's 'This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours' (an album with a title long enough to merit a comma) the Manics made scythingly beautiful pop music, allied to gauché and memorable lyrics - their grandiosity and naivité making them the perfect antidote to Britpop's music-hall/football crowd stylings. Then came one of the worst albums ever made by a great band, and my personal departure from the Manics, 'Know Your Enemy'. Mere words cannot describe how shit the album is, but they can go some way. It was clattering, pretentious, ugly and stupid - it contained songs defending the former Soviet Union and attacking Royal Correspondents (how controversial!). This album was trailed as a return to form - it arrived as a terrible disappointment. I'd like to deride the albums released since 'Know Your Enemy', but I've scarcely heard them - they have some good songs, but that does not make them worth weathering.
So, another album, another return to form. 'Journal For Plague Lovers' re-engaged the music press and lapsed fans through a wonderful piece of grave-robbing, using for its lyrics notebooks bequeathed to the band by missing lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards. The look and sound of the album is clearly based on that of 'The Holy Bible', the last Edwards-era Manics album, and it delivers on the promise. If it's merely an exercise in nostalgia, it's an exercise which has led them back to the well of decent music, from the lake of shite where, for a decade, they have pitched camp.
The lyrics of 'Journal For Plague Lovers', compared to their contemporaries used on 'The Holy Bible', lack density and focus. Whereas 'The Holy Bible' offers lists of demagogues, 'Journal For Plague Lovers' gives us jokes - "me and Stephen Hawking...we missed the Sex Revolution when we failed the physical". Some of the lyrics would have benefited immensely from being left in the book - Doors Closing Slowly's opening couplet "Realise how lonely this is/Self-defeating? Oh fuck yeah" is one of the worst lyrics ever committed to tape. There are still flashes of brilliance - "the Levi jean will always/be stronger than the Uzi" being a particular favourite - but the lyrics feel like what they are - the unwisely opened notebooks of a sadly insane man.
What has kept me listening to this album is what keeps all fans of the Manics listening to the Manics - the world-beating songwriting and singing of James-Dean Bradfield. On 'Journal For Plague Lovers' the discrepency in quality between the two elements of the songs becomes absurd. On 'Me and Stephen Hawking', James-Dean's giddy verses, sung at the edge of his vocal range, are a joy - the lyrics, including the phrase "Transgenic milk containing human protein", are an irritant. The anthemic 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time' has a lyric which at first is amusing and becomes, through repetition, an annoyance ("if a married man fucks a Catholic"). But, give or take a few skipables, the Manics have made an album that repays listening, a fact as wonderful as it is unnerving.