"I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing"

Years active: Genres: Related artists:
1986 - Alternative rock, rock, pop/rock n/a

Line-up: James Dean Bradfield (vocals, guitar), Nicky Wire (bass, occasional vocals, lyrics), Sean Moore (drums, the occasional trumpet), Richey Edwards (rhythm guitar and lyrics, until his disappearance in 1995)

I could write a book on the weight and importance that Manic Street Preachers have had in my life of listening music - and truthfully I have, over the course of track-by-track analyses, lengthy album reviews, miscellaneous blog articles and countless forum posts. I have documented my reverence for the Manics in so many ways in so many places that as I’m facing the task of writing this prologue to page, I have the most daunting fear that I’m going to repeat myself oh so badly; especially given how many of the reviews down below will touch upon elements of this in passing anyway.

In summary, on this page above all others, do not expect unbiased commentary.

But, once again - the Manics were the band that truly opened music as an art form for me - not the first artist or band I fell in love with, but the first one I could genuinely call my own discovery and the one that lead me down the rabbit hole. In 1998, my ten-year-old self enjoyed music a whole load but only songs with a kicking beat and a high BPM count. Eurodance was the best thing in the world, current radio hit compilations were about the only albums I owned and the skip button was used heavily for any song that sounded sad or was, worst of all, slow. Then the wordily titled "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" appeared on TV and besides the slightly unsettling video and the mouthful of a title, what struck out the most was how spellbinding the song was even though it defied every single one of the established rules of Good Music I had. The song's melancholy penetrated through the language barrier but it sounded powerful and captivating, and its melody and songwriting were hypnotising even if next to the more comfortablehigh-energy dance cuts I was used to, it was practically a dirge. I don't want to be too embarrasingly personal or build up my own personal mythology too much, but sometimes you need to and with this album I absolutely must. "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours changed the way I viewed and listened to music, and it opened the world for me to discover aspects of music I would have automatically dismissed before - fast forward a few years and it had started to shape my budding music collection in its entirety, as I had fallen in love with the concept of moody guys with guitars.

So it goes. When during our teenage years we picked our faction banners, I chose to obsess over the boys from Blackwood, stalking the forums, hunting down every rarity (released or unreleased), combing through each and every interview ever written and video ever recorded. I eventually calmed down - my fanboyism took a big hit in the late 00s (we'll get to that album) and when I did recover from it and embraced the band again afterwards, it was with a more measured mind. Though, still one that still hunts down every single piece of recorded media they make, buys the lavish deluxe re-releases and overanalyses their place in my world. Thus, the reviews below are just as much a chronicle of myself as they are opinions on the music the records contain. Each album has ended up soundtracking a part of my life that I remember vividly and now associate with those records, and while there have been misses along the way at the end of the day the Manics are my ultimate comfort zone. I feel safe when I hear the sound of James Dean Bradfield's voice, his signature guitar lines, those familiar Wire lyrics. They instill a natural positive reflex in me, even after all this time.

Why do the Manics inspire such loyalty? The great songs, obviously - if you want to simplify it to its very core. But the Manics themselves have always been great characters themselves, and ones that downright urge a potential listener to go on a deep dive. They are a band with fierce amounts of intelligence, charisma and mythology: theirs is a biography full of larger-than-life actions and reactions, catchy one-liners and slogans that define entire eras and story beats that resemble fictitious twists in a particularly adventurous tale. Each album comes with its own story like chapters in a grand epic novel, with incredible amounts of context and background narrative that defines each era. They're the kind of band that drops a number of literary references in their lyrics and then adorns each physical release of theirs with a sleeve quote from writers both famous and obscure, imploring any fan to dig deeper into their inspirations to truly understand what they mean. They're a band who started out as punks who threatened to sell millions with their debut and then self-destruct and eventually became a group of matured songwriters who had gone through great tragedy and who had risen from the ashes in one of music history's great phoenix acts. They're an adventure unto their own that has utterly spoiled every other band for me, because I keep looking for similar expansive contextual quirks elsewhere- but no one has done it quite like the Manics.

And they back up that with incredible skill and talent. James Dean Bradfield's legendary voice and guitar chops are iconic in rock music and Sean Moore is the definition of a drummer who works for the song, rarely showing off but who should be proud that nearly every single beat of his is instantly identifiable and intrinsically linked to the song it's in. Both men are also incredible arrangers and songwriters, being responsible for the majority of the band's music and heading their sonic explorations. Nicky and Richey (for the duration he was in the band until his disappearance - worth a story of it's own and that's in the review for The Holy Bible) may not have been musically adept at first - Richey infamously wasn't even plugged in at concerts - but they both were and are some of the most interesting lyricists in rock music. Both men love their oblique nods and cunning turns of phrase which they've adopted from the thousands of books, films and visual art they've absorbed in their lifetimes, combining those influences into fascinatingly constructed lyrics; Edwards with his form-defining stream-of-consciousness, Wire with the more inwards-turned and personal narratives.

These four men have created a genuine treasure trove musically. They may try to do their best to hide it but deep inside they're an adventurous bunch, exploring new ways of expressing their musical interests and combining their vast inspirations into heady ideas they take forward on their albums. Sometimes they retreat to their comfort zone of bellowing guitar anthems, but eventually they emerge with yet another creative left turn and whiplash, reinventing themselves over and over again. The Manics are technically two bands in general with their quartet and post-Richey incarnations (and many bloody flamewars have been fought about this in the internet), but observe their discography as a whole and it's almost stunning just how often they've creatively shapeshifted and sounded completely new again. And not just on the studio albums. The band's b-sides (their single bonus tracks) are a whole alternative history, which many of their album eras coming with an entire new album's worth of bonus tracks that pack within some of their wildest ideas and sometimes even their best songs. They're the ultimate b-sides band and knowing their albums is knowing only half their worth (quite literally too) - there's a reason there's a separate CD singles page.

This website wouldn't exist without this band. And below, you can find the shared life story of this writer and a Welsh rock band who have becomed tied with his life in a way they've no idea.

Main chronology:

Other releases:

Solo albums:

James Dean Bradfield

Nicky Wire


Also check out the CD single reviews!


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1990 6 "New Art Riot", "Strip It Down"

1) New Art Riot; 2) Strip It Down; 3) Last Exit on Yesterday; 4) Teenage 20/20

Sloganeering naïve punk with no subtlety but some fun hooks.

I'm probably approaching this from the completely incorrect angle but even though this is the debut EP (following a couple of limited print singles) of a group of politically aware young Welsh punks wanting to disrupt the pop culture system, it's just so gosh dang adorable. The young Manic Street Preachers are fiery and hungry for glory, but the future powerhouse vocalist James Dean Bradfield is still bright-eyed and squeaky-voiced, the songs are simple chug-along riffs full of energy and devoid of nuance (and they don't care one bit), and the lyrics are more akin to a selection of wannabe-activist slogans strung together than anything coherent. If there's such a thing as charmingly youthful, then this is it. The baby photos of your favourite band.

Maybe that does New Art Riot EP a little dirty because it has its musical charms too. The Manics showcased here are still far, far away from where they'd be even the following year when they would release their first landmark single "Motown Junk"; these are simple, one-note songs where the sole idea they have going for them is usually presented within the first 30 seconds. But they're catchy songs in a purely primitive fashion. The title track threatens to become almost anthemic in its chorus and has the clearest The Clash influence of the lot, "Strip It Down" is a speeding car heading hundred miles an hour towards the nearest wall and has a ton of fun with it - both are a load of fun in the right mindset. The latter half of the EP isn't quite as up to scratch, though the "we're dead end dolls and nothing's moving" refrain of "Teenage 20/20" ends the EP with a dose of excellent teenage arrogance. "Last Exit on Yesterday" is the obvious slip between the cracks because it's just kind of there, doing the same as the other three songs but without the one big hook that'll lodge it in your mind unexpectedly.

New Art Riot isn't a classic or even a particularly noteworthy debut EP, but it's where the Manics get themselves together for the first time. The singles before this aren't acknowledged or remembered by anyone but the hardcore fans and there's a very good reason for that. This still isn't the grand arrival of a new musical force either, but for the first time there's a hint of the bratty attitude of the early Manics actually mixing up with something musically interesting, and that serves as the launch pad for the real noteworthy singles released up next. New Art Riot meanwhile is a fun little thing best enjoyed by the fans who are hungry enough to get this far down in the discography: there's a certain naïve joy to hearing the future rock powerhouse being a wild bunch of young punks.

Physically: Slim jewel case with thin liner note sheet with the lyrics. Each Manics release is always accompanied by at least one quote in the sleeves that acts as the release's thematic thesis: this time it's "I am nothing and should be everything" by Karl Marx, fitting for a young band hell bent on world domination. The CD I own is the later reissue, the exact year for which I can't find; the artwork for the CD itself on this issue has a number of contemporary reviews of the EP printed on it.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1992 8 "Slash 'n' Burn", "Motorcycle Emptiness", "Stay Beautiful"

1) Slash 'n' Burn; 2) Nat West - Barclays - Midlands - Lloyds; 3) Born to End; 4) Motorcycle Emptiness; 5) You Love Us; 6) Love's Sweet Exile; 7) Little Baby Nothing; 8) Repeat (Stars and Stripes); 9) Tennessee; 10) Another Invented Disease; 11) Stay Beautiful; 12) So Dead; 13) Repeat (UK); 14) Spectators of Suicide; 15) Damn Dog; 16) Crucifix Kiss; 17) Methadone Pretty, 18) Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll

An over the top mess of eyeliner, spray paint and hard rock riffs. But what fun it is.

The goal was to sell sixteen million copies and then break up in a blaze of fire. The cover art was meant to be a photo of the infamous Piss Christ art exhibition and when that failed, the band wanted the packaging to be made out of sand paper so the record would destroy the albums you placed next to it on the shelf. Each song comes with its own quote in the liner notes, from Sylvia Plath to Chuck D, in a wild mix of reading list braggadocio. Manic Street Preachers were going to bring down everything you held dear and take their place as your object of worship whether you wanted to or not - the only love song they had written blatantly stated "you love us", and that wasn't a request.

In reality though, Manic Street Preachers were four young men from Wales with more guts than skill. The supposed rhythm guitarist couldn't even play his instrument, but it's okay because the lead guitarist had more skill than everyone else in the band combined - and the drummer didn't play on the album because he got so obsessed with getting the slickest possible drum sound that the final product is all MIDI programming. They intended their debut album to be too big to ignore, so it was intentionally stuffed to its brims to create something monolithic. Behind the self-built hype machine, you had four nobodies testing just how much bravado they could get away with while having a giggle antagonising every member of the press they came across.

Generation Terrorists certainly was an entrance to remember. Its mixture of 80s hard rock guitars, punk rock power and snappy pop hooks was already out of place and somewhat outdated by the early 90s, but the band had such belief in it you'd be forgiven for thinking they had come up with the sound all on their own. The lyrics are frequently more preoccupied with how many literal references and dictionary deep cuts could be crammed into them, syllable counts or coherency be damned, while the politics the band proudly held up and front were tailored into snappy, attention-grabbing pull quotes. It is, politely put, a mess of an album. But it's a beautiful mess, and the band openly embraced and identified with that very notion - "we're a mess of eyeliner and spray paint"; "we won't die of devotion / understand we can never belong"; "rock and roll is our epiphany / culture, alienation, boredom and despair". When they weren't holding up a finger at the world, they were proudly in love with their own disillusionment and lack of belonging.

There was a chance the band could have realised their lofty ambitions - there is a classic record's worth of material within Generation Terrorists. A lion's share of the credit goes to James Dean Bradfield: Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards may have been the face of the band and in charge of the high-level concepts and themes, but Bradfield carries them. He was a little ridiculous himself and fully in cahoots with Wire and Edwards' plans, but he had the most musical talent out of the lot. He was obviously wearing his Guns 'n' Roses fan club badge on his sleeve and frequently indulges in over-the-top shredding solos; culminating in "Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll", the wonderfully pompous closer of the already-pompous album, which is basically Bradfield showing off his guitar chops (both original and clear rip-offs) for several minutes and it's really hard not to love the sheer audacity of it. But he was already a strong frontman with vocal chops powerful enough to inject real passion and conviction into the shtick his band is pulling, and more importantly his actual songwriting is already well beyond his years here. The actual meat of Generation Terrorists is in riff-laden, glammed-up hair metal/punk rock hybrids and while ludicrous and over the top (thus perfectly befitting their image at the time), Bradfield hits a bullseye chorus after chorus, blasts a signature earworm riff for nearly every tune and has the perfect melodic vocal delivery to any of Wire and Edwards' shout-along lines. "Slash 'n' Burn", "You Love Us" (beefed up here compared to the quirkier early version with its singalong ending replaced by more solos), "Born to End", "Stay Beautiful", "Love's Sweet Exile", "Another Invented Disease", "Methadone Pretty"... that's a run of songs that could constitute for one band's hit singles collection on its own, and only some of those make up Manics'. But those strikes just keep on coming, and each one is a born and bred anthem of pure rock and roll power, performed with the zeal of furious young men wanting to rule the world.

Bradfield's talent also provides the band with the capability to stretch their wings beyond what you would expect, snd scattered throughout Generation Terrorists' running length are flashes of ideas beyond the initial scope. "Little Baby Nothing" continues the love affair with 80s cheese the album is generally characterised by but turns the direction towards honest rock power anthems, and it's utterly marvellous in it because somehow there's still actual sincerity in there: in particular its finale, with Bradfield and guest star Traci Lords (they couldn't get Kylie Minogue like they wanted so their next choice was... a porn star, in true early Manics fashion) raising their voices for their final lines as the fireworks go off behind them is the kind of genuine rock and roll dreams coming true that Meat Loaf could only yearn for. Moving further beyond the established ruleset, the early pre-album b-side "Spectators of Suicide" is transformed from a traditional rock slowburner into an atypically atmospheric dreamscape - there's a surprising ache to its ambience and after already a full album's worth of high intense energy, it's a needed break, even if it loses a little of the original version's gravitas. The undeniable standout is "Motorcycle Emptiness" in all its fame and glory, as stunning as it is baffling: sandwiched between these glammed-up rock takes is a majestic, carefully arranged skyscraper of an anthem that predicted the late 90s Britrock sound to a T, and which really reveals that there's so much more depth to this ramshackle group than the first glance would show. It's a song that could have appeared in any later Manics album and still sound incredible, with its career-defining signature riff and awe-inspiring middle eight, but because where it's placed it sounds even more phenomenal. It's a once in a lifetime kind of song for a band, and here they're just wheeling it out like it's an accidental fluke.

