Spotlight: Manic Street Preachers – ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’

“Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew? I’ll be watching over you…”

The disappearance of Richey Edwards in 1995 remains unexplained.

For his family and friends, it became unfinished business, an open sore that they would have to learn to deal with. For his band mates in Manic Street Preachers, it became an absence they would have to evolve with and around, with his absence continually hanging over them.

Perhaps epitomised most poetically in the empty parenthesis that lingers on the cover of their 1996 commercial breakthrough ‘Everything Must Go’, the loss of Richey Edwards would completely change the way the resulting three-piece would construct and create music.

But not completely. ‘Everything Must Go’ contained four songs credited to Richey, and the band indicated that a full folder featuring around 28 lyrics – complete or otherwise – had been recovered.

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For years it seemed as though these words would remain in limbo, with Manic Street Preachers discussing various potential paths in interviews. A full book was mentioned, but there remained the lingering feeling that these were songs – at least potentially – and weren’t meant to simply sit upon the page, stark, bold, but ultimately silent. With Richey Edwards officially declared dead in abstentia in the latter stages of 2008, his band mates decided to focus fully on turning those lyric sheets into an album, allowing themselves to be guided both by the memories and the possibilities of his work. 

The resulting album ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ turns 10 this week, and it remains one of the band’s most singular achievements, a marvellous record, stirring, effecting, and bold, a statement that deserves comparison to their earlier masterpiece ‘The Holy Bible’ while more than holding its own in a quite different creative and emotional space.

Aware of fan concerns – many viewed the possibility of an album without Richey’s direct involvement as being ghoulish, perhaps even exploitative – the band took every care to get it right. Working with Steve Albini at Rockfield Studios in Wales, Manic Street Preachers returned to the stark post-punk that fuelled ‘The Holy Bible’ but with a different slant.

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There’s a melodic awareness inherent to this record, one that wrings out the intensity of Richey Edwards words – words that pointedly tackle history, celebrity, mental illness, the collapse of identity, and so much more. As Manic Street Preachers themselves put it: “The brilliance and intelligence of the lyrics dictated that we had to finally use them.”

And use them they did. ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ is a wonderful album, gripping, challenging, but emotional in equal quantities. ‘Jackie Collins Existential Time’ is dominated by that emphatic, drilling guitar line, a potential hit in another universe but twisted into somewhere surreal, caustic, and solitary. A record slanted towards post-punk and the more arid, Industrial elements of American indie rock, the album also contains moments of straight forward beauty.

‘This Joke Sport Severed’ is a tender acoustic moment, its sparse eloquence almost completely heartbreaking: “Jealousy sows rejection with a kiss / In silken palms that tear bone from skin…”

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Many of the lyrics were seemingly informed and prompted by Richey Edwards’ spells in rehab, and the people he would encounter there. ‘She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach’ is a disturbing treatise on unrelenting desire to companionship, while ‘Virginia State Epileptic Colony’ utters: “Today the doctors allow the illusion of choice…”

The barbed electronics that fuel ‘Marlon J.D.’ add a new spin to a recurring Richey Edwards obsession, the lives and work of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Fusing 50s teen cinema to Throbbing Gristle isn’t the most obvious of moves, but Manic Street Preachers thrive on seizing hold of the oblique and translating it into something much broader.

‘All Is Vanity’ bares the hallmarks of Albini’s influence, with its stabbing guitar line recalling some of those early Shellac records. The dry, clipped production techniques are often linked to anti-emotive records, but frequently Manic Street Preachers allow their feelings to linger at the surface, the open wound of Richey’s departure seeping once more.

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Nowhere is this more evident than on the final track, the unbearably moving ‘William’s Last Words’. Soft, tender, but also funereal, Nicky Wire’s vocal is utterly heart on sleeve, the bass player selected after James Dean Bradfield vetoed himself, saying he just couldn’t do the words justice.

It’s tantalisingly easy to view the song as an adieu of sorts, almost a suicide note; it certainly sounds that way, with its astonishing simplicity worth comparing to Nick Drake’s ‘In The Morning’: “Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew? I’ll be watching over you…”

Manic Street Preachers took an enormous risk when they released ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’. Nicky Wire admitted as much in interviews at the time, saying that the project “could seriously damage” the band, alienating them from their hardcore fan-base, many of whom adored Richey Edwards and felt profoundly moved by his loss.

Yet in working with such intensity and consideration, they were able to construct something that was cautious, mindful of past endeavours, while working fearlessly towards the future. ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ remains an entirely singular document, by a band who have only ever worked to their own terms.

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