Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Manic Street Preachers, "The Holy Bible"

Is there a more fascinating album to revisit on its 20/25/30 year anniversary than this one?

After the relatively polished "Gold Against the Soul", the Manics could have headed further down the radio-friendly route.  Instead they delivered this caustic album of bludgeoning hard rock, with some of the most biting and cynical set of lyrics ever featured on an ostensibly "mainstream" 90's British release.

Teenage angst paid off well in the early 90's, to paraphrase Kurt Cobain, and by '94 there was nothing particularly dangerous or threatening about grunge anymore.  It was a commercially successful form of music just like all the others, if you weren't a depressed freak then it wasn't so hard to write some lyrics to seem as though you were.  A decade later you could say the same about any number of emo bands.  True, genuine, deeply hidden feelings were all over the decade's most popular music, but none of it was actually a true, genuine glimpse into the souls of the people writing it.  It was all for good show, not much more than a popular subject to write about in your songs.

There was nothing even remotely amusing about the lyrics on "The Holy Bible".  It didn't make darkness or depression feel like something you'd wear like a badge of honour on your livejournal (if they existed then).  The guy who wrote these lyrics wasn't trying to capitalize on trends or tap into the suburban youth market. He was living in the shit.  He was haunted every day by the kinds of things he wrote about in this songs.

Richey James, the principal lyricist for the MSP, disappeared on the day he was to leave for an American press tour to promote this album.  To this day, nobody knows what happened to him. There's nothing romantic about anything in this story, it's not cool to be a tortured, sensitive artist and to commit suicide because you can't handle the perceived evils of the world.  But it happened, and he left behind an amazing piece of art that's still confounding listeners even twenty years later.  The overtly pessimistic political outlook manages to sound closer to something released in the present day than something from the relatively sunny 1990's.  The uncomfortably personal "4st7lb" is about as real as lyrics get, equal parts horrifying and educational (kids, this is what NOT to do, and I think Richey saw it that way too).

And now, this interview with James Dean Bradfield has emerged on The Quietus, almost like something recovered out of a time capsule.  Ned Raggett was one of the very few journalists to interview him in the very short time between his arrival in the USA and his return to the UK following news of Richey James' disappearance.  Raggett managed to dig deep into the essence of the album despite having only received it about a half hour before the start of the interview.  

Much of the interview focuses on the meaning of the lyrics, and how the lyrics and music mesh together.  Even today, "The Holy Bible" is the most unlyrically lyrical album I've ever heard.  On the printed page, it's nearly impossible to imagine the words as the lyrics to songs -- there's no clear cadence or rhythm to them and you can't separate the verses from the bridges and choruses.  They read like freeform rantings on a page, but then you hear the songs and the words flow so naturally throughout.  It's a tribute to how carefully the band assembled their songs, and Bradfield explains it in detail in this interview.  He'd only start writing the music once he had the lyrics in hand, which makes sense because shoehorning any of "The Holy Bible"'s lyrics into a pre-prepared chorus you'd written on the guitar in your bedroom the month before seems well on impossible.

Bradfield gives a thoughtful, intelligent interview.  The Manics were always refining their image in print and on stage, and the meaning behind their lyrics was a crucial part of that.  They always struck me as a band that spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about exactly who they were and why they were doing what they were doing.

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