Lately I’ve become enamored with this strange idea of a generational tension within myself – the sensation of being kicked between my past and future selves.
Here’s the gist. As I get older I feel a growing gap between who I am today and who I was as a teenager, to the point where I struggle to even quite understand where that younger, skinnier version of myself was ever coming from. At the same time, I’m realizing that in ten years I’m probably going to be equally confused by my 2009 incarnation. But rather than simply treat these other versions of myself with scorn, I’m actually unduly respectful towards them: I want 17-year-old McNutt to be proud of me, and I don’t want to do anything that will offend or embarrass 37-year-old McNutt.
I wonder if the Manic Street Preachers think about things in a similar vein.
The Welsh rock trio – who sell out stadiums in Europe but are a cult band at best in North America (although most have heard “If You Tolerate This…” at some point) – meant the world to me when I was 17. In some ways, they were the perfect teenage band: a brash and bold aesthetic, lyrics alternating between the miserable and the political, razorblade guitar riffs mixed with heartbreaking ballads, and a band just obscure enough to feel like mine. Oh and, of course, the riveting mythology of Richey James Edwards the band’s “rhythm guitarist” (he could barely play a note) and troubled lyricist who, after crafting his macabre masterpiece – 1994’s The Holy Bible – disappeared and was never heard from again.
The band, continuing onwards as a three-piece, released the impassioned but radically different Everything Must Go two years later. It was a melodic, Brit-Pop tour-de-force led by the awe-inspiring single “A Design for Life” (a song that competes with New Order’s “Ceremony” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” for the best ever post-tragedy comeback single following the death of a band member). But after that, things got a bit aimless: 1998’s This is My Truth Tell Me Yours was a massive success but underneath the singles was an indistinct Brit-Pop record that muted the band’s sharp edges. The band must have felt that they were flirting with boring because their follow-up – 2001’s Know Your Enemy – threw a little bit of everything at the wall, most of it a miss. They then released a greatest hits record – which they had promised never to do – followed by Lifeblood, an album all melody, little passion. It appeared as if the Manic Street Preachers, a band born and built to burn out, was instead going to quietly fade away.
I like to think that maybe the blokes started to feel a bit guilty about this, that they realized that the band they had become was something that their teenage selves would have despised and scorned. Whatever it was, something sparked a shift in the band and 2007’s Send Away the Tigers became their first record in a decade to find their melodic sensibilities and punk passion in balance once again. Even when it was at its most ‘pop’ – like “Your Love Alone is Not Enough,” the band’s first real hit in years – the band attacked the songs with a slash-and-burn mentality that I had thought they had long-ago abandoned. It wasn’t a ‘great’ record like their greatest, but it was the first time they’d been ‘really good’ in years.
If Send Away the Tigers had sucked, there would be something nakedly hollow about the band’s decision to finally record an album using the last lyrics that Richey Edwards left behind. Even separate from that, some of the aesthetic choices of the new record – the Jenny Saville artwork, the movie audio samples – feel like a transparent attempt to make The Holy Bible Part II, aping their most acclaimed and beloved creation for a mid-life crisis of sorts. But what’s surprising about Journal for Plague Lovers is that it hardly sounds hollow or calculated at all; instead, it feels like the logical next step in the band’s negotiation between who they were and who they want to be.
Starting with a Christian Bale quote from The Machinist – “You know so little about me; what if I turn into a werewolf or something?” – “Peeled Apples” opens the record with both bluster and blister, with vocalist/songwriter James Dean Bradfield shouting Edwards’ lyrics with every bit of confidence he can muster. It can’t have been easy – then or now – to take these oft-rambling bits of poetry and place them to music; YOU try figuring out how to fit lyrics like “This beauty here dipping neophobia” into a chorus. But Bradfield manages to spit them out as if Edwards never left, placing them over some of the most tuneful, catchy and raw songs he’s put together in years.
As the record flows onwards – through the twisted “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time,” the fuzz’d “Marlon J.D.,” the haunting “Doors Closing Slowly” – I couldn’t help but feel that I was discovering something strangely timeless, or at the very least out of time. It’s like a long-lost relic, and I honestly think that had this record been made and released in 1995 it would have fit almost perfectly in between The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go. It’s a missing link between two compelling visions – one hopeless, the other hopeful – that, until now, felt like a complete break from one another. Journal for Plague Lovers encapsulates the Manics for me – it’s sad, it’s funny, it’s catchy, it’s abrasive. It’s everything I loved when I was 17.
Do I still love it at 27? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps, even at this not-ancient age, I’m falling victim to nostalgia, grasping at echoes instead of challenging myself with new sounds. But in less than two weeks, I’ll be seeing the Manic Street Preachers in New York City on their first North American tour in a decade. And while it’s 17-year-old McNutt who’s demanding that I go, it’s 27-year-old McNutt that’s going to be standing there waiting for those first chords to kick in. And just like Journal for Plague Lovers, I hope they kick hard.
Watch: Manic Street Preachers – “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time”
Addendum: I wrote this post before actually listening to the American edition Journal for Plague Lovers, having been living with a digital copy of the European version for a few months now. I was surprised to find that the audio clips strewn throughout the album – including the Christian Bale one mentioned – are absent from the American version. So if you happen to pick up the record in stores and wonder what the hell I was talking about, now you know. Frankly, the lack of clips isn’t a dealbreaker, but it does make the European edition feel a bit more definitive.