But then there's the rest, and Generation Terrorists' one genuine issue is the inarguable fact that in the process of wanting to make the album bigger, the band threw in a whole load of material that never had an actual place on the record. Some of it is literal, genuine filler that no one would have given a second thought to a minute after recording it: "Damn Dog" is a short cover of an obscure in-universe film song which screams throwaway in concept alone let alone execution, and the Stars and Stripes version of "Repeat" is an aimless remix that tries to inject some vaguely US-styled big-budget beats into a song that isn't particularly interesting even in its original, monarchy-cursing punk take (here labeled as "Repeat (UK)", another three-minute should-be cast-off). While Bradfield's knack for melody is enough to insert at least one memorable hook or another into even the weaker songs, it's still not enough to warrant the need to include the likes of "Tennessee", an early demo that maybe didn't need a reappearance, or "Crucifix Kiss" which is the winner of the album's most uninspired song award - and it really is just dull, in the kind of rare way where nothing of interest registers between going in from one ear and out the other.

The duds are lucky to be in such a good company because they are carried across the finish line by their stronger comrades, but they do slog things down and even when they grow on you, it's akin to developing a tolerance for them for the rest of the album's sake while suppressing the reflex to hit the skip button. Key part of that is the overwhelming charisma of the whole record. The band never genuinely believed they were making an all-time immortal record, but they are absolutely 100% in on their own game, which cuts through the album's silliness, bloat and poor production. The tunes are tailor-made for pogoing and air guitaring, the band's strong personality is constantly present and as clumsy as its lyrics often are, they are perfect soundbites to shout along to music like this. So while the filler is not forgiven, the album's too much fun for the weaker tracks to do too much damage, with only "Repeat (Stars and Stripes)" effectively pausing the album to a halt simply because of the jarring style change. The rest you can deal with, even if you give them a judging side-eye.

If that sounds like too much familiarity required to brush off the flaws then that's fine, because these days Generation Terrorists is largely a fans-only affair. It's hard to imagine someone new coming across this in this day and age and get excited about it, and it certainly doesn't offer anything for people who seek out more things akin to the band's big albums. But for the established fans, it's a way of hearing their favourites operating at the peak of their early day nonsense and that's a valid thing to get your kicks out of. There are great songs but there's also a sufficient amount of clunkiness that's jarring to anyone at first listen and it only becomes endearing once you get to grips with the band's history and the context behind the record, like jumping into a prequel without being familiar with the actual core of the franchise first. Once you find yourself beyond that border though, the album becomes a joyful relic of the past in a way that's clearly biased, but unashamedly so. Of any Manics album this is the one that's grown on me the most over the years because the biggest gap stylistically in their catalogue is between this and everything else and it took some time to adjust; but it while may not be the kind of immortalisation they sought out, the charm inherent in Generation Terrorists is still intact and working after all this time.

Physically: Standard jewel case with full lyrics and some photos in the booklet. As mentioned in the body of the review, rather than a singular sleeve quote summing up the album Manics decided to dedicate a quote to each song instead, and that's too much to list here.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1993 8 "Sleepflower", "From Despair to Where", "La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh)"

1) Sleepflower; 2) From Despair to Where; 3) La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh); 4) Yourself; 5) Life Becoming a Landslide; 6) Drug Drug Druggy; 7) Roses in the Hospital; 8) Nostalgic Pushead; 9) Symphony of Tourette; 10) Gold Against the Soul

Concise, determined and muscular - the showcase for a band who want to be taken seriously, even if there's a coin flip element to whether they land an arena classic or an eccentric hard rock cut.

The great Manics tradition of each album being a reaction to the last starts here, right from their second album Generation Terrorists was the kind of record you could only pull off once successfully, especially after the band's loud brags about selling millions of copies of it and splitting immediately, and so Gold Against the Soul represented a quick rebirth after the band had barely spent time in their initial incarnation, going against the excess and rowdiness of Generation Terrorists. It's a solid ten songs instead of sprawling 18, the make-up and glam are gone and everyone's wearing their best dour rock and roll wear, and the attention-craving political one-liners have been replaced by a more personal, thoughtful lyrical touch - and Moore is playing real drums now. The playtime was over and the Manics wanted to show they were a band worth taking seriously.

For that, the band stepped up a notch, each in their own way. Wire and Edwards' lyrics tackle a wider range of subjects and they start showing their actual talents here, with a finer attention towards the lyrical narratives as a whole rather than just a string of snappy pull quotes. The musical arrangements are more detailed and the production has been polished, and the future Manics staple of a string section accompaniment appearing in a select handful of songs. Above all, it rocks. Gold Against the Soul features a more muscular form of Manics, all hard riffs and extended guitar riffs, with James Dean Bradfield bellowing and steamrolling through the lyrics he's been handed. The band have never been shy about being comfortable with the idea of performing to masses of people in giant stages, and Gold Against the Soul goes all-in in its arena ambitions, and in the process stars showing off far more of the later Manics' DNA in its songs than its predecessor did. It's a little like a talent showcase for the band's capabilities that only occasionally showed up on Generation Terrorists, and much of the album is coloured by the Manics' desire to show that there's more to them than glitter, spray paint and headline-hogging antics. The thing is, sometimes you can dial all that up a little too much and sometimes they can go so against the grain of their previous album that the desire to show change ends up coming across a little cartoonish in its own way.

So, Gold Against the Soul ends up being a little split-natured. For one half of the album it's a blueprint for what's to come for the remainder of the band's 1990s and is the type of stadium rock and roll celebration that history has shown comes the most naturally for them, and all the album's most famous songs come from that vein. But then, for the other half of the album, the band use that same bag of tricks for off-kilter songs where the band fire off in unexpected directions amidst their growing pains. On one hand you have songs like e.g. "From Despair to Where" and "La Tristesse Durera", both which effectively introduce all the band's signature elements together into a singular unit for the first time and sound timeless and classy as a result. But there's a sizable difference between them and the more atypical cuts like the sarcastic hard rock theatre of "Nostalgic Pushead" and the very, very po-faced and aggressive "Symphony of Tourette" and "Yourself", which sound like the glam rocker of the debut album got hit by the early 90s wave of transatlantic alternative rock angst. As compositions go, the latter category are largely very solid, apart from the rather one-dimensional "Drug Drug Druggy" which chugs along pleasantly but shoots itself in the foot with its clunky chorus (the best thing about is the nonsensical alphabet lesson that closes the song). In particular "Nostalgic Pushead" is simply too entertaining not to love as the comedically theatrical side of Manics gets one of its rare appearances, and James sounds like he's having a ball channeling the coke-driven spirit of a washed-out rock superstar. But then, contrast it with the orchestrally accentuated Britrock swells of e.g. "From Despair to Where" and it's like listening to same band but across two different timelines.

While the aloof side of the album is great in its own way ("Yourself" and "Symphony of Tourette" may be unintentionally silly but they are catchy as anything), the real glory does lie in its singles run - this is one of the few instances where all four of the album's singles were the absolutely correct choices and each of them is a major or minor classic in the band's catalogue. The aforementioned "From Despair to Where" and "La Tristesse Durera" are the album's golden children, the latter especially so: the bass-driven build-up with James' falsetto effectively rearing its head leads way into a simply sublime anthem with one of Bradfield's signature riffs and a triumphantly brilliant climax (and the simple moment where the song bursts into its full volume after its first chorus has never lost its shine). The gloriously strolling"Roses in the Hospital" injects a bittersweet ray of sunshine into the album with its bouncy arrangement and jovial surface mood (particularly with James' ad-libbing towards its end), but its lyrics start foreshadowing the more intense self-reflection the band would go to take on the next album. Finally, "Life Becoming a Landslide" puts together the album's gentler and rawer sides as it alternates between its head-banger riffs and torchlight anthem choruses. All four songs are showcases for a band who have consciously and intentionally taken great stride in leveling up and are now showing their work, and the boxes that Generation Terrorists' "Motorcycle Emptiness" nodded at are now starting to get ticked full-time.

Special mention also goes to the album's bookends, which are the closest the album gets to a bridge between its zig-zagging nature. "Sleepflower" is a beast of a song and a somewhat of a grown-up version of the band's prior intentionally over-the-top nature. It's clear there was a want to make an explosive opener to show what's changed right from the get-go and they decided to go all-in with it: the extended breakdown that goes from moody church bells to a dueling guitar solo across a couple of minutes of runtime is one of the most deliriously powerful musical histrionics this band has ever done. But, they still stuff a really good song around those theatrics and it's one of Manics' straightforwardly strongest honest rock anthems. Meanwhile the closing title track covers itself in various filters and layers like its fistpump-ready hooks are playing hide and seek: but beneath those effects it has real fire and lightning in its gut, with some of James' best pure guitar riffage intermingling with genuine political rage in its lyrics, which are a long mile away from the sloganeering nature of the debut. The soaring chorus is both angry and liberated, James spitting out lines like venom while acknowledging that musically, this is where the jubilant fireworks will go off.

In terms of pure rock powerhouse performance, Gold Against the Soul is one of Manics' strongest - so it's perhaps surprising that despite its iconic singles, it has a somewhat muted reception among the general populace and the majority of fans (and the band but that's like 80% of their discography for them). But look at it from another angle: it's perhaps equally surprising that you could have those four readily-formed hit singles here when so much of the album feels like it's going towards a different direction. It's not a cohesive record at all - but it is consistent. Generation Terrorists already proved that even when they were at their prime messiness, the band could already write a heck of a song despite of it. With Gold Against the Soul, there are so many genuine leaps forward in the overall ideas and performance that most everything here is genuinely very good, and it doesn't have to rely on pure charisma now and then like its predecessor did. Or to put it differently, this is one occasion where the band were true to their word: they wanted to be taken seriously and sure enough, this is the album where they became a serious band with real ambitions. It results in a genuinely great record, even if occasionally unfocused

Physically: Jewel case with lyrics and a ton of stylish black studio photos of the band in their brand new Serious Rock Group mode. The liner quote is Primo Levi's poem "Song of Those Who Died in Vain".


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1994 9 "Archives of Pain", "Faster", "This Is Yesterday"

1) Yes; 2) IfwhiteAmericatoldthetruthitsworldwouldfallapart; 3) Of Walking Abortion; 4) She Is Suffering; 5) Archives of Pain; 6) Revol; 7) 4st 7lb; 8) Mausoleum; 9) Faster; 10) This Is Yesterday; 11) Die in the Summertime; 12) The Intense Humming of Evil; 13) P.C.P.

Confrontational, nihilistic, visceral - Manics unleash their anxiety and Richey Edwards digs deep into the darkest parts of his imagination.

It's really rather impossible to talk about The Holy Bible without talking about Richey Edwards in more detail at the same time. Edwards had never been an important member to the band musically - his guitar playing was rudimentary, non-existent on record and literally silenced on stage - but he drove the band forward thematically through their image-heavy early years, where their manifestos were as important as the music. Edwards was largely in charge of the band's visuals both in artwork and the frequent costume design, he was one of the band's primary spokespeople in front of the press and his idiosyncratic lyrical tone gave the band their own unique voice. While he shared many of these duties 50/50 with bassist Nicky Wire, The Holy Bible saw him take a larger creative control of the process. His mental and physical health began to deteriorate following the tour for Gold Against the Soul, and it spurred him on a wild creative spree. He was churning out lyric after lyric, and they had started to become increasingly cryptic and disturbed, filled with a sense of loathing for the self and everything else.

The Holy Bible by association has become a monument of a pained man lost in his own mind, and the band themselves lionise it as such, as Richey's album. Wire had moved to a new house after getting recently married and with Richey's new direction being so far in his own world, Wire found that he wasn't able to contribute to the lyrics in the same fashion as he had before. This lead to Edwards inadvertently taking direct control of where the band was heading thematically, with Wire merely contributing a few songs and the occasional title. Edwards' lyrics at this point barely functioned as such in form or format, and the material was also significantly darker and increasingly hard to decipher. Some of the new songs were painfully autobiographical even if disguised, most blatantly the anorexia-tackling "4st 7lb". Others were erratic political commentaries and allegories, some of which flippantly addressed the topics of the day while others were abnormally brutal (the band to this day still can't say whether the death-penalty favouring "Archives of Pain" is meant to be serious or sarcastic); though it's worth noting that the most blatant political cut, the obviously targeting "IfwhiteAmerica..." was mostly Wire's work. Heavy traces of deadpan irony and sarcasm lace through most lines, and prevalent throughout is particularly violent and morbid imagery: the opener "Yes" launches right into a narrative of tearing off an underage boy prostitute's genitalia in its first chorus and that's just a prelude for what the rest of the album contains. The words are cold, nihilistic, hopeless and free-form - the stream-of-consciousness journals of a man viewing the world and seeing nothing worth salvaging.

But Edwards is half the story behind The Holy Bible. While the album is undeniably centered around its primary writer, the rest of the band were under creative crisis of their own. The process behind Gold Against the Soul had left an unsavoury taste in the whole band's mouth - too bombastic, too American, too much of big studio production. Shortly after its release the band had also lost a close friend in their manager Philip Hall, who had been a key element of the Manics ever getting a chance in the music world and who had been their guiding mentor. The band were going through a loss of direction and weren't certain how to recover from it, but their label's offers of even flashier studios definitely felt like the wrong step forward. In retaliation the band opted for the opposite, to pare things down and impose limits. The Holy Bible was recorded in a cheap studio with a tightly regimented, intense schedule, in an environment removed from any additional distractions. Absolute focus, no social life, only work - the band worked extended hours from morning until evening, strict and disciplined. The songs were approached methodically, each element and section scrutinised. Every part of the band's existence was centered around and obsessed over the music they were making.

The Holy Bible is a very visceral and instinctual album, but its songs required that kind of scrutiny. The Manics always worked on their music lyrics first, and the words Richey were providing required a new kind of focus and inventiveness from James and Sean - the principal songwriters - in order to shape them into songs. The two responded to the challenge by similarly abandoning their former habits and the signature elements they had began to develop on the first two albums - and they went somewhere completely different. From a compositional point of view The Holy Bible is a humongous step askew for the Manics and at times it's borderline chaotic. The songs are full of various C- and D-sections that turn up once or twice and usually mutated in some way. Sometimes the songs suddenly change tract altogether, e.g. the intro to "PCP" is like from a wholly different song to the rest and "4st 7lb" flicks from anxiety-plagued dissonance to a waltz at halfway point. The verses erratically flip through vocal melodies because the structure of the lyrics dictate it so, and Bradfield's vocals are at times as abstract as the lyrics as he abandons all notion of English stress and syllable structure rules and squashes in Richey's lines into bars; the stuttering syllable blender of the pre-choruses of "Mausoleum" is a particularly brilliant example, and a key part of what makes that song hit so hard. If the words are off-kilter, Bradfield made their delivery to match.

