I’m really glad that Journal for Plague Lovers is my first exposure to The Manic Street Preachers. There’s apparently a lot of baggage surrounding this album because most of the lyrics are old songs & poems by departed (and presumed dead) guitarist Richey Edwards and the claim has been made that the Manics are exploiting this fact to create some kind of return to form. Well, I don’t think it’s exploitation if they’re still setting aside royalties for a guy who, however much his band and family loved him, pulled a disappearing act on them 14 fucking years ago. But my ignorance here is truly blissful because I don’t know what form it is they would be returning to, as this is the first time I’ve ever heard them.
And, judging it on its musical merits, it won’t be the last. Journal for Plague Lovers is a lyrically dark, melodically awesome platter of what sounds like some perverse combination of 1990s radio alternative and 1980s hair metal, the latter charge due in large part to the fact that James Dean Bradfield’s voice is somehow both histrionic as hell and not at all infuriating. There’s tons of guitar on Journal and Bradfield screams and bellows the choruses, while Nicky Wire (who edited some of Edwards’s lyrics) and Sean Moore hold down the rhythm. Bradfield’s voice is probably your biggest obstacle to enjoying Journal and I’ll admit that it gave me some trepidation on the first listen.
But, happily, Journal for Plague Lovers isn’t a true grower of an album – by the second spin through, I was fully into it and I now find myself with one of these songs stuck in my head a couple of times a day. It’s not Bradfield’s fault that he sounds, at times, like the dude from Queensryche (Bob Mould, formerly of Husker Du, can sound a little 80s too sometimes, but nobody’s bagging on Zen Arcade, are they? ) and the fact is, his ability to hit the vocal melody out of the ballpark earns him a ready supply of goodwill from even my picky-as-hell ears. The guy is, whether anyone likes it or not, one hell of a singer.
There are hard hitting highlights galore, especially in the early going. The album opens with “Peeled Apples,” in which Bradfield sings about “Noam Chomsky’s Camelot,” a phrase which sounds nice, but I’m still not sure what it means. “Peeled Apples” is followed by the best track on the album, “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time,” a song ostensibly about the theological implications of adultery that asks the pressing question: “Oh Mommy, what’s a Sex Pistol?” If you don’t know, ask your neighbor(‘s wife).
Over my last several listens, I’ve realized one of things I like best about The Manic Street Preachers is that they make good music by doing several things that I usually don’t like. First, there’s Bradfield’s super-dramatic voice, rescued by the catchy melodies. Then, there’s the pretent0us song titles like, “Me and Stephen Hawking,” (best song about cloning ever) “All is Vanity,” and “This Joke Sport Severed.” There’s also a lot of fiddly guitar bits. On paper, not only should I hate The Manic Street Preachers, but they should be a shitty emo band.
I’m noticing (I plan to talk about this at greater length later, probably in the context of the new Death Cab EP) that one of the big things that allows a band to walk that razor thin highwire between awesome emotional music and My Chemical Emo is intelligence (did I just call My Chemical Romance stupid? Yes. Yes, I did). There’s an intelligence to Manic Street Preachers (how many bands do you know of who use words like neophobia? Spellcheck doesn’t even think it’s a word, but it means “a morbid fear of novelty,” which, as definitions go, is fucking awesome) coupled with a sense of humor (“Me and Stephen Hawking” talks about the narrator and Hawking missing the sex revolution “when we failed the physical”) that’s never forced. Sure, emo bands make pathetic, often calculated stabs at being clever, but it’s analogous to conservatives trying to be funny. You get what they’re trying to do, but you would still rather set them on fire than listen to them say another word.
In essence, Journal for Plague Lovers should come with a warning to other bands: do not to try this at home. The Manics are playing with dangerous stuff here and, in the wrong hands, it could really hurt someone’s ears. They have a broad enough sensiblity (though the album is lyrically unrelenting, there are some quieter moments like “Facing Page: Top Left,” and “William’s Last Words,” which is sung by Nicky Wire. Pitchfork didn’t like that tune, but we’ve already established that they’re brain damaged, so you can trust me when I say the song is a nice sendoff for Richey Edwards and a nice way to settle things down before the hidden track, “Bag Lady,” asks, “to be morally good, are you ready to love/ a devil pretending to be a god?”) that the album is a lot more dynamic than a lot of three-piece bands tend to produce. Though Journal traffics in heavy topics (there’s a very catchy tune about the Virginia State Epilieptic Colony), the music itself provides catharsis, which is something rock ‘n’ roll should do (and another thing that emo doesn’t really do – it tries to calculate cathartic moments, but that’s not the same thing). Sadly, it would seem that catharsis, which the Manics are so capable of producing, wasn’t enough for Richey Edwards, whose car was found near Severn Bridge (an apparently renowned suicide spot) a couple of weeks after he disappeared. His family had him legally presumed dead late last year and, while no body has ever been found (and inconclusive “sightings” have occurred around the world since his disappearance), it seems pretty likely the dude is not only gone for good, but wanted to be that way. That his band has been able to carry on so long without him is a testament to their abilities not just as musicans but as people (and seriously, they still set aside royalties for the guy – that’s awesome). So the question, from where I sit, is not, “Are The Manic Street Preachers exploiting Richey Edwards’s lyrics and disappearance to recapture the spirit of the band when he was with them?” The question is, “When they run out of stuff that he wrote, did he leave them enough fire to keep things going?” I haven’t listened to their other albums, so I can only judge from Journal for Plague Lovers, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and give them a fighting chance.