Manic Street Preachers | Journal for Plague Lovers (Columbia)

cd_manics.jpgThe album somehow feels lighter…as light as a record concerning dysmorphia, self-mutilation, mental hospitals, the beauty culture, the perils of consumerism, genetic engineering and neophobia could possibly be, that is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s become nearly impossible to talk about the Manics without prefacing the discussion with the story of former lyricist, designer and hopeless rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards. Ever since Edwards’ 1995 disappearance, his car found abandoned near a notorious suicide spot overlooking the River Severn, his absence has served as a glaring counterbalance to every move the remaining band has made. Edwards finally, officially being declared dead in 2008 coincided with a cryptic but disturbing and tantalizing declaration on the band’s website: Just prior to his disappearance, Richey had handed over a notebook containing lyrics and art for a new album, and that 13 years later, what were to be his final words were being set to music.

It’s tempting to view Journal for Plague Lovers as a straight sequel, or worse, opportunistic retread, of the last full-blown Richey-helmed project, 1994’s landmark The Holy Bible. The use of another Jenny Saville painting as the cover art does nothing to discourage mental connecting the dots. Certainly, the sleeve’s skewed visage shares Bible‘s thematic obsession with Richey’s personal demons. But whereas Bible had the air of a disturbing look into the mind of a man who was so consumed by his torment that he saw no way out, Journal somehow feels lighter. As light as a record concerning dysmorphia, self-mutilation, mental hospitals, the beauty culture, the perils of consumerism, genetic engineering and neophobia could possibly be, that is. This disc presents an enigmatic portrait of a conflicted, issue-laden, deeply intelligent man, only with the terror tempered by objectivity, a ton of black humor and surprising moments of vulnerability.

It’s not at all difficult to imagine this record as the one the Manics would’ve made after The Holy Bible had Richey not gone missing. Admittedly, it’s not quite as compressed, hopelessly tense or unflinchingly bleak. The production tag team of Dave Eringa and Steve Albini endows the songs with a roughed-up polish, a jagged yet beefy sound that does a commendable job of holding aloft the band’s punky agit-prop alongside their eternal propensity for stadium hard rock. Additionally, James Bradfield and Sean Moore have an extra 15 years’ worth of songwriting under their belts, craftily weaving memorable tunes around Richey’s dense, asymmetric lyrics. The effortlessly thunderous "Jackie Collins Existential Question Time" will have you humming in the shower messed up lyrics like "Oh mummy, what’s a sex pistol?" and "Tonight we beg the question if a married man fucks a Catholic." "Me and Stephen Hawking" curls an effortlessly tight modern-rock/punk hybrid around tales of mutant bio-food and physical limitation. "This Joke Sport Severed" concludes a nearly flawless opening quartet of tunes, dialing down the intensity for a contemplative, acoustic guitar-led first half, leading into a finale draped in dramatic, martial drums and sweeping strings. It, like almost everything on display here, clearly conveys the wound-up drama inherent in the album’s words.

Journal for Plague Lovers‘ faults are relatively minor, but definite. One questionable move is continuing to let bassist Nicky Wire do a bit of singing. As opposed to his dire previous turns (not to mention his eyebrow-raising, Lou Reed-aping noisefest of a solo disc), at least here he doesn’t completely ruin the somber, final crawl of "William’s Last Words." Another strike is the fact that listeners not steeped in the Manics are likely to find the record to be one tough nut to crack. It’s wordy, often harsh, and while accomplished, requires an almost ridiculous amount of attention. Emphatically, this is not party music. It’s muscular and fiercely intelligent, worrying, sadly beautiful and illuminating, crammed full of angular post-punk and hard-rock riffs and gymnastic melodies. But for as uncompromising as it tends to be, as with the rest of the band’s best work, Journal for Plague Lovers marries intellectual analysis with visceral, emotionally resonant rock music. This is an album as cleansing purge, a mourning celebration of a strange, intriguing life. A- | Mike Rengel

RIYL: Cracked genius; a more worrying Pixies; Nirvana’s In Utero; the idea of the Clash with access to a psychology textbook and a really nice recording studio

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