The band also responded to the intensity of Edwards lyrics with a musical intensity of their own, so Bradfield's guitars scream and buzzsaw, while Moore's drums storm with military precision. Chaotic band breakdown outros are a regular occurrence, be it the accusatory and potently explicit screaming of "Of Walking Abortion" and "Faster" or the instrumental fury of "Archives of Pain", which corks its menacing intensity with an extended guitar solo that keeps accelerating before it hits the wall. While the words are full of dark thoughts towards everything, the music stays cold, detached and brutal, with mathematical precision in its curves and swerves rather than pathos or affecting melancholy. Rather than brood over everything, the Manics are detached, laying judgement but uncaringly of whether it's actually heard or agreed with - and that just makes songs like the ominously calm and collected "Yes" and the matter-of-fact delivery of "Faster" all the stronger. If there's a prevailing emotion peeking through, it's pure fury. The album is frequently cited as one of the darkest albums of the 1990s but that has always seemed a bit hyperbolic to me: it's vitriolic and grim for sure, but it's far from the kind of crushing defeatism that normally accompanies truly dark albums. The Holy Bible is, if anything, the opposite of wallowing in its anxiety: it's defiantly kicking around in the darkness, perhaps depressed but angry about it. It's full of vitriol, vim and vitality.

The Manics haven't fully abandoned their rock anthem genetics with The Holy Bible, but even the more traditional songs sound wraught and neurotic. Where Gold Against the Soul brought forward the notion of Manics as arena-embracing rock heroes, The Holy Bible's first taster was "Faster", a frantic post-punk fit where the closest thing to a crowd-pleaser is the repeated yells of "man kills everything". Much like the rest of the album, it's twitchy, twisted and detached, with outbursts of rage splattered across it. The Holy Bible is in a constant balancing act between sinking into that rage and finding some weird sense of humour out of it, with the sociopathically calm "Yes" in one end and the batshit dictator/sex-metaphore mashup pop punk of "Revol" on the other. "IfwhiteAmerica..." could have been a metal song if you tweaked its heaviness just a little bit, though in its current state it flips brilliantly between the molotov riot verses, Eagleland backing vocals of the bridge and riff-chugging choruses. The manic "Of Walking Abortion" and "Archives of Pain" are two of the album's most ravaged cuts where the neurotic flicks of the context surrounding the album push to surface. The latter in particular is fearsome in its inspired unhingedness, while also featuring one of the band's few iconic bass lines - and if anything describes the album's twisted nature, it's Bradfield sneakily slipping his own band's name into the litany of dictators and mass murderers as an off-the-cuff joke. That kind of erratic streak of attitude further stops The Holy Bible from being just a really dark album. Where Richey wasn't already hiding a very subtle sense of snark in the lyrics, Bradfield takes the opportunity to cut through the tension by occasionally sounding genuinely delighted he gets to go wild with the music. The devilish glee of "P.C.P.", kicking the walls down in peppy punk abandon at the end, finally offers a little bit of genuine free-spirit fun (or as close as you can get to it) right at the very end of the album in an unexpectedly light finale.

Still, it has its dark spots. "4st 7lb" is downright harrowing because of how brutally naked emotionally it is, and the deranged verse melodies of "Die in the Summertime" give it a foreboding undertone that crawls under the skin. Even the unexpected tranquil of "This Is Yesterday", with its shimmery summery guitars and serene atmosphere, is ultimately a song that hides an incredible amount of sadness within its facade; but amongst its fellow songs, it still sounds like a momentary oasis in the middle of the frozen wasteland. "She Is Suffering" is an odd one out in first glance, with its more elegant production and disconcerningly groove-flirting, Nirvana-goes-disco rhythm sounding almost too suave in this kind company; but its haunting atmosphere placed together with the four-to-the-floor beat is a surprisingly effective combination. Even all these songs have pieces of them that stop them from going too deep, like the bright choruses of "Die in the Summertime" or the typically Manics-esque guitar solo breaking through "She Is Suffering". The only song that really just lingers in its mood is the brooding holocaust lament "The Intense Humming of Evil", which is as obviously serious as you'd expect: it's a sparsely arranged hollow ghost of a song built over an ominous drum loop, and it's utterly removed sound-wise from anything else the band had ever done. Out of everything on the album it's the song that most hammers in the sheer bleakness of the record's mindset, as if the band decided that the horror of its subject matter is too grave to not submit to it, and that in order to hammer it through the music should have only the most necessary elements and nothing more.

The diversity within its covers and the album's raw power is why The Holy Bible continues to amaze. On The Holy Bible the Manics accelerated furiously beyond their established scope and came up with something absolutely crazy, definitely inspired and absolutely unique. While they had already proven their worth as a powerful rock band, The Holy Bible's fixated intensity and irreverent musical attitude reveals a side of the band that they've very rarely let shine. Musically they're more adventurous, opening more doors than the last two albums combined, and some of the areas here still stand out in their uniqueness in the band's whole back catalogue. It's why The Holy Bible has always been to me more about its music as a whole than about its words - it's still thrilling in its off-the-cuff melodies and sheer strength, and listening through it is an intense experience because of how fervent it is. It's not quite a perfect record but it's close, and the gap is only down to personal minutae rather than any actual chinks in the armour.

In February 1995 Edwards left the hotel the band was staying right before the start of their American tour, and vanished; no trace of him has been found since. His disappearance closed off the first chapter of Manics' history, and ensured that the band could never really follow up on The Holy Bible even if they had wanted to (and much later on they would try). It not only sealed the album's legacy as Richey's last will and testament, but ensured that it would stay as a particularly fearsome and wholly unique creature within the band's discography. If their early days were characterised by the complete and sincere conviction in what the band were doing regardless of what the outside world was thinking, then The Holy Bible was its unexpected apex: it's singular in its vision and truly committed to its sound and themes, characterised by pure gut instinct far more than anything else they would go to record. As the most iconic line in the entire album puts it, "I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing".

Physically: Once again, a standard jewel case with full lyrics, though presented in a jumbled up order. The sleeve quote continues the early Manics tradition of really lengthy quotes with an excerpt from Octave Murdeau's "The Torture Garden".


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1996 8 "A Design for Life", "Enola/Alone", "Everything Must Go"

1) Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier; 2) A Design for Life; 3) Kevin Carter; 4) Enola/Alone; 5) Everything Must Go; 6) Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky; 7) The Girl Who Wanted to Be God; 8) Removables; 9) Australia; 10) Interiors (Song for Willem De Kooning); 11) Further Away; 12) No Surface All Feeling

Loss and determination projected through orchestrated guitar anthems. Not just a new chapter but a grand new start.

The Holy Bible had always been an anomaly. Manics' third album wasn't part of the expected trajectory for them, it was something that burst out of its context: a high-strung band lashing out their internal intensity. They would have never been able to follow it up like-to-like, and certainly not after Richey Edwards vanished without a trace in February 1995. Manics' entire legacy was looking to finish there and then, three best friends uncertain whether they could continue without the fourth. It took the coming together of one particular song to convince the band to continue, to assure them that they still had more to say by staying together.

The Manics didn't fit in with the Britpop scene raging on in the mid-90s UK, but "A Design for Life" briefly made them part of it. Much like Pulp and "Common People", this was a seasoned band striking a chord by painting the ever-present British class tensions clearly visible and dressing it up in a form that captured the attention of those who heard it over the radio. The Manics had been plenty anthemic before, see Gold Against the Soul for the 101 class on that, but "A Design for Life" is something else. It's refined, with its leading jangle and the petite guitar strikes punctuating every beat. The strings feel alive, swiveling around the structure of the song with class. The chorus is a grand act, each appearance like a rousing finale in its own right, Bradfield shouting his lungs with the belief of his band's namesake. There's a weighty gravitas to his voice and to the sound that the band had never had before. It lead to "A Design for Life" becoming a career-defining hit in the UK and it launched the band to mass consciousness in an unprecedented way. For a band who had semi-jokingly started their career with the manifesto of becoming global superstars from day one (and then split immediately afterwards but let's forget about that one), it was a huge moment purely from a personal perspective; just completely unintended this time around.

That moment of triumph was something the band deserved after everything they had gone through, as they resurrected themselves from a moment of darkness in a phoenix-like fashion. Everything Must Go is an album about loss and learning how to deal with it, finding the will to live again no matter how hard it seems - if The Holy Bible was a dark, fearful storm then its follow-up was the day after, everything in the neigbourhood damaged and blown down but the gentler skies above giving the chance to rebuild again. "A Design for Life" is uncharacteristic in its directly political nature for the rest of the album, with Wire spending most of his debut as the band's sole lyricist reflecting on loss ("Enola/Alone" was inspired by a photo of Richey and the band's former, deceased manager Philip Hall posing together), the internal guilt of moving on from it ("Everything Must Go") and the instinctual desire to run away ("Australia", so named because it was the furthest place geographically that came to Wire's mind). Songs that the band had started with Richey and still featured his lyrics were chosen to be finalised as a form of tribute; to cap it off, the reverb-drenched outro to the album-closing "No Surface All Feeling" is the only known instance of Richey's guitar playing making it to a studio album. None of the three men were fully comfortable moving on without Richey but while the album is surrounded by his ghost, the music itself plays with clarity and liberation: it's a three-legged dog learning to run again and embracing the unity their band still brings to them.

Everything Must Go sets up what we can consider the archetypical Manic Street Preachers sound: big guitar walls, a helping of strings and a sense of uplifting melancholy permeating throughout, where quiet introspection meets grandstanding choruses. The key difference is how the band tone things down from the flashiness of the earlier albums; where the band formerly embraced the dramatics of their whole performance, now the actual song has become the key thing that everything else works in service to. This includes Bradfield cutting his guitar histrionics down and placing less emphasis on showcase solos, sometimes even opting for a less-is-more approach as seen on "A Design for Life", and overall paying more attention to the overall arrangement of each part rather than just letting himself lead the way at all times. Everything Must Go offers the band's best melodic work to date and it matches it perfectly with the triumphant rock choruses that the bound found themselves drawn into following the initial conception of "A Design for Life" serving as the launch pad. These anthems are the best parts of the album as well, with the bittersweet "Enola/Alone" and the gloriously sweeping title track easily rivalling their famous hit sibling, and the escapist joy of "Australia" and the heartache of "No Surface All Feeling" providing the late-album counterparts that more than match up. They're all phenomenal songs, full of heart as much as they have sheer power. The only thing you could count against them is the overall middling drum sound that discolours the entire album, which lacks the punch needed for these types of songs; it's not a major complaint but it's been my bugbear since day one and I had to interject it somewhere here.

The more nuanced direction also gives way to some sudden breaks from its guitar volume. The primarily acoustic "Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky" most obviously of all; it serves as the unofficial direct tribute to Richey, utilising one of the more directly sad lyrics he left behind as the guiding force for a solemn, melancholy number that gets a gentle lilt from a delicate harp behind Bradfield's otherwise bare-bones arrangement. "Removables" is the other most identifiably Edwards-heavy song of the set and it's also similarly moody, with a brooding, growing intensity which points out that The Holy Bible days weren't that long ago, remixing that album's musical landscape into something more befitting of the band at the present. The best thing about the sequence where both of these tracks appear is that the song sandwiched between them, "The Girl Who Wanted to Be God", is the album's single-handedly most musically jubilant number, and it makes the entire trio of songs sound stronger thanks to the contrast; "The Girl Who Wanted to Be God" itself is a jubilant, sweet number full of strings and love for vintage pop swoons, and it jumps furthest and brightest into the orchestral accompaniments that the band saw fit to include across the album. There's also a leap to suddenly acknowledging rhythm which paves way to some of the album's best deep cuts. "Kevin Carter" is an iconic single on its own right but somewhat hidden in-between the more obvious anthems, but its borderline funky groove and Moore's trumpet debut is something previously unheard for the band and somehow perfectly underlines the song's neurotic lyrics. "Interiors" is the album's hidden gem, similarly dominated by its janky bass groove which gives way to a musically poignant, swooping chorus where James' voice resonates far more than the song's biographical nature would allude to.

That extra oomph of resonance - or feeling, or however you want to call it - is at the heart of Everything Must Go. The songs are great (though "Further Away", which is a good enough tune, always felt a bit in the wrong crowd even if it's grown on me over the years), not just musically top-notch but they bear the sound of the formerly almost cartoon-like band finally revealing their true selves, and letting the emotion underneath subsequently wash over. Manics accidentally tapped into the musical zeitgeist of the time but Everything Must Go has always been an awkward fit to the Britpop canon, not just because of the history of the band themselves but because it's too sincere, too heartfelt among the company of posers and patriotic cosplay that most of its peers were characterised by. The songs have the bombast of a stadium-soaring fist-pumper (and they'd naturally become such for the band), but beneath the walls of sound is a heartbroken band putting absolutely everything of themselves into every single note, because they needed it to survive and to go on. It doesn't matter if the subject matter was a political lambast, a biographical narrative of whoever they last read about or something thus-far uncharacteristically sincere - it's made to sound like the band depend on it to survive. It's the most characteristic element of Everything Must Go and the aspect that splits it apart from the numerous attempts the band would try to recreate its sound in the coming decades: come in for the catchy choruses, stay for the sudden emotional swells.

When the Manics debuted with Generation Terrorists, they were characterised by the album's pure conviction for the music and what it represented, in the way that the ideal kind of debut from a hungry young band only can. Only five years had passed in-between, but the raggedy glam punks were now melancholy, experienced craftsmen and Everything Must Go stands as a new debut album, re-establishing Manics' new identity. Everything Must Go carries the legacy of its preceding album trilogy on its back but it is in the purest possible way a true reinvention for the band. While it's massively different from the albums before it, its sound and style are a natural fit for the band, as if this is what they were born for all this time along, it just took an odd way to get there. It's not a shout against the former albums, nor its me saying this is absolutely one of the band's very best: but it's a life-affirming record that's more special than it mayhaps initially comes across as.

Physically: Jewel case with a fold-out booklet with lyrics and a bunch of photos of various body parts of the band in line with the frames on the cover. Liner quote: "The pictures I contemplate painting would constitute a halfway state and an attempt to point out the direction of the future - without arriving there completely" - Jackson Pollock. A fitting statement for a band in search of a way forward.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1998 10 "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next", "Ready for Drowning", "Black Dog on My Shoulder"

1) The Everlasting; 2) If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next; 3) You Stole the Sun from My Heart; 4) Ready for Drowning; 5) Tsunami; 6) My Little Empire; 7) I'm Not Working; 8) You're Tender and You're Tired; 9) Born a Girl; 10) Be Natural; 11) Black Dog on My Shoulder; 12) Nobody Loved You; 13) S.Y.M.M.

Manics embrace introspectivity, go personal, lock up in the studio and explore new ways to craft songs. It's worlds apart from anything that came before but it's what everything has built up to so far.

So, as described in the introductionary paragraph, "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" has held an immensely important role in my development as a music fan. Therefore this is a defining record of my life, and probably the defining record, and I wanted to bring that up at this stage so that you can adjust your bias lenses accordingly regarding the rest of this ramble.

