[sic] Magazine

Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers

It seems so long ago, 19 years ago, half my life ago, I held a copy of Motown Junk in my hand. In the days when vinyl held rackspace and CD’s were new and shiny wonders, no internet, and four television channels. A lifetime ago, and yet, still clearly in my mind. I had no idea what the Manics were singing then, but it felt true: the inarticulate rage of the heart and the literate fury of the soul in three minutes, raging against the placebo of dumb love songs to keep a population unquestioningly servile.

The sound of a literate, questioning yoof in the wreckage of Fatcha‘s Britain.

Fourteen years after the Manics Year Zero – the disappearance of their guitarist and barometer Richey Edwards – their latest album Journal For Plague Lovers is an odd, strange beast. Taking the final batch of prose penned by Edwards in the final moments of his public life, the Manics have created a sort-of sequel to their epochal ‘Holy Bible’. Where this differs from that is simple: The Holy Bible was a record of furious discipline in the face of imminent collapse, a project seemingly created to focus the mind away from the cliff edge. Journal For Plague Lovers is altogether less compelling, more the sound of a psyche unravelling in dense words that are some kind of jigsaw – a puzzle, an enigma that operates on so many levels. It’s more a mass musical literary achievement than anything as simple as an album.

All this relies on the music being stunning. And it is… and it isn’t. There’s nothing here that grabs the listener by the scruff of the neck and demands attention NOW. Not in the way that ‘Faster’ or even ‘A Design For Life’ commanded the listener to stop whatever they were doing and experience the roar of the sound.

But Journal For Plague Lovers is something more than that. It’s a virus, an infection: a slow burner, a record that, like The Holy Bible uncurls its full depth and intricacy with repeated exposure. The first few listens it is a hard, uneasy listen, a maze, a complex, and then slowly, after a short while, the record – and it is just that a record, a document, an artefact – gels in the mind, like some kind of difficult philosophical concept. But ultimately, it rewards the dense artistry. The opening ‘Peeled Apples’ is a tension wire, and the beyond-parody title of ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’ and ‘Me And Stephen Hawking’ are, in many ways, clear precursors or foreshadows of our current age: a time of celebrity scrutiny, useless information overload, and morality lost in trivia. The death of a moron garners more column inches than a pandemic apocalypse, we focus on nothings whilst civilisation crumbles.

It’s not ‘The Holy Bible 2’, nor is it an instant classic. Nor is it that mythical lost ‘fourth’ Manics album. It is, instead, some kind of appendix. The songs are solid, strong, shorn of the instant killer hit single that birthed every Manics album before: and therefore lacking overall the sense of narrative a great album has. In one way it feels like a bunch of songs lacking a central musical theme, and in another way the theme is clearly that of absence. The band are whipping up a storm around the eye of it, the calm, the missing Edwards. (As they always did, Edwards barely played on a Manics album, instead being a presence without a sound, a minister without portfolio.)

The record rampages on, with occasional interregnums (breathers such as ‘Facing Page:Top Left’ and the title track recall other, superior songs from a decade past), lacking the claustrophobic discipline of the past yet also some kind of apathetical, habitual state of war. Guitars growl, not bite. Bass sweeps but never strikes. Drums seem curiously restrained. And, the central tenements of the obvious echo of The Holy Bible, the well-chosen soundbite from history, are repeated here, but here, they seem more repetition than pointed comment. The album builds slowly to some kind of exhausted crescendo, the sound of a hand letting go of a sword after a lifetime of struggle, soundtracked by semi-PiL tones and seemingly meaningless/meaningful repetitions: ‘It’s a fact of life sunshine’, ‘Mummy, what’s a Sex Pistol?’, ‘Only God forgives’.

And then, the coup de grace, the hammer blow. ‘Williams Last Words’. Sung atonally by Nicky Wire, this song is a massively condensed version of Edwards final piece of prose, the reflections of a man at the end of his life, looking hopefully and fondly on those who will out live him, jealous in a way of their continued adventures and also at peace with the path that brought him here. The words cannot help but read like an epitaph, a farewell, and whether they were Edwards intentions to exit on those notes or not, these words are an abdication. It is hard to listen to for any fan with any memory of Edwards himself.

A success, a failure, all the same in the end. Journal For Plague Lovers exists, a statement in itself, a closure, and a new beginning. Whilst The Manics will never reclaim their brief few years as stadium-fillers, what matters is not how many records you sell, but how much each record means to people who listen to it. Art is great not by numbers, but by the ability to communicate. And this is nothing other than a success on those terms.