Formants: Manic Street Preachers, “The Holy Bible” [UK, 1994]

Looking back at records that helped to shape my listening habits. AKA the stuff I loved in high school and still make a point of revisiting regularly.

Because we live in a strange and irrational world, there are doubtless still a few out there who are certain that Richey Edwards is still out there somewhere. Should the guitarist and lyricist’s 1995 disappearance have turned out to be some kind of situationist put-on, to be sure, it wouldn’t have been entirely out of step with his band’s artistic and PR moves of the period. His childhood friends and bandmates in Manic Street Preachers – vocalist/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, and drummer Sean Moore – wound up as test subjects of sorts in 1994, when Edwards presented them with his most abstruse, incendiary set of lyrics to date, and were expected to write music around them. The resulting album, The Holy Bible, was in a way just another gambit in a career made up of left turns and awkward grandstands. This was the same band who claimed that if their debut album, Generation Terrorists, didn’t go ten times platinum, they’d set themselves on fire on Top of the Pops; neither occurred. (While promoting The Holy Bible, they settled for donning balaclavas on the aforementioned program.) By October 1996, Wire, the band’s remaining lyricist, had discovered a newfound love of housework, so far had his reactionary streak abated. Edwards’s death seemed to domesticate the band – though they still produced, and continue to produce, plenty of worthy material.

The Holy Bible, then, represents the last time the band sounded dangerous, truly a separate beast from their Britrock contemporaries. “Yes,” the opener, establishes the record’s tone and intent even before Bradfield makes an appearance, through the first of the record’s many samples, this one from a documentary about prostitution. “You can buy her; this one here, this one here, this one here…everything’s for sale.” Bought and sold before the chords even kick in. Bradfield, the band’s principal musical architect, devises a novel verse rhythm, alternating between 7/8 and standard time, in order to better accommodate Edwards’s alternately clipped and verbose lyrics, which seem to detail the life of a prostitute. If you’ve never heard the Manics before, Bradfield’s voice is likely the first thing to perk up your ears. Sounding very much like a choirboy with anger management issues, he’s a perfect medium for Edwards’s mercurial pen, his voice both sonorous and prickly. Just in his delivery of the opening lines (“For sale / dumb cunt’s same dumb questions / Virgins? Listen / All virgins are liars, honey”), you can detect notes of both empathy and snide dismissal. There’s hardly a moment on the record that doesn’t feel in some way self-contradictory, and Bradfield’s versatile vocals reflect that uneasiness wonderfully. The song’s inwardly hateful chorus, too, manages to transform a mouthful into a hook: “I eat and I dress and I wash / and I can still say ‘thank you’ / puking, shaking sinking / I still stand for old ladies / can’t shout, can’t scream / I hurt myself to get pain out,” sung in a manner that feels both measured and literally breathless. Nirvana’s In Utero may have been the album’s chief inspiration, but Bradfield’s carefully considered cadences are the polar opposite of a tortured howler like Cobain. Still, as it turns out, you can’t spell “grace” without r a g e.

(The Youtube link above is from the US mix of the album. The standard – and correct – line is that this mix is superior when it comes to the more musically upbeat tunes, and inferior when it comes to the more atmospheric ones. There are significant differences between the US and original mixes, and both are worth a listen.)

Where Pulp were able to wring a massive hit out of class warfare with the cheeky “Common People” a year later, The Holy Bible takes on social injustice, murder, self-negation, American hypocrisy (no British band so unheard of in the States has ever betrayed such a fascination with it), misogyny, war crimes and racism in a much less audience-friendly manner. “Revol” ponders the sexual proclivities of tyrants, “Archives of Pain” appropriates (adopts?) a staunch pro-death penalty stance, “The Intense Humming of Evil” ponders the problem of grasping the scope of the Holocaust much as Claude Lanzmann did when crafting his nine-hour documentary Shoah. More stunning, and more off-putting, than any of these, though, is “4st. 7lb.,” a harrowing first-person account of how eating disorders warp the perception of those afflicted. “Trouble is, ‘diet’’s not a big enough word / I wanna be so skinny / that I rot from view.” The band adopts a stuttering, militaristic stance, like Joy Division on stimulants but no happier for it, before a dreamy closing section projects a phony paradise.

Structurally, the songs on The Holy Bible tend to favor an ABCABCDC-style structure, with “pre-chorus” sections that run parallel in length to the choruses and instrumenta/solo breaks (D) that feel like a (not unwelcome) leftover from their Guns n’ Roses-baiting days. The contrast between the unfashionable, even sometimes dated production choices and the bracing lyrics makes for a record that now sounds utterly out of time. That can sometimes grate – the outrageous flanged solo on “Ifwhiteamerica…” still elicits a cringe whenever it arrives – but occasionally allows for stunning moments. Bradfield’s brief-but-lyrical solo, aided by Moore’s insistent drum line, in “This Is Yesterday” might be the album’s sole moment of contentedness. It’s all the more noteworthy for managing to puncture the gloom in a song whose takeaway sentiment is: “Why do anything when you can forget everything?”

The Holy Bible belongs to an exclusive class of voyeur’s rock records: the final testament of the artist in question, knowingly or otherwise. Unlike In Utero, From a Basement on the Hill, or Sketches From my Sweetheart the Drunk, of course, there’s always that collaborative barrier complicating that dynamic. And unlike in the case of Nirvana, the Manics carried on after Edwards’s passing; it likely helps that, despite his centricity in terms of the band’s identity, his instrumental contributions were minimal compared to Bradfield, and he’d only served as principal lyricist on Bible. While many write off the post-Edwards period, the last fifteen-odd years have actually been kind to them, especially when compared to many of their peers. Yes, they mellowed, and yes, the agit-prop tendencies all but fell away (their last gesture in that direction being their 2001 concert in Cuba, with Castro in attendance) but they managed to churn out a few more solid albums and a sizable number of great songs. That’s why many (myself included) were surprised when, in 2009, they announced their intention to make an album out of Edwards’s disused lyrics, to be engineered by Steve Albini, who notably manned the boards for In Utero. It seemed like a step back at best, and a nostalgic cash-in at worst.

The resulting record, Journal for Plague Lovers, is their second- or third-best, benefiting greatly from the returning interplay of Bradfield’s delivery with Edwards’s lacerating words, as well as the relatively pared-down production. Though it contains at least a half-dozen of the band’s best rockers, I’ll always think most fondly of closer “William’s Last Words,” especially the Underworld rework that ends Journal for Plague Lovers Remixes. Featuring a rare vocal turn by Wire, who has described himself as having been the band member closest to Edwards, “Words” gives their departed friend the graceful sendoff not allowed by the pitch-black Bible: “I’m really tired / I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy / Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew? / I’ll be watching over you.” It’s probably a good deal more sentimental than the ‘94 incarnation of the band would have allowed, but it’s an apt way to close the book on their departed friend and collaborator; in his own words, as before, but with the benefit of time’s healing properties.

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