Rock fans, above all other cultural cultists, can often be witnessed pining for his or her object(s) of obsession to perform certain tasks that they know deep down will offer nothing less than total artistic transcendence and emotional catharsis but in reality pose too much of a risk, both creatively and commercially, for the band. The passion is self-defeating since it often results from a band having lost a major part of its identity, leaving the band little else to do than restart from scratch and release a retrospective from time to time with a repeat tone of thin baby boomer-bloated nostalgia and self-importance lacking in irony to a revolting degree.
Those who are more optimistic than is normally seen with this type of dilemma are likely to be fans of Manic Street Preachers. Much of the Preachers’ career centers around them being the exception to the rules, they were and remain to be the outsiders looking ever outward in the British rock universe, the second most iconoclastic band after The Fall. They rebutted stiff shoegaze with a bombast that streamlined Guns n’ Roses, The Clash and Freidrich Engels; they outmaneuvered Radiohead by encapsulating in one song (“Faster”) what took them an entire album (OK Computer) to encapsulate, and less passively at that; they are Welsh, a trait that seems to strike fury in more than a handful of Anglos for reasons that are baffling but not atypical. Most of all, they seemed to relish in taking risks, if only to assure everyone that they truly, deeply did not give a flying fuck whatsoever about anything. So what better risk to take than to explicitly rehash the period in which the band peaked by mixing the old material with the new, in this case the lyrics of long-missing, presumed dead guitarist Richey James Edwards that have been taken out for a new album?
Journal for Plague Lovers not only resuscitates old lyrics from the Edwards era, but also the same typeface and provocative artwork of Jenny Saville. Though such a move brings feelings of wariness in most listeners, one is immediately disarmed by the sheer perfection of it all. The post-Edwards Manics were no doubt more successful than they were in the Edwards era, but they seemed to have achieved that at the price of being less fun, provocative or complex. For an indulgent rock band, the Manics were a blitz assault of semi-ironic excess, Marxist sloganeering, subversive reading lists and emotional damage. Not all of this is entirely replicated in this album fifteen years since The Holy Bible, but no one was expecting any such thing to happen, and the fact that it didn’t is quite refreshing.
Though certainly lacking in the lightning aggression of The Holy Bible, Journal‘s tone, though by no means softer, is appropriately reflective and world weary. Whereas The Holy Bible was the storming of the trenches, Journal is the shell shock amid the no man’s land, barbed-wire cuts, gas fumes and shrapnel covering the flesh and mind in a new cloth. Steve Albini’s spare production coupled with the bizarre anguish and rage of Edward’s lyrics (often written before the music even when he was still in the band) brings about the grotesque spirit of every voluminous riff James Dean Bradfield can fit into Edward’s verbose phrases, but also allows the more melodic aspects stand on their own merits. Edwards’ lyrics, this time given to some editing by once co- but now sole lyricist Nicky Wire (who contributed no words of his own this time around), are things to be admired. In a time in which various emo acts do their damndest to turn a memorable phrase, Edwards manages to meet their clever asshole with articulate aphorist. While some are dazzling more for their poetics than insight (“Riderless horses on Chomsky’s Camelot“), there are moments of thought that creep in (“Cleaning, cooking and flower arranging/ Dissolves a kind of liberation“) not to mention psychological scars, actual or atmospheric (“Six chalk colors, the very meaning of life/They wake of strobes and half-circled light“). Lord knows what moved them to use these lyrics now, but if there is anything to be taken from the album as a whole, it’s that lyrics serve to enhance the music all the more when not taken for granted, and that band and listener alike can be perplexed and inspired by them in the same way.