"If You Tolerate This" wasn't a typical Manics single, and as a follow-up to their chart-topper record it was a whiplash. All things considered the Manics should have felt triumphant after the wide-scale breakthrough of Everything Must Go given how they had always wanted to be a big rock band, and for a little while they did enjoy basking in the spotlight and reaping the rewards of their unexpected success. But massive highs tend to be followed by a comedown. Compared to its anthemic predecessor it took a completely different route, and in retrospect it's a surprise it found listeners in the same way - if anything, the hype train got even bigger as "If You Tolerate This" caused ripples across Europe and pushed the band further after conquering the UK the last time around. Following the stadium rock glory of Everything Must Go the Manics decided to unexpectedly move further inwards, retreating into an introspective space within the confinements of the studio where the band now had the means and the budget to do whatever they wanted.

By this point Manics had been many things already - often bold, boisterous and loud - but never had they been so melancholy and so quiet as on This Is My Truth, and the main credit for that goes to Nicky Wire. Everything Must Go still featured some of his former co-lyricist Richey Edwards' words in a posthumous fashion, and so This Is My Truth was the first time Wire had to take on the responsibility of the band's lyrical (and by proxy, thematical) direction fully on top of his own shoulders. Everything Must Go had already introduced a more introspective, contemplative direction for Wire as without Edwards' mad creativity he struggled with his place in the band and the world, and found himself tuning onto those feelings in his lyrics. This Is My Truth became an extension for that direction. The band's former political lean became a sidetract, a side flavouring for the world where the center was Wire himself: still lost, still full of self-doubt and obsessed about ruminating on time, legacy and even identity.

It's with This Is My Truth where Wire really finds his own voice as a lyricist. As any fan can attest Wire has always been very fond of talking about himself, and while it's not in the way he probably intended, as a lyricist that's exactly where his strengths lie instead of his political aspirations. Wire has rarely opened up about any greater mental health issues of his, but he's a man frequently obsessed by his own past and who views the present day through that yearning nostalgia, and who then opens himself up to various insecurities and doubt while doing so. The likes of "This Is Yesterday" during the quartet years already hinted at this, but following Richey's disappearance that instict really took over and following the initial reflections on Everything Must Go, Wire's full lyrical debut on This Is My Truth was to open up on those feelings even further - and he finally takes the leap from an interesting lyricist to a great one. He's a contemplative writer who frequently sees the world around him as an extension of his own identity, and in his lyrics he frequently tries to reconcile the two, reflecting on himself and the context surrounding him in various degrees of uncertainty: by "Born a Girl" he's downright regretting his entire self. Bar the odd clunky simile he can't avoid, Wire's words have heft and resonance throughout and they're consistently great, which given how much of a fuss the band had made about their lyrics by this point does genuinely matter. The closing "S.Y.M.M." is the testament of Wire's skill on This Is My Truth: it's a song about trying to reflect on something so terrible that you can't put it into words and that writing a song about it is impossible (namely, the Hillsborough disaster), and the combination of the words and Bradfield's performance really sells the tragedy behind the quirky concept; and it leads to the simple, blunt chorus to sound like it's quietly holding back pure rage whenever it appears.

Rather than fight against the sadness like with the previous album, this time Bradfield and Moore - who would write to Wire's lyrics rather than the other way around - corresponded to it. This Is My Truth begins with the quiet drum machine countdown of "The Everlasting" and the song never quite explodes even if the strings start swelling dramatically by its end; it's a torchsong that refuses to become one and keeps chaining itself to the ground, sounding little more hopeless each time it does. It's a signifier of the change of pace, with songs averaging around 5-6 minutes, full of small but crucial sonic details and often advancing at a patient, slow pace. The band are treating the studio as an instrument of its own, and that means two things. One is a more layered sound, with far more guest instruments than before, always utilised to create something memorable and remarkable: signature elements such as the church organ of "Ready for Drowning", the ghostly electric sitar of "I'm Not Working" and the iconic distorted organ stab racing through "If You Tolerate This", and keyboards and pianos are now a regular part of the sound. When the band's signature string sections are present, they rarely rest still acting pretty: in particular the orchestral harmony of "Black Dog on My Shoulder" is, no contest, the finest appearance of strings in the Manics catalogue, as they swivel back and forth, crescendoing with the extended instrumental outro, surrounding the band with a majestically elegiac power. It makes an already classy song into something truly regal - among the deep sonics of the album it sounds the most rooted into the room you are in right now, and then the orchestral section elevates it into high heavens by its closing crescendo.

The other defining element of This Is My Truth is the use of space within the sound. This Is My Truth most often sounds like it's played in grand halls or churches, a giant sound reverberating within wide booming walls, each instrument and sound given a place to breathe despite the layers in arrangement. "I'm Not Working" takes this the most extreme, with the space being the defining element of the song as its sparse lead melodies float and echo into a forever, Bradfield's worn-out vocals existing for brief moments of time in the center of the universe the band are floating in. Most of the album doesn't quite go that far, but that vastness is used beautifully throughout: to create an intimate surrounding in the vulnerable and broken "Born a Girl" and the bitter and defeated "My Little Empire", to accentuate the majestic ascends of "Be Natural", or to twist the barely-in-control rage of "S.Y.M.M." into something otherworldly. This Is My Truth doesn't really show off with its production - despite the elements at play it's actually surprisingly down to earth in its fidelity - but its breathing space lends its melancholy a veneer of grace and beauty. Despite everything it's restful in its autumnal solitude, rather than dark and brooding.

The ability to grow the arrangements beyond the core of the band allows Bradfield to also really push forward with his melodic skills. Bradfield always was the musical centrepiece of the Manics: for most of the band's history he had been the man responsible for more or less every musical flourish while juggling how to perform the songs live where he had to pull most of the weight. On This Is My Truth he took the chance to explore other avenues, letting his talent for arrangement shine from one instrument to another, no longer wanting to rely fully on his guitar or leading each song onto the mandatory stand-off solo. A few times throughout the album he lets his own signature instrument fade away from spotlight nearly completely, such as on "I'm Not Working" where the guitar's sparse melodies barely act as the glue in the ether, and on the uncharacteristically delicate, piano-lead "You're Tender and You're Tired". His passion for each song having an iconic, distinct hook is still well alive but thanks to the new possibilities, former could-be straightforward anthems like "Be Natural" are taken to wholly new realms of possibilities sonically and quite frankly elevated: "Be Natural" was originally considered the album's lead single and its transformation of the traditional Manics anthem into something stargazing and dream-like would have been an effective statement of intent in its own right. Bradfield is clearly having a field day exploring new territories musically and it has a knock-on effect to his songwriting: he's bringing out a classic melody after another here, from each verse and chorus to any bridge, breakdown and extended outro (which he's still handing out abundantly like on Everything Must Go, but now in more varieties than just louder guitars) he can conjure

This Is My Truth still erupts in guitars from time to time and when it does, it feels more meaningful as the album's established sound world is shaken up. The liberated noise of Bradfield's guitars exploding is the catharsis for the slow-burning emotion elsewhere, allowing those feelings to burst out. "Ready for Drowning" and "Nobody Loved You" in particular act as the album's vital heartbeats - the former's walls of noise are the musical representation of the waves in the song's lyrical imagery, burying history underneath its sound, and "Nobody Loved You" starts the trend of now traditional token Richey songs with a wistful, dynamic purge of emotion dressed up as an arena anthem, a last tearjerking rage into the night. "You Stole the Sun from My Heart" and "Tsunami" on the other hand are the needed breaks from the rest of the album's tone: both in subject (one a disguised hate letter for extended touring, the other one of Wire's frequent lyrical biographies of whoever he's read about recently, this time The Silent Twins), as well as in sound with a more outwardly oriented direction. They're the nods to the audience that the band picked up with the last album, but tailored into a format that doesn't sound out of place or condescending: both, and especially the delicately presenting but slyly storming "Tsunami" that really showcases its muscular vibrancy by the time the band build it back up from the quiet middle eight, are among the band's best out-and-out rockers.

They are all incredible songs - full of resonance, melodic strength and detail in arrangement, each one with the potential to be breathtaking or the most vital thing in the existence when the world calls for it. I could write a paragraph on each (and I have elsewhere) if it wasn't unbearable to read through. But "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" is still above them all. It's a masterpiece of a song, with every second bringing something immortal: from the alien distorted organ sound swirling through it, to one iconic line after another (and the first verse alone is one hell of an opening segment which signals straightaway you're in for something grand), the hi-hat heavy beat shuffling through the song in a way that highlights the brilliance of Sean Moore as a drummer who knows the perfect beat to each song, and the organ of the chorus amping up the tender sadness of the song. Everything from about 2:30, when the second chorus ends, leaves me completely disarmed: the guitar solo, the greatest-of-all-time bridge, the last chorus full of desperation and defiance, the extended finale where James lets his wordless vocals race around the air because no words can be enough anymore. It never fails to give me chills down my back. It's probably my favourite song of all time? It certainly feels like no other song and has more importance than anything else, no matter how many times over the years I've heard it it always hits me in full force.

This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is a special record. It transcends the standard ways I evaluate albums simply because it's become such an integral part of who I am as a person and as a music listener: it's the clear watermark between how I interacted music before it, and afterwards. It taught me things about myself and music as a phenomenon. It taught me that lyrics can matter, even when I could barely speak English; but I mimed those words without understanding what I meant, and piece by piece and word by word understanding what they stood for (and I have James to thank about how I continue pronounce "genuine"). It taught me that details matter, that tiny moments can bring forth great experiences within music. It taught me not everything hits at 100% immediately: unlocking This Is My Truth was a slow process because of my childhood hang-ups but the songs I balked at in the first instance later became close favourites. It is quite literally an album that has stood with me from the beginning of what I consider the start of me as a devoted music listener, and the only way I can judge it against anything else is by considering it as the high example of what I compare my other 10/10 albums against, that if something can come close to the visceral emotional resonance this has then it is a sign of something special.

For Manics too, it's become the pinnacle of their career. They would go on to do many amazing things since, some even coming so very close to this one that my old self had active debates on which I'd prefer, and in terms of pure style it's not something I would consider as the purest distillation of what Manics are about. But it's the moment where everything clicked together perfectly without any of the quirks and ifs and buts which always have a habit of appearing with this band; where the musicianship, the songwriting, the lyricism, the performance and the production all meet in perfect balance to create a cohesive, unified statement that's both a set of 13 incredible songs as well as an hour-long showcase for three musicians at the peak of their creative imperial phase. Introspectivity has always suited the Manics but they're often hesitant to acknowledge it because it often clashes with their instinctual desire for grand, anthemic heights: for once in their lifetime, they married the two sides together perfectly.

Physically: Standard jewel case with lyrics and artwork. It took me embarrassingly long to realise that the first 13 photos of the collage of Wire's polaroids in the opening pages corresponds to each of the album's 13 songs. The liner quote is another long excerpt, this time from R.S. Thomas' "Reflections" ("The furies are at home...").


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2001 9 "Ocean Spray", "Intravenous Agnostic", "Wattsville Blues"

1) Found That Soul; 2) Ocean Spray; 3) Intravenous Agnostic; 4) So Why So Sad; 5) Let Robeson Sing; 6) The Year of Purification; 7) Wattsville Blues; 8) Miss Europa Disco Dancer; 9) Dead Martyrs; 10) His Last Painting; 11) My Guernica; 12) The Convalescent; 13) Epicentre; 14) Royal Correspondent; 15) Baby Elián; 16) Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children; 17) We're All Bourgeois Now [hidden track]

Untamed, chaotic, intentional crash into a brick wall - far away from the polished rock anthems of the hit albums before it. And it's fantastic.

After the two hit album streak of Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, the Manics had reached the success they had always wanted, and they were miserable. Their rise in popularity and streak of radio hit singles had turned them into the flavour of the month, the band finding themselves disconnected from their own art as their increasingly sizeable concert venues became filled with people who only knew the hits. They had started their career with overshot ambitions of millions of record sales and now that they had done it, typically for the band, they started to react against it. The New Years 2000 stand-alone single "The Masses Against the Classes", released to welcome in the new millennium as an indication of things to come, showcased the band in a more furious, energetic and rawer form than they had been in years. Afterwards, the band retreated to Spain in isolation from the British music press and began to work on the album that they deemed their intentional self-destruction. Rather than craft elaborate anthems in the studio over a few months, all songs were written, performed and recorded quickly to allow for intuition to take lead and to welcome any idea no matter what it was - no more than three practice runs were allowed before recording the song with as few takes as possible. The initial intention was to revive their old punk roots but as the band stopped censoring themselves, any single idea that came to mind was deemed worthy of recording; everything under the sun was thrown around, produced to different degrees of polish (or not) and sometimes mixed together in form of creative chaos.

The initial plan was to release absolutely everything they recorded, either in the form of a double album or two different albums Use Your Illusion style, but what eventually formed out of the sessions was Know Your Enemy. 16 songs and one hidden track, shifting from quickfire punk rockers to pristinely produced Beach Boys pastiches, from ramshackle acoustic ballads to drum-machine driven weariness, from spoken word angst to disco. The c-part of a song left out of the album was cut and included as a mid-album hidden interlude. The bassist who had never sung lead before does his debut while the frontman who had never written a lyric in the band's entire career finally gets the courage to do so. Even Wire himself, as the band’s regular lyricist, zips back and forth between the introspection and melancholy of the past two albums, clumsy but direct political stabs and plain word salad. The running order of the songs has no reason or rhyme and could just as well have been shuffled. To represent this, the band released two lead singles simultaneously that couldn’t have been any further from one another if they tried: on one hand you had the raging guitars of “Found That Soul”, the other hand held the summertime pop anthem “So Why So Sad”. The launch concert was held in Cuba long before Rolling Stones made the headlines doing the same, away from the band's regular touring routes (and was attended by Fidel Castro to boot).

Know Your Enemy does not make sense nor does it intend to: the obligatory quote the band picked to represent the album in the liner notes is Susan Sontag’s “The only interesting answers are those which destroy the questions”. It's a gigantic, schizophrenic pandemonium of ideas and directions pulling in all directions. It was intended to confuse, to throw a spanner in the works and to raze the field to ashes to find out what would grow afterwards. The critics were baffled, while creating alternative track lists to make more sense out of it became a popular fan hobby. Everyone agreed it was a mess. And all that is why it’s brilliant.

Know Your Enemy is not quite as chaotic as it seems at first glance. Amidst the rampart disorder and initial sense of directionlessness, you can find an identifiable core for Know Your Enemy in its scruffy, rough-round-the-edges rockers and world-weary pop songs: the flip sides of the band’s rage against their own internal conflicting instincts, both the loud defiance and restless confusion. "Ocean Spray" right at the start is like a direct exhibition: driven forward by rambling acoustics guitar and drowned out loud by their electric counterparts in the fuzzed-out chorus, it’s musically a microcosm of the album brought within four minutes. It’s also where Bradfield has penned his own lyrics, dictating his own anecdotal lyrics about his mother’s battle with cancer, letting the crashing of the guitars vent out the frustration and sadness in the breakdowns. A mournful trumpet replaces the traditional guitar solo, Sean Moore showing his skills by playing its solemn melody. It’s the closest the album gets to what could constitute a traditionally classic Manics song, just morphed into a new form.

