Sunday, June 20, 2010

Manic Street Preachers - Journal for Plague Lovers (2009)

I normally like to hold my cards close to the vest when starting a review, but this album has defied my attempts to control it and has a will of its own.  To be brief: this album sums 14 years of one band's journey that has included drama, mystery, and tragedy, into a concise musical statement that exceeds any expectations I had for it.

Now, the story: and what a crazy story it is.  To sum up the Manics (I highly suggest reading the more detailed version here, if you are interested or want a refresher), you need to look at only two albums:  The Holy Bible (1994), their third (and best) album as quartet, and its follow-up, Everything Must Go (1995), their best album as a trio.  The transition element here was rhythm guitarist and principal lyricist Richey Edwards, who disappeared, never to be seen again, between albums.  His vitrol fueled Holy Bible; what he left behind (including all the lyrics) inspired the other three to follow with EMG.  

Since 1995, it's been an odyssey for the Manics; they've never recaptured the form of these two albums in their next four.  They still have moments that remind you of their previous high water mark, but both the rate of their output and the overall consistency of their albums have suffered over time.

Fast forward to 2008.  Edwards' family declared him legally dead; with the family's permission, the Manics went back to Edwards' remaining journals, which included lyrics for the album after EMG.  I can't think of an equivalent scenario; it's equally sentimental, intriguing, and (on some level) macabre.  Scott and I heard a few of the songs when we saw them live; they were clearly of quality, so I went out and picked up the album. 

The result?  Absolutely inspired.  Not only is it consistently good from front to back, but "Peeled Apples," "Journal for Plague Lovers," "She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach," and the standout "Marlon J.D." can stand on their own with any song in their catalog.  Add in bassist and Edwards' lyric co-writer Nicky Wire's first ever Manic lead vocals on the song "William's Last Words" (which seem a little simple and unprofessional at first, but as the song goes on feel more and more haunting and sentimental)... it's the kitchen sink here.  

When the Manics are at their best, they feature James Dean Bradfield screaming over a sensible but inspired Brit rock sound:  it comes off as a beautiful cacophonous rage.  It's insistent and inspiring.  The hidden track (and why, for the love of God, do these things still exist on CD's?  WHY?) is even great. 

My conclusion, rightly or wrongly, is that The Manics were always best when Edwards lyrics fueled a cathartic musical reaction from his bandmates, and it's clear that remains true even today.  They are a good band without him; they make a difference with him.  Why?  I have no idea.  That's just the way it works with these guys.

Richey Edwards final gift to the The Manics was not wasted, and completes the trilogy of his (and their) best work.  R.I.P. Richey.  (Or, if you've somehow actually successfully hidden yourself for 15 years on some deserted island, enjoy a mojito on me.)

Merch rating:

CD Placement rating: Car CD Changer.

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