If Manics had pinned this particular direction down as the focal point of the album, we could be talking about different kind of a classic record in the band’s repertoire: one that merges the developed talent in melody and arrangement shown throughout the past two albums with a rawer, more grounded sensibility. The jangly "The Year of Purification" takes its inspiration from the IRS-era R.E.M. and hides its angry political lashing out in the sweetest and brightest of melodies. "His Last Painting" goes through its three minutes simplistically and without much change, looping its core melody and structure in a Groundhog’s Day fashion before finally tearing itself apart and fading away instrument by instrument. The pounding "Epicentre" continues with the band’s growing intuition for piano-lead songs, but this time treating the instrument like the stabbing riffs of a guitar with clanging, punched notes, only moving to the elegant later on just in time for the band to flip the song into something as close as this album gets to an anthem by its end. "Let Robeson Sing" takes the guise of a sunny gospel song, relishing in its harmonies and backing vocals. For an album that was meant to be disruptive and guided by whim rather than careful consideration, Know Your Enemy at times acts like a celebration of brightly lush melodies, either because Bradfield is a natural with them or the quick turnaround forced his hand to put them right in the center rather than arranging something more elaborate around them.

Half the time these tendencies manifest into thundering rock songs, throwing back to the initial concept of the record and primarily dominated by James shouting down the mic and raising a storm with his guitars. The co-lead single "Found That Soul" opens the album with a storming three-minute guitar blast and frantic one-note rock ‘n’ roll piano hammering that never stops for a breath. The lyrics of "Intravenous Agnostic" do not even try to make sense but its downright neurotic drive, including one of Bradfield's more insane solo moments, shows the album at its most unhinged - and its mad rush of energy is one of the band’s most downright giddy displays of guitar rock glory. Both "Dead Martyrs" and "My Guernica" take a more unpolished approach, filtered like they're recorded through a phone, which suits their loud and proud nature perfectly. The epic centrepiece and culmination of everything is the six-minute "The Convalescent" which goes from 0 to 100 instantly and packs within it all the intensity, the mania, the conflict and the relentless attitude the recording process was characterised by, intentionally or not. The lyric is close to a stream-of-consciousness rant, lead by Wire’s growing frustration while literally describing his bedroom to excruciating detail and Bradfield tapping onto the emotion it intends to convey, and eventually the song climaxes into a fervourous blaze of wordless vocals growing more anxious with the instruments winding tighter and tighter: the whole song feels like it’s on fire and going out of control.

You can trace a common thread between all of these songs and they would comfortably create a somewhat cohesive - if still an untamed - collection of songs, but Know Your Enemy really gets its reputation as a troublemaker by its weirder side. Know Your Enemy is one of the most experimental Manics albums, not necessarily in the way we normally come to associate that term with, but in the sheer guts that they've actually placed these songs on the record. Normally the stylistic trials and quirkier ideas would either get relegated as b-sides or self-censored into creative oblivion, but Know Your Enemy lets the wilder side of Manics shine out in the open. "So Why So Sad" is pure sunshine pop with Beach Boys backing vocals (not the least of which are the constant ‘ba ba ba’s), so crammed with production gimmicks and keyboards that you can barely hear Bradfield’s guitar under them and a synthesiser solo to top it all off. Wire, whose rough and gruff voice had already seen increased backing vocal appearances throughout the album becomes the frontman on the murky "Wattsville Blues”, spitting hatred and apathy ("life is killing me", "don't want no fuckin' friends", "useless motherfuckers knocking at my door", etc) over an increasingly frantic drum machine before the bouncy, funky chorus jumps out of nowhere and Bradfield takes the lead vocal briefly while Wire gets increasingly aggressive about it. "Miss Europa Disco Dancer", like the title suggests, goes full-on honest disco with no trace of rock creeping in: glimmering keyboards, funky bass, disco guitar and starry-eyed glamour fill the space as the band who you’d never ever imagine doing this suddenly have the time of their lives, only for Wire to appear again at the end of the track and lead the song to its fadeaway end with an expletive-filled chant.

It’s superb though. These shouldn’t work, but they do because they have that creative insanity to them and most importantly the pure and complete devotion behind them. It’s the normally (by this point) somewhat stiff-back band paying zero mind to anyone but their own whims and throwing themselves in on any wild idea, and that wild abandon sounds so fresh and fun - “Wattsville Blues” and “Miss Europa Disco Dancer” is one of the strongest one-two punches in the Manics catalogue in large because of the audacity of them; and beneath the shock and gasp of the sound, they’re rock solid songs. Same with “So Why So Sad”, possibly the most criminally underrated single of the band’s career, and same with any of the other songs where that experimental trait runs through even if not as blatantly, e.g. with the drum-programmed quiet fury of “Royal Correspondent”, the jangle pop of “The Year of Purification”, etc. When people use the expressions about throwing things in the wall to see if anything sticks, it’s rarely considered what happens when those things do actually stick; that’s exactly what happens with Know Your Enemy, where any idea - no matter how out there for the band in question - had enough skill and guts backed behind it for them to work.

At sixteen songs (17 if you count the cover of McCarthy’s “We’re All Bourgeois Now” hidden at the end of the album, pretty much identical to the original musically but with James belting over it) it’d be hard to argue that Know Your Enemy is flawless, and it certainly isn’t. The choruses of “Baby Elián” meander following the intricate groove of the much more arresting verses, “Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children” has a lot of great ideas (any song with heavy usage of call-and-answer backing vocals will always have my vote) but feels a little like a b-side bonus track tacked at the end to bring the album to a quick halt (although it sort of works with the album’s general disjointed nature). Wire’s lyrics show a remarkable bitterness throughout the album and are just as often great as they are awkward, worst of all whenever he goes on a political kick and ends up being more clunky than observant. You could argue that some of the songs could have benefitted from a bit more polish or work. But the album hits the bullseye way too many times for any of its obvious downsides to really have any damaging effect. Know Your Enemy was meant to be a creative shake-up based on pure instinct and with the band riding their golden age strong still, those instincts produced something new and unique each time. For what’s supposed to be the great opinion divider and an act of self-immolation, the record behaves much more like an ode to the creative spark driving the band at the time - no matter what they would do, it’d be a success, and just because it’s less polished than its hit-making predecessors, it only shows that the band didn’t need the fancy studio environment and added instrumentation to create something.

Still, it did what it was set out to do. None of its singles became perennial favourites in the way the previous albums’ choices had, the spotlight started to grow smaller and any of the expectations anyone had for the band were cleared out or reassessed. The Manics being the Manics, they started to doubt their own instincts from the moment the record was released; almost half the album was ignored on the very tour for the record (and they haven’t made much of an appearance since either) and the band was trying their best to not be too dismissive about it from the get-go: while the idea behind recording the album was a great big ‘screw you’ to everyone, the band were much more meek and mild about the whole affair the instant it was out. The band intentionally set out to create a giant mess, with no intention to pay attention to it afterwards until the damage was already done.

But it’s an incredible mess. My overall preference when it comes to albums is that cohesion is king, that records are thematic entities and the songs should be in support of the whole. The lesson of Know Your Enemy is that being all over the place can form its own kind of creative unit when there’s an intent behind it. Through embracing their first thoughts and not censoring themselves, giving themselves the right to do absolutely whatever that came to mind, the Manics created this sprawling, unorganised, rugged rock record that would be confusing if it wasn’t so well-written and infectiously good throughout its length. The Manics are always at their best when they lock out of the rest of the world from their studio work - Know Your Enemy is a grand, thoroughly exciting example of that. Where This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours had opened my mind to music beyond what I had accustomed to and Everything Must Go, purchased a bit thereafter, taught me that I should keep it in my mind to hear more from this band, it was Know Your Enemy in its own special way that turned me into the obsessed fanboy, fervently studying its details with my DiscMan next to me and the (now very time-worn) liner notes booklet in one hand. I’m normally innocently oblivious to how people can not see the strengths of the records I love but this is a case where it’s absolutely obvious why this could split opinions - and I unabashedly, obsessively love this chaotic act of a band tearing itself apart and seeing what they can form out of the scraps.

Physically: Jewel case with thick booklet, with photos of Wire's handwritten lyric sheets for each song - some with additional notes in margins ("let's go - disco!"), some with crossed over alternative lines and sections, others with James' chord ideas scrawled over the paper. "The only interesting answers are those which destroy the questions" - Susan Sontag.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2003 8 "Prologue to History", 4 Ever Delayed", "Valley Boy"

CD1: 1) Prologue to History; 2) 4 Ever Delayed; 3) Sorrow 16; 4) Judge Yr'self; 5) Socialist Serenade; 6) Donkeys; 7) Comfort Comes; 8) Mr Carbohydrate; 9) Dead Trees and Traffic Islands; 10) Horses Under Starlight; 11) Sepia; 12) Sculpture of Man; 13) Spectators of Suicide (Heavenly Version); 14) Democracy Coma; 15) Strip It Down (Live); 16) Bored Out of My Mind; 17) Just a Kid; 18) Close My Eyes; 19) Valley Boy; 20) We Her Majesty's Prisoners
CD2: 1) We Are All Bourgeois Now; 2) Rock 'n' Roll Music; 3) It's So Easy (Live); 4) Take the Skinheads Bowling; 5) Been a Son (Live); 6) Out of Time; 7) Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head; 8) Bright Eyes (Live); 9) Train in Vain (Live); 10) Wrote for Luck; 11) What's My Name? (Live); 12) Velocity Girl; 13) Can't Take My Eyes Off You; 14) Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel; 15) Last Christmas (Live)

The greatest of b-side bands finally gets a compilation of their secret glories, and as great as this is you still can't help but feel it's a bit of a wasted opportunity.

As a heads-up, the below text is written by someone who’s devoted a lot of hours of his lifetime to hunting down, listening and compiling Manics' b-sides, and is probably pretty obnoxious about it. My rating of this compilation is overall positive and if you’re just looking for a quick evaluation whether this is worth it, the answer is yes. But oh, what it could have been...

It was Manic Street Preachers who made me obsessed about b-sides. I have a wild attraction towards b-sides as an art form - far from the discards, hasty throwaways and mediocre chopping board leftovers that many consider them to be, I think non-album material is often a barely touched treasure trove full of exciting off-beat could-be classics, interesting experiments and underappreciated gems that have every right and chance to become special if you let them. I lament the death of the single, simply because it’s inadvertently also meant the death of the b-side. The Manics are in my books the greatest b-sides band there has ever been: their hidden back catalogue is full of immortal hits, powerful secrets and fascinating curios, where I genuinely feel that only paying attention to their albums is restricting yourself from the full extent of what makes the band special. Even their weakest eras have featured non-album songs which really should have found a place on the albums they represented, instead of what actually ended up on them. And that’s why I think Lipstick Traces, the band's first (and in the present day of writing this, only one to date) b-sides compilation, is a bundle of missed opportunities.

I understand that certain compromises must be made if you want to try to appeal to an audience beyond your most obsessed fans. By 2003, you could have filled a five-CD box set with the amount of b-sides the band had released, and that’s just counting the original studio material alone. So, making a more palatable product by selecting the best of the best to fill just a standard double-disc compilation makes sense from that perspective. What makes much less sense is the slapdash way the band have gone about the whole project, while fully knowing just how much people wanted something like this at the time. The song selection is completely haphazard, where fan favourites and songs they voted to be on the compilation on an official poll were ignored in place of choices that seem completely random. Making matters worse, only a single disc of the compilation is devoted to the original studio material, and the second disc is made entirely out of the band’s covers. That selection doesn't even include all the covers the band had officially released by this stage, leaving you with a 45-minute disc with so much empty space that you could have used to include more of what people actually wanted.

The covers disc is my main gripe with Lipstick Traces. For all the praise I heap on the Manics, they’ve never been a particularly interesting band to interpret other people’s songs. Nine times out of then the cover sounds largely identical to the original, just with James’ voice and usually a slightly beefier production; the tenth case only tends to be different because it’s just James all by himself on an acoustic guitar. The most out there of the lot is "Been a Son", where Nirvana's original punk rocker is made into an aggressively acoustic romp-and-stomp. There’s good material on the second disc - “We Are All Bourgeois Now” (McCarthy) is actually quite great (and technically not a b-side as it was a hidden track on Know Your Enemy), the newly recorded version of “Take the Skinheads Bowling” (Camper Van Beethoven) is good rock and roll fun and a marked improvement over the rather anaemic version they originally released in 1997, and James’ acoustic live version of Wham's “Last Christmas” is warm like a cosy fireplace on Christmas Eve. The only real weak spot is the early live rendition of Guns n Roses’ “It’s So Easy” where the band try to be more macho than they can pull off, with a shoddy recording quality to boot. But none of it feels even remarkably essential; you won’t find any revealing re-interpretations here, just recordings of a band faithfully playing songs they like. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever feel like revisiting the second disc outside the intent of giving it another spin because you feel guilty about neglecting it.

For all my moaning about what isn't on Lipstick Traces, the first disc where all the originals lie is still largely golden. The live version of "Strip It Down" is superfluous and unnecessary, "Bored Out of My Mind" and "Socialist Serenade" are fine tracks but definitely not songs I'd weigh over several others, and there's generally a bit of a bias towards the Everything Must Go period, presumably because that was the big success era and the new fans who bought the singles back then probably became very familiar with the respective b-sides. But taken as simply a selection of songs, this is really high class: it could very well be a mirror realm greatest hits record, because so many of the songs could have comfortably been singles in their own right. "Prologue to History" is such a massive anthem full of quickly unhinging anger that its lead position is quite possibly the best possible way to indicate this isn't just a selection of scraps (it was only ever taken off This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours because tonally it had no place on the album), and the gorgeously dreamy "Valley Boy" features one of James' greatest guitar solos and is an epic penultimate piece that could have rightly closed off a proper album. The tender "Sepia", autumnal "Just a Kid" and jovial "Mr Carbohydrate" are all rock solid big hitter rock songs with hooks of diamond. The early Manics' glam punk fury is perfectly represented through "Sorrow 16" (with its iconic spelling lesson), the ridiculous gatling gun vocal hell of "Sculpture of Man", the ugly-tearjerker "Donkeys", the jagged proto-The Holy Bible "Comfort Comes" and the original Heavenly Recordings version of "Spectators of Suicide", which has a raw, unpolished rock charm to it that the near-ambient album version would drop. For all my whinging, it's definitely a representative collection in terms of style and breadth.

There are also two previously unreleased tracks on the first disc, both of which befit the "secret history" angle quite neatly and which manage to tick both the early and later Manics boxes. "4 Ever Delayed" was originally intended to be one of the new songs for the Forever Delayed hits compilation but fell through the cracks for unexplainable reasons (the liner notes on Lipstick Traces are completely non-existent outside basic production credits, which is a tragedy) and only ever found a place on an obscure Japanese EP: it's made of the same ethereal synths and glistening keyboards as all the other new tracks of the era, but punching through with guitar walls in a most befittingly Manics-esque fashion, bridging between the classic Manics sound and the new ideas to come. It's a great, great song and giving it a proper spotlight here is one of Lipstick Traces' best graces. "Judge Yr'self" is a brand new recording but the song itself traces to around 1994-1995 when the band wrote it for potential inclusion on the 1995 Stallone-lead Judge Dredd film - the plans were buried when Richey disappeared and the song was forgotten, until the band decided to finish the job for Lipstick Traces. And it crunches - it's one of the heaviest songs Manics have recorded, veering close to metal at places. It's all visceral aggression and hard guitar riffs, James screaming his lungs out like he hasn't in years. It, too, is an excellent song.

I mentioned Lipstick Traces acting like a mirror realm greatest hits compilation earlier down the line, and it makes the most sense to consider it as a companion piece to Forever Delayed: The Greatest Hits released in the previous year. Both are compilations of great songs marred by slightly eyebrow-raising selections, both have two token new songs, both have second discs of less essential material (if you get the deluxe edition of Forever Delayed with the remixes) - and both should act as a taster for the world of riches that awaits those who choose to dip further. Lipstick Traces is the furthest thing from comprehensive and if you're a more casual listener it probably does a decent purpose, but what I hope it does to anyone who listens to it is to light a yearning to hear more of Manics' hidden treasures. It may take a little effort these days - the anniversary re-releases have almost consistently included all the b-sides from their respective periods which helps - but it's worth it. Lipstick Traces represents the tip of the iceberg: the tip already shines bright, and it only gets even brighter further down. Don't let my fanboy whinging get to you: this would be a 9 without the covers disc bringing the party down.

Physically: Jewel case with a pathetic excuse of a booklet with some song credits and nothing else. Back in the day when this was new, a special edition was sold with art cards included within - sadly I missed out on that one. "What appealed to me were its gaps and those moments when the story that has lost its voice somehow recovers it" - Greil Marcus.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2004 10 "1985", "I Live to Fall Asleep", "Solitude Sometimes Is"

1) 1985; 2) The Love of Richard Nixon; 3) Empty Souls; 4) A Song for Departure; 5) I Live to Fall Asleep; 6) To Repel Ghosts; 7) Emily; 8) Glasnost; 10) Solitude Sometimes Is; 11) Fragments; 12) Cardiff Afterlife

Introspective and calm, the normally fiery band lock themselves in the studio and purge their demons out via production wizardry - unexpectedly creating one of their purest, finest moments.

The sadly now defunct Finnish music review site RockMusica was one of the places that gave the mixedly received Lifeblood a glowingly positive review. The review concluded with a short statement about the album’s nature, one that has for whatever reason made a permanent home in my head to the point that I wish I had written it. Quoting, paraphrased: Lifeblood is an album where three men first looked at themselves from a mirror, then they looked at each other and finally proceeded to write an album about what they saw.

Lifeblood is an obvious oddball in the Manics catalogue. They have always been a band who have believed in the power of rock music and the almighty guitar - not necessarily a bad thing as Bradfield is one of the best guitarists around - but on Lifeblood the familiar Bradfield riffs and melodies have either been pushed under layers of keyboards and synthesizers or filtered so heavily it sounds like them, the amount and scale of his traditional solos have been suppressed to almost nothing and whilst the guitar is a constant presence, it’s used to a much subtler effect to the point that few of the tracks only reveal their guitar parts if you really pay attention to what’s going on in the background. The sound of the album is generally cold, detached - you could argue it’s sterile - much like the pure, clear white that’s prominent in the artwork and which the band wrapped themselves in during the era. In some tracks it’s hard to tell whether Sean Moore is behind the drumkit or instead working his beats in front of a computer program. From a band who often seem almost embarrassed to try something completely different, Lifeblood is a bizarre recording. It’s no wonder that it’s become one of the albums that the band tries to hide away from public sight, talking about it slightly derivatively if at all and when they do actually give it a compliment, they mumble through it sheepishly. It’s not an album that makes sense.

It is slightly ironic then that out of all their albums, Lifeblood might just be their most personal one.

As a band, the Manics have always thrived on reactions. Much of their discography can be interpreted as a reaction to something: whether against their work just prior (Know Your Enemy, The Holy Bible to an extent) or the personal context around them (Everything Must Go, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours). Such a reactionary attitude is part of what makes the band so great: it’s lead to a stylistically varied discography that’s a joy to dig in when you first become a fan, never knowing what to really expect. But in this context, Lifeblood is the odd one out. It doesn’t fit the cycle of action and reaction. It was recorded and released a short time after the band had spent time taking a retrospective look at their career and closing one chapter of it through the release of a greatest hits and a rarities compilation. They were, in a way, back to square one.

And so, the band decided to break free from their past. They ignored their legacy as well as any outside influence or opinions, focusing purely on their instincts, almost like going through a purging process. This included the greatest aspect of their history that hovered around them, the ever-following shadow of Richey Edwards. “Cardiff Afterlife” that closes Lifeblood was meant to be the final farewell to Richey at the time, and the song’s abrupt ending which cuts the key melody like it had suddenly hit a wall was meant to represent placing a full stop to the whole affair: to firmly close the chapter, stop focusing on the past and to move on. These days the sentiment obviously rings slightly hollow given how many of the subsequent albums deliberately invoked the band’s past in one way or another, but at the time, according to their own words, it was what they needed to do in order to continue existing - hence the album’s title.

Amusingly, for an album that was meant to bid farewell to the past its central themes are centered around history. Lifeblood is an album about loss and the significance of time passing. Wire’s lyrics are full of contemplation about life going by and changing things, whether it’s personal (reminiscing about the band’s beginning in “1985” or reflecting on how long it’s been since those days and how much one has changed during the years in “Glasnost”) or elaborating on the stories of others whose actions have been lost in time (“The Love of Richard Nixon” makes a point about Nixon’s positive work being forgotten after the Watergate scandal while “Emily” comments on how Wire feels Emmeline Pankhurst has been forgotten in way of feminist icons he finds less important). Wire’s frequent buzzline at the time was that Lifeblood was “The Holy Bible for the 35-year-olds”: dark and troubled, but replacing the fury and anger of young men with the world-weary desire to let go and move on as felt by a grown man who’s witnessed that nothing he says has no effect to anyone but himself.

At this point it’s probably a good time for me to talk about the personal context for this album. This is a five-star, 10/10 album for me: by my personal definition, perfect top-score albums like this are ones that have had a deep, personal impact on me at one point in time and which always bring up that significance every time I listen to them. The gist is, I can’t talk about Lifeblood without that personal angle. Manic Street Preachers are one of my favourite groups of all time - once upon a time I could have said with confidence that they were the very favourite, in fact (and that “drop” in ranking isn’t a slight against the band). I became a fan of theirs sometime in the early 00s and Lifeblood was the first new studio release they released after that. My first touches of stalking what artists do through the internet are related to Lifeblood - hearing radio rips of new songs that UK fans posted on forums I lurked to, checking several websites for any new nuggets of info, etc. If there was a single moment where it became obvious that I had found something personal and special with the Manics, it was the joyous on-the-spur bouncing that happened in my room to the chorus of “1985” during the very first time I started playing the album on the cool winter’s day it was released.

But why Lifeblood still matters is that it’s an album that never lost that same spark for me. If anything, over the years it’s become something much more. It’s an album that’s been with me through thick and thin, through good and the bad and through all the changes I’ve been through. It’s become a close friend. It got to the point that when I started spotting new details on these songs that I had heard a countless times before, I started to feel a sense of overjoyed discovery no matter how insignificant that detail might have been in the greater scheme of things. With each new discovery it felt like I was hearing the songs brand new once again, and somehow they felt even closer to me than ever before.

It’s appropriate, because Lifeblood is an album built on details. As mentioned earlier, it’s an album that places heavy emphasis on production. It’s studio-shiny, crystal clear and precise to the point of perfection. It’s also layered like crazy. Each song contains countless elements, from the most obvious ones to small background moments that never really make much fuss about themselves but which flesh out important spaces within the songs: miniature melodies, background textures, mood-guiding snippets. It’s an album where each minute has been cared for with a perfectionist’s touch and a golden ear, not a sound out of place or meaningless. One of those background elements is, surprisingly, Bradfield’s guitar. Like I noted before, the key instruments of Lifeblood lie in keyboards and synthesizers, from shining cold piano to synthesized patterns. Bradfield’s guitar gets to rip out a few, strictly focused solos every now and then, but most of the six-stringer’s presence is in rhythmic strums and faint melodies rather than in the usual Manics riffs. If anything, however, it emphasises Bradfield’s skill - intentionally creating subtler elements and filling the gaps between other instruments rather than the other way around allows his talent shine differently, showing off his arranger’s chops. Despite not being a key element of the album, Lifeblood contains some of Bradfield’s best guitar parts.

All this - the details, the feeling of loss and world moving on and the personal impact - is contained in twelve 3-4 minute glacial pop/rock elegies. All 12 songs of Lifeblood are immaculate, immense songs, many of which easily belong to the proud company of Manics’ greatest moments and the rest wouldn’t be far off. Despite the everpresent melancholy and weariness in the sound, there is an audible contentment running throughout the album - the band may be working outside their comfort zone, but they sound perfectly at ease being there, playing with a clarity of vision and natural flow the likes of which has rarely been present in their albums. New things are tried and everything works out excellently, be it James bringing out an e-bow for the first time (“Empty Souls”), experimenting writing music first and coming up with words afterwards contrary to the band’s usual working method (the rather more abstractly worded “Always/Never”), or - of all things - bringing a slap bass into a Manic Street Preachers song (also “Always/Never”, and for the record it’s brilliant).

The list of highlights goes on. “1985” is a Manics classic through and through, an absolutely incredible anthem that resonates with the power of a band at their greatest. “I Live to Fall Asleep” is tender, graceful and heartachingly wistful. The twinkling “Solitude Sometimes Is” builds bit-by-bit in intensity, growing from an introspective whisper to a shout against the world. “Fragments” is a hazy winter’s daydream, slowly bouncing along its jittery percussions and loopy organ in a hypnotic manner until it breaks into a swooning soar. “The Love of Richard Nixon” is a bizarre twist on a pop song, distant emotionally from the rest of the album as well as a shocker of a lead single (and honestly, the utterly wrong choice), but once the off-kilter double-tracked vocals and synthetic thrust wear off their shock factor, it reveals itself to be an earworm of an arrow hitting straight into a bullseye. “To Repel Ghosts” brings back the edge and the fury with an appropriately haunted atmosphere full of echo. The punchy “A Song for Departure” (both Moore and Wire were instructed to play their instruments like in “Beat It”, leading to the song’s backbone groove), the colossal and glacial “Empty Souls” and the warm nostalgic sunshine of “Glasnost” are majestic stadium moments that still bear their hearts openly; “Emily” and “Cardiff Afterlife” gently wrap their fingers around the listener as they sink into their resigned yet beautiful atmosphere. “Always/Never” is a dreamy funk trip that reveals a new dimension with each listen.

I make it a point to never do song-by-song lists in my reviews as they’re a crawl to read through, but these songs deserve the mentions. They all do. These are special songs packed with excellent lines, brilliant melodies and which reveal worlds about their creators despite coming off almost cold and aloof at first thanks to how their sound. They are both bold and fearless yet vulnerable and intimate, with no amount of production layers disguising how this is one of the few moments in Manics’ discography where no one else mattered but the band themselves. It feels vital - it was vital for the band to create it and to get it ouf of their system, and it’s become vital for me as a music listener. It’s a keystone album in my personal history and I am utterly biased about its strengths - and yet, even when attempting to listen to it more objectively it feels like the band truly tapped onto something special when they shed their familiar skins that one time.

Physically: Jewel gase with a super glossy booklet with lyrics and artwork/photos. "Conquer yourself rather than the world" -Descartes.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2007 5 "Indian Summer", "Imperial Bodybags", "Winterlovers"

1) Send Away the Tigers; 2) Underdogs; 3) Your Love Alone Is Not Enough; 4) Indian Summer; 5) The Second Great Depression; 6) Rendition; 7) Autumnsong; 8) I'm Just a Patsy; 9) Imperial Bodybags; 10) Winterlovers; 11) Working Class Hero [hidden track]

They trashed the party and brushed off the crowds, now it's the morning after hangover and they're texting everyone to apologise. Here's some ready-made radio singles for you, just as cynical and empty as that sounds.

After Lifeblood, the Manics went drifting. The band had created an incredible record but they had let it intentionally fly under the radar with the bare minimum of promotion, following a few years of attempted detachment from their late 90s mainstream success. Afterwards the band took a break, with both James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire releasing solo albums to similarly little recognition apart from the established fanbase. The arena-headlining days had started to fade into memory. Even though they had intentionally pushed themselves away from being airwave darlings, by the time the band reconvened to record their next album they were already starting yearn back to it - on second thought, it was fun being popular rock stars.

The Manics’ approach to rectify this is a somewhat misaimed exercise of trying to capture old glories, but misunderstanding why they appealed the first time around. There isn’t anything inherently wrong in going back to an older sound and when in Manics’ case this is back to big guitar walls, in concept that’s fine - even I would say that the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Manics are the big guitar-lead rock moments. But Send Away the Tigers is characterised by how it captures the form but not the spirit of the past. The songs have been written solely to fit into a perceived category of what makes a traditional Manics anthem, and even before we get to the meat-and-potatoes production they’ve been overengineered within the inch of their lives to fill their roles. This is the big single, this is the stadium fist-pump moment, this is the big slow burner, this is the political punk rocker. It’s Manics doing karaoke of themselves, going through ideas they think will be appreciated by the general crowds while avoiding the ones that were present in the albums that didn’t produce hits.

“Underdogs” is somewhat of a perfect example of the misgivings of Send Away the Tigers and the album’s broken spirit. The song was released as a sneaky preview single before the actual start of the campaign, as a thank you song for the fans, as a song about the fans. Instead, it felt more insulting for them because how completely off it is tonally. Musically it tries to go for a rowdy punk vibe, but it's rather like a group of grown men awkwardly trying to be young reckless teens again - the musical equivalent of the ill-fitting teen goth eyeliner during your old man’s midlife crisis phase. It’s meant to be a celebration of the fans but its ‘you are misfits and freaks and we love you for it’ emphasises the wrong parts of that sentence, and no fan appreciation song should ever contain the lines “people like you need to fuck people like me”. "Underdogs" tries to be anarchistic and controversial like the band’s old glam punk phase, but it's not natural and no one’s heart seems to be in it. The fact that the song contains one of the most obvious copy/paste editing errors I’ve heard (the first chorus ends with an abrupt mid-syllable “TH-“, as a direct cut from the final chorus that's about to launch to the finale) just underlines how no one seemed to really care about the final song, just as long as it looked the right part. It's actually a little incredible how much it backfired - the reaction to the song was so crushing that when the album was re-released for its tenth anniversary, the song was retroactively scrubbed away from existence.

But it sets the scene for Send Away the Tigers, an album full of similar by-the-numbers tickbox exercises and clunky ideas. The Manics try to make big rock moments like they used to back in the mid-90s, with a splash of the politics that Wire wants to be sure you know the band are famous for, but the actual songwriting has been brushed off to the side from way of making sure the songs fit those particular aesthetics. They're quick verse-chorus-verse repetitions whi are kept within tidy and radio-friendly three and half minutes but rarely do they offer an interesting melody or an idea you'd remember afterwards, the obligatory guitar solos are present just because they’re expected and not because they have anything to show, and Wire’s supposed to return to his old fiery lyrics results in clunky, wishy-washy nothings. The songs aren’t so much bad as they are just a lot of nothing - rote runthroughs of obvious hooks and riffs that lack feeling or drive, devoid of anything unexpected or new in their arrangements. You do get familiar notes of past greats but without the melodies that made them so memorable. "The Second Great Depression" should be an epic wall of sound in line with "Ready for Drowning" or "No Surface All Feeling" but it's running through the motions with second-rate Britrock mannerisms even as it reaches its peaks, like a washed out veteran band playing the mandatory new song among the hits that people came to listen.

There are only few actual misfires - “Underdogs”, the baffling cheesefest “Autumnsong” (with its equally baffling “baby what have you done to your hair” lyric which you’ll hear several times, because all the verses are the same in peak Wire laziness), the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it throwaway “Rendition” that’s one of the weakest songs found on a Manics album - but even they’re not actively offensive. I’m happy to even defend the finale of “Underdogs” from a purely musical perspective as the song finally gets some kind of a backbone. But they’re clunky misrepresentations of the strengths of the band playing them. The enjoyable parts feel almost like accidents and often come with caveats, like how the simple organ intro leading to the opening guitars of "Send Away the Tigers" stands out because in an album full of uninteresting arrangements, it's at least something less monotonous. Notably “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”, which netted the Manics the brief hit they desperately wanted, has a chorus that blissfully soars and nets that nice dopamine hit it seeks to score, but unfortunately it’s marred by the frustrating and borderline annoying stop-start nature of the verses. Even the usually endlessly charismatic Nina Persson sounds bored and barely engaged with the song. "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough" stands out because it sounds like the most time was put into it in order to turn it into an event of a lead single that would pop out when playing in the radio, but it gives the impression that it was so overworked on that no one had any enthusiasm left when the recording finally started.

But there are also real silver linings. “I’m Just a Patsy” and "Imperial Bodybags" are the few times where the band sound happy to be back in familiar musical territory again, with a bit more bite in their arena-pleading choruses and some life in their arrangements. They both have their yeah-buts (mainly in the lyrics department) but they bring out the genuine rejuvenated energy you expected the 'Manics return to rock' album to be full of: the bombastic "I'm Just a Patsy" backs its crowd singalong antics with an actually strong set of hooks (and an intriguingly effective fade-in-fade-out set of synth strings), and the chugga-chugga riffs and shuffling drums "Imperial Bodybags" sound like the band's actually having fun. The verses of “Indian Summer” are basically a shameless retread of “A Design for Life” but the song carries some actual gravitas and the its elegant bridge leading to the unexpectedly low-key chorus gives a glimpse of what this project could have been. “Winterlovers” is by far the only actual, real keeper of the record: it’s the one song where the band sound like they genuinely care, that it has some actual passion behind its wistfulness. The instrumental breakdown where all the band’s core instruments - the bass, the guitar and the drums - all get a little special spotlight moment in a row is the single most memorable instrumental section of the album and signals that some actual thought went into this song, instead of the boring arrangements of nearly everything else.

It's still faint praise though. There are parts of Send Away the Tigers I enjoy but the album is a tiny de-clawed kitten pretending it's growling fearsomely like a full-grown tiger, and all the loud guitars in the world can't hide the averageness of the songs - what good is there isn't enough to make an album you'd want to revisit when there are so many more, better albums with actual heart in them. It's the latter part that really brings the album down for me. Returning to guitars made sense for the Manics at this point, following the de-emphasis of the instrument around the Forever Delayed/Lifeblood years and the solo trips inevitably making the band want to reconvene in as Manics-like fashion as possible. But Send Away the Tigers doesn't sound like a group of friends refreshed and rocking out, it sounds like it was designed in a boardroom, created in order to get a foothold in the spotlight. I'm not going to call it a sell-out album because it's not like there was an arena-rock sized hole in the post-landfill indie recovery years ca. 2007; although even I winced at the desperation of making an appearance in every British TV show known to man as it culminated in an embarrassing appearance of playing the instrumental to "Imperial Bodybags" during a daytime TV talk show wacky live competition section. But if Wire's token descriptor quote for this period was "Guns n Roses playing The White Album", it's closer to post-MTV bloat Axl Rose covering solo McCartney: overengineered and safe of expectations, by people who made better things when throwing themselves fully into ideas they believed in even if no one else did.

I'm going to finish this with a personal anecdote, as I so often do with Manics album reviews because of the way this band has managed to weave into my life. My main memory of Send Away the Tigers is my very first listen of it, released during my first trip to the UK, listening to it there and then in the place I stayed over. It should have been a big moment - I was a humongous fan and a then-anglophile and so a new Manics album during my first UK trip was practically a daydream - but I mainly just recall feeling absolutely nothing after the album finished playing. None of the emotional highs of the previous first listens, none of the familiar special buzz I felt whenever I'd hear Bradfield's voice or the distinct Manics tone their music had. Just nothing. Send Away the Tigers shook me off the fanboy phase and I never really recovered from it. I've since made my peace with the album but it still carries that same nothingness; the drop between it and the previous records becomes even more tangible when you listen to it alongside the other albums, especially if you go about it chronologically. It's an empty shell of a record, from a band who could do so much better.

Physically: Jewel case, lyrics booklet with many more photos from the same Valerie Phillips collection as the cover. "When a man is young he is usually a revolutionary of some kind. So here I am speaking of my revolution" -Wyndam Lewis. Revolution, this?


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2009 8 "Peeled Apples", "Virginia State Epileptic Colony", "Bag Lady"

1) Peeled Apples; 2) Jackie Collins Existential Question Time; 3) Me and Stephen Hawking; 4) This Joke Sport Severed; 5) Journal for Plague Lovers; 6) She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach; 7) Facing Page: Top Left; 8) Marlon J.D.; 9) Doors Closing Slowly; 10) All Is Vanity; 11) Pretension/Repulsion; 12) Virginia State Epileptic Colony; 13) William's Last Words; 14) Bag Lady [hidden track]

The Manics dig open a part of their past they hadn't dare to touch in years, and unearth their sense of impish glee.

Desperately trying to claw back into the spotlight, succeeding and then throwing it all away right afterwards is an utterly nonsensical way of going about things, and therefore perfectly in line with the Manics. Journal for Plague Lovers followed the commercial comeback of Send Away the Tigers and proudly did the complete opposite: minimal promotional appearances, no singles (beyond a brief radio premiere of one song and a quickly recorded straight-to-Youtube video for another), and a small tour centered around playing the entire new album in full with a small portion of time devoted to the hits. But amidst the Manics' desire to get back into public consciousness, and after the successful but questionable Send Away the Tigers, Journal for Plague Lovers was an olive branch aimed at the fans and the critics; just as much of a plead for recognition as the previous album, just from a different angle this time. Everyone loves 1994's The Holy Bible and while the band had openly denied they'd ever tread that territory again due to Richey Edwards not being around anymore, Journal for Plague Lovers is the direct sequel that was widely considered to never happen. Another thirteen songs (plus one hidden track this time), another Jenny Saville painting as a cover and most importantly, another set of lyrics by Richey: chosen samples of the stack he left behind for his friends to use, finally utilised after years of saying they'd remain private.

The Manics would have been utterly stupid to try and replicate The Holy Bible because only the particular circumstances around that album could ever have created something like it, and the band were nowhere near that same frame of mind in 2009. Good job that didn't happen, as Journal for Plague Lovers is very much its own beast. It shares some basic concepts, primarily a focus on the core band without too many embellishments and a slightly rawer production (courtesy of a paycheck-mode Steve Albini), but the band had gone through a lot of changes after the original 1994 album and that's affected the sequel - and that includes Richey, as well. During The Holy Bible Richey's lowest of lows had decided the tone of the material, but his lyrical voice had started to shift after the album's creation and had started to be more... fun? Already clear from some of the more outrageous and absurd song titles present here, Richey's later set of lyrics feature a curious sense of wit and black humour. The lyrics are still primarily full of serious and occasionally gruesome imagery (and so many obscure literary references), frequently hinting at their writer's dark mental state, but Richey frequently cuts the tension with a quirky kind of levity, sometimes even indulging in absurdities ("Jackie Collins Existential Question Time", "Me and Stephen Hawking", "Virginia State Epileptic Colony"...). I was never a huge fan of Richey's lyrical style but the direction indicated by what was selected for Journal for Plague Lovers leaves me intrigued, and quite wanting me to see where he would have gone next.

The band clicked on the askew playfulness of the lyrics and musically Journal for Plague Lovers is the most irreverent and, at times, simply the most fun the Manics have been since Know Your Enemy. The rugged and grungy guitars are full of adrenaline, but there's a bounce behind them. The songs are quickfire three-minute bursts but pack a whole lot of heart and wild abandon within the short run lengths, and the band sound free from any second guessing or rigid formulas that had started to plague them on the stoic boredom of Send Away the Tigers. The stodgy attempts at stadium singalongs and lazy guitar solos are completely absent, replaced by punked up choruses and headbanger riffs. It literally puts a smile on one's face to hear the giddy riff fills of "Me and Stephen Hawking", the cheeky jangle and sneerily super-cheery chorus of "Virginia State Epileptic Colony", the thudding synth post-punk beat of "Marlon J.D." or the quick burst of fury that concludes "Jackie Collins Existential Question Time" - all four particularly brilliant tracks that glow with the mad creative instinct of a band stripping away their self-engrained limitations and learning how to enjoy playing together again. The trio sound rejuvenated and while the production is relatively sparse compared to the previous albums, the instrumental performances themselves are full of detail and energy, and for the first time ever, even Wire's - his bass parts are one of the best areas of the album, with the runs and fills of the title track and the crunchy lead rhythm of the mission statement of an opener "Peeled Apples" standing out, in particular.

Journal for Plague Lovers is at the end of the day a bit of a tribute act to an old friend, and so it's not all too surprising that parts of it are spent in a more contemplative mood. "Facing Page: Top Left" is simply a tender solo piece from James, "This Joke Sport Severed" is one of the more indulgent parts of the album thanks to its breathtaking string-laden second half, and "Doors Closing Slowly" lurches in a lamentful march that comes closest to describing the sorrow quietly hanging in the background of the whole album. Journal for Plague Lovers is an album with two very distinct sides to it, one loud and rash and another retreated into a private corner,  and the two strike an important balance that ultimately works in the favour of both. While James takes the natural lead elsewhere, it's Wire who gets the last word, which is only appropriate given the closeness between him and Richey. The lyrics of "William's Last Words" have been edited rather questionably to act like a suicide note (the full lyrics could be seen with the deluxe edition and it's clear only some sections made it to the album) but it's honestly forgivable simply because Wire sounds like he's fighting back tears as he leads the vocals on the closing track. It's a touching, beautiful and surprisingly vulnerable closer for an album that's otherwise so bold and aggressive; if you still felt cynical about the band resurfacing this part of their legacy, "William's Last Words" is the reminder of the very real emotions and still very open wounds the band have around the subject of their lost friend, and Wire's rough voice over James' more trained set of pipes have a fragility that pins down that point.

I readily admit I was one of the cynical ones about the band's intentions behind the album's release - how could you not be after Send Away the Tigers - and even now I think the fact that it's sandwiched between two albums that very openly try to rub against particular audiences does it no favours, making it guilty by implication. But Journal for Plague Lovers is a real joy: the raw power of the early Manics brought back fresh from the time machine, while taking elements from the more refined latter-day Manics where it pleases and bringing out little surprises throughout its length. Even the hidden track is great. "Bag Lady" is a Manics original rather than a cover like the past hidden Manics tracks, and it's actually one of the album's best songs, a ridiculously catchy pop sensibility married to neurotic, drilling guitars - and it even works as the real closer after the tearjerking credits roll of "William's Last Words", cheekily appearing to close the record with a final bang in a manner that so befits the album's twisted wit. Not everything is a complete bullseye but the flaws are minor and due to the brevity of the songs they don't overstay their welcome, and you can still hear the inspiration and intent behind them even if the melodies aren't as sharp as elsewhere. Far from being just a retread of the past, Journal for Plague Lovers is more than its concept gives the impression for: rather, its wicked muscle is somewhat unique among the band's catalogue and it has its own identity despite the intentional ties to the past. Somewhat ironically - and maybe a bit cruelly - despite the billing as an album for Richey, he ends up being a little overshadowed by his friends, who have rediscovered the creative lightheartedness that they had started to bury. Journal for Plague Lovers leans against the heaviest part of the band's weighty legacy, but brightly wanders its own trails rather than trying to imitate the old ones.

Physically: Standard jewel case with lyrics and a big photo of Richey in the centerfold. "A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing" -George Bernard Shaw


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2010 6 "Postcards From a Young Man", "Some Kind of Nothingness", "The Descent (Pages 1 & 2)"

1) (It’s Not War) Just the End of Love; 2) Postcards From a Young Man; 3) Some Kind of Nothingness; 4) The Descent (Pages 1 & 2); 5) Hazelton Avenue; 6) Auto-Intoxication; 7) Golden Platitudes; 8) I Think I Found It; 9) A Billion Balconies Under the Sun; 10) All We Make Is Entertainment; 11) The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever; 12) Don’t Be Evil

If at first you don't succeed, try again. Another album made to flirt with the charts, but this time the band actually care about what they're pushing out.

Each Manic Street Preachers album since the 2000s tends to come with a tag line, courtesy of Nicky Wire's giant mouth: an outlandish phrase that he’d repeat over and over in interviews to describe the album, sometimes even including it in the press release. For Postcards From a Young Man, that tag line was that it was their “last shot at mass communication”. With 2007’s Send Away the Tigers the band had aimed to win back the hearts of the general populace and were briefly granted with their attention as its lead single "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough" became a minor hit, but the subsequent singles plummeted off the charts; for the follow-up album Journal for Plague Lovers they deliberately ignored the radio altogether, but their newly-found additional audience didn’t seem to miss them. The band still wanted to be popular again, but by this point a part of them had realised that perhaps they no longer had a place in what was popular and that trying to steer their career in that direction was a hopeless task. So, Postcards From a Young Man was to be the final gambit - another record with a more commercial sound, as one last attempt at becoming the people’s Manics again. If it wouldn’t stick, the band woved they would never try to seek chart success again.

Spoilers, it didn't work out - but the band were driven to try and pull it off. The general idea with Postcards From a Young Man is the same as it was with Send Away the Tigers, with big guitars and even bigger choruses leading the way. Compared to Send Away the Tigers, PostcardsFrom a Young Man is a little more indulgent though: the string sections and other kitchen sink treatments are more prominent, a number of high profile guest stars appear (Ian McCulloch, Duff McKagan and John Cale all make an appearance though you could barely tell with the latter two), and most famously a gospel choir shadows the band across a selection of songs. There's an attempt to make big pop songs, quite literally - anthems you can sing along to. The biggest difference between the two is that where Tigers was phlegmatic at best and cynical at worst, Postcards sounds - weirdly enough - a lot more sincere. Yes it's another intentional attempt to score a hit to stroke the band's egos, to be blunt, but the whole ride-or-die manifesto around it has made the band that much more invested in pulling it off - James especially sounds far more enthusiastic this time around, and Wire is downright glowing in his solo spot "The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever". They're being earnest about their intentions rather than trying to hide it way like with Tigers and that makes a world of a difference. There’s also a lot more variety to the songs, with even a few unexpected sidesteps that do not look directly to the past for inspiration.

This manifests more concretely in the simple, basic fact that for most parts, Postcards has better song selection than Tigers. Commercial isn’t necessarily a swear word and there’s nothing bad in a band playing up to tropes they know their way through inside and out even if they're a little too familiar, if you put your heart into it and focus. At worst, you could bark at the string-laden anthems in the vein of the title track, “The Descent” and the gospel-backed Ian McCulloch duet “Some Kind of Nothingness” as being very safe; but they are here to deliver massive, immediately resonant choruses and they do it so well it's hard not to get swept by the moment. The particularly important thing is that there’s some substance to them beyond the initial superficial gloss: “Postcards From a Young Man” is arguably the closest the band has gotten to when trying to rewrite the Everything Must Go anthems, “The Descent” has an unexpected regality to its coronal chorus that opts to slow things down and hammers its lush strings down to beautiful results, and “Some Kind of Nothingness” starts at 11 from the get-go and unashamedly delights in its bombast to the degree that it's genuinely mad and actually quite fun in its audacity. It's not just done-and-gone recycling of old hit formulas, but thought has gone into how to represent the old tricks and give them a facelift, and most of the time it actually works. Most of the time: the lead single “(It’s Not War) Just the End of Love” is probably the band’s most inessential single, a thoroughly OK paint-by-numbers radio friendly unit shifter that’s most notable for Wire’s brief split-second vocal interjection cameo, which in itself is an attempt to replicate the similar moment from Tigers’ “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”. It's almost sheepish compared to the next couple of tracks that throw in every kitchen sink in the shop, and the difference in how well the songs hit their aimed targets is like night and day between them.

The early-album trio of songs is Postcards boiled down to its purest essence but the band stretch themselves to a reasonable degree across the record and it’s what keeps the album interesting; as much as the album is supposed to be pandering towards their most popular sound, the trio take the time to dip their toes in some different waters, and often towards sunnier places that play against the band's type. Case in point, the super-upbeat, mandolin-featuring “I Think I Found It” - an absurdly happy pop ditty that’s so completely opposite to so much of the band’s history that it’s a shocker at first, but against all odds it works. The same positivty also shines across other tentative summer anthems like the smooth and string-laden “Hazelton Avenue” and the Wire-fronted singalong jam “The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever” - and the happiness sounds real, the musical equivalent of simply having a really good day when nothing goes wrong. The gospel-tinged “Golden Platitudes” on the other hand is slow and contemplative but similarly sincere, and as per its sound it's the natural high point of the choir who regularly appear across the record. The much-touted choir made for a big part of the album's promotional soundbites as an easy thing to point out when highlighting the album's boisterous direction, but for most part of the album it simply acts as an intensely amplified backing vocal harmony whenever they appear - a production element among many that fades between other similarly used elements, rather than helping to establish the album's identity. On "Golden Platitudes" though, the choir gets a chance to breathe within the song's space and contributes greatly to the song’s overall arrangement and feel.

The big "but..." here is that the band can't quite shake the Send Away the Tigers-isms - in all fairness it was the band's last big hit moment so it makes cold, logical sense to try and fan its flames again (which in itself makes sense with an album this desperate to be loved). It's just... not good, and and it might be even weaker in that department than Tigers was. The "old man Wire yells at cloud technology" trilogy “All We Make Is Entertainment”, “A Billion Balconies Under the Sun” and “Don’t Be Evil” do away with most of the album’s excess and replace with an added guitar crunch, but also throw away all the unexpected fun of it; the clappy happy chorus of “Don’t Be Evil” is a little salvageable but not enough to save the album from a largely dire second half. For all their brimstone and bluster they’re all largely bland and uninteresting songs, much in the same way this exact kind of material was on Send Away the Tigers, and across the two albums "Billion Balconies Under the Sun" in particular is not just the worst of the lot but one of the most frustratingly meandering songs that have ever ended up on the band's albums. The annoying thing is that Journal for Plague Lovers showed that Manics absolutely can still make a more guitar-oriented approach sound vital and exuberant, but its lessons have been ignored; apart from “Auto-Intoxication”, the most interesting out of all the more guitar-focused songs and which, with its fractured structure and blustering chorus, comes closest to the band applying the sound of Journal for Plague Lovers to a different context. The polished sound doesn't quite work for it though and it's a song that perhaps could have been something more interesting in a different part of their timeline, because here it ultimately falls flat despite its occasionally intriguing ideas.

The truth is that Postcards From a Young Man isn’t the most creatively exciting Manics album, and I don't think even the band would challenge that: in a trilogy of albums on very specific missions, this is the one that's most deliberate about how it plays its cards, and also sounds the most polished and yes, safest. Even at its best, it doesn't sound necessary - if you plucked this out of the discography forevermore, I don't think anyone would be truly heartbroken and that includes myself. But just as its mission statement is simple, so are its pleasures - there are some good songs here which are far from the band's inspired heights but even a sleepwalking Bradfield melody machine manages to churn out something enjoyable. I've tried to challenge them because somewhere in my deepest parts I am pettily grumpy about the band going on a wild goose chase while snubbing what I love about the albums of theirs that mean the most to me - but I enjoy listening to a good half these songs, and the years have been surprisingly kind to them. The fact that it rails so hard down on its chosen route is ultimately for the benefit of Postcards, because it translates as some investment and inspiration towards the songs, which in return fills them with a creative spark that was missing from Send Away the Tigers. Postcards sounds like some actual thought went into it, and it's not just a checkbox exercise like its spiritual predecessor was. Crucially, it sounds like they all had fun doing it: the (over)indulgence in all the production elements has given the band the opportunity to strip away some of the self-seriousness they've carried around for a while now and even if they could have used those elements more elaborately, there's a Queen-like giddiness to the pomp and bombast. If they had actually stuck to that indulgence this could be a genuinely fun album, albeit incredibly divisive: but the largely lackluster second half torpedoes that with its meat-and-potatoes rock blaring and you're ultimately left with an album that, while memorable, isn't one you'd ever really crave to hear.

As mentioned earlier, the Manics failed to meet the mission parameters they set for the album - the charts had moved on and a veteran rock band was no longer something that fit in that world. It turned out to be a good thing because for once the band kept their promise, and for the next few albums they would return to a mindset where they recorded music just for them, with no external audience in mind, and it would be a creative return to form. And still, it seems almost unfair that the lasting legacy of Postcards From a Young Man is that failure and the overall cold reception it has in the fanbase. It has a good amount of salvageable parts to it and in parts even looks to new frontiers, and it's a shame that all that gets buried in how middling other parts of it can be. For all the conviction it may have, it's still as confused about its place in the world as the Manics were.

Physically: Once again just the usual lyrics and standard jewel case. "Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort" -T.S. Eliot


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2013 7 "This Sullen Welsh Heart", "Rewind the Film", "Builder of Routines"

1) This Sullen Welsh Heart (feat. Lucy Rose); 2) Show Me the Wonder; 3) Rewind the Film (feat. Richard Hawley); 4) Builder of Routines; 5) 4 Lonely Roads (feat. Cate Le Bon); 6) (I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline; 7) Anthem for a Lost Cause; 8) As Holy as the Soil (That Buries Your Skin); 9) 3 Ways to See Despair; 10) Running Out of Fantasy; 11) Manorbier; 12) 30-Year War
Deluxe Edition CD2: Original Demos: 1) This Sullen Welsh Heart; 2) Show Me the Wonder; 3) Rewind the Film; 4) Builder of Routines; 5) 4 Lonely Roads; 6) (I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline; 7) Anthem for a Lost Cause; 8) As Holy as the Soil (That Buries Your Skin); 9) 3 Ways to See Despair; 10) Running Out of Fantasy; 11) Manorbier; 12) 30-Year War; Live at the O2, 2011 13) There By the Grace of God; 14) Stay Beautiful; 15) Your Love Alone Is Not Enough; 16) The Love of Richard Nixon; 17) Revol

The first signs of a creative rebirth - Wire's introspection meets the band trying on a more acoustic route.

A long-recurring piece of Manics mythology has been the idea of an acoustic album. It was something that had been haunting the back the band’s mind for years and years, frequently reappearing as an aside n in interviews and potentially initiated a couple of times across the band’s history, but it always either fell on the wayside or transformed quickly into a different direction. James Dean Bradfield in particular had been namedropping Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska for years as an inspiration, but by the time the band had entered their third decade of activity the concept seemed to be on its way to be a piece of fan lore, and nothing tangible. But then, following the failed “last shot at mass communication” of Postcards From a Young Man the band took a break and when they reconvened, they (for once) kept true to their promise of not trying to repeat that same bag of tricks again. The recording sessions for the new album had no greater plan or focus, but they turned out to be extremely fertile - so much so that the band realised they had a lot more songs than they knew what to do with. Two clear directions to take were starting to pop out of the overall wealth of material, and the decision was made to create two albums. The selection of the less electrified, contemplative songs became the heart of Rewind the Film, the first of the duology - and through that, the band finally seized the chance of realising one of their long-ignored plans.

Rewind the Film isn’t Nebraska by a long shot and it's not even near to any kind of intimate collection of campfire songs, but it’s the closest the band has been to the concept of an album built around acoustic instruments. A good half of the songs feature veritably rich arrangements (in particular the symphonic title track which rides on a layered David Axelrod sample), while others heavily feature programmed elements that bridge the gap between this and the more electronic Futurology, the second album still to come. The acoustic aspect has mainly been restricted to James’ choice of guitars, and even then his electric guitar hasn’t been banned completely - its appearance has simply been restricted to a couple of guest spots where its sudden appearance makes the most impact. This may not sound like much but Manic Street Preachers have been recognisable throughout their history by Bradfield’s electric guitar sound and the riffs and solos that come with it, and so their absence is immediately notable. Taking things further, Bradfield doesn’t try to raise his acoustic guitar as a replacement lead either, and there isn't any particular defining element in the album's soundscape as a result. For an album where the basic description sounds like it could be a one-thing shtick, it’s anything but: the songs vary significantly from one to the next, from intimate confessionals to busy electronic soundscapes and would-be rock songs that have been forced to sit down for a second.

Coinciding with moving himself away from the spotlight instrumentally, Rewind the Film overall - and intentionally - diminishes Bradfield's general leading role. At the time Bradfield confessed that he was bored of his own voice, that after so many years of dominating the microphone he felt like the band needed something or someone else to freshen things up. While Nicky Wire had become a more regular feature on the studio albums, he was never going to take the lead to any larger degree; and so the band were inspired to invite other vocalists in the studio. There’s three guest spots across Rewind the Film and together they run the whole gamut of features: Lucy Rose mainly works background vocals on “This Sullen Welsh Heart”, the Richard Hawley-featuring title track is a full duet between him and Bradfield, and most strikingly Cate Le Bon is the de facto lead on “4 Lonely Roads”. With one Wire song ("As Holy as the Soil") and one instrumental (“Manorbier”), Bradfield is wholly or partially absent for nearly half the album, which takes a while to get used to but proves out to be a successful trick. Manics for certain aren’t in need of a new vocalist and Bradfield's vocals aren't in the danger of sounding stale, but the guests are a perfect fit to the album’s sound world. All three have a significant presence and audible chemistry with the material presented, and they suit their respective songs perfectly. Rose’s gentle voice works gorgeously against James’ in the quiet opener “This Sullen Welsh Heart”, Hawley’s dramatic baritone is right at home against the exploding orchestras and keyboards of “Rewind the Film” and Le Bon’s calm delivery is a natural fit to the relaxed stroll of “4 Lonely Roads”. You can tell their contributions are a success because you don't actually miss Bradfield for the time they're on centre stage, and the band have created something new out of it. Apart from “Little Baby Nothing” way back in the day, Manics’ few duet spots across the years have been afterthoughts, collaborations placed on top of songs that weren't meant to be duets; here it sounds like the band wrote the songs with their guests in mind, even if that isn't necessarily the reality. That's what makes their sudden appearance work.

The stronger presence of people outside to the band runs somewhat counterpoint to the album's general themes, because in terms of its content Rewind the Film is Wire’s most personal and directly confessional record yet, and it is a sad album. Wire had previously described Lifeblood as “The Holy Bible for 35-year olds”, but this is closer to that parallel; one man soaking the songs with his own psychoanalysis, this time obsessed with reflecting on the past. It's an album about aging, painful nostalgia, old failures and the never-ending worry that it's too late to fix things up, and desperately holding onto the few pieces of your life that grant the familiar safety to retreat into. Wire starts the record with "I don't want my children to grow up like me", takes time to admit he's "so sick and so tired of being 4 real", defeatedly admits "I am no longer the centre of the universe" in a way that trashes his legendary rock and roll id, and runs away hiding in childhood memories on the title track. Where the music flutters and blusters in order to counter the standard associations with acoustic albums and sounds thoroughly ecstatic at times, Wire's lyrics are one melancholy verse after another, retreating further to his own shell. The scattering of songs that are on a different tract barely feel like distractions: "Show Me the Wonder" sounds defiant but now and then throws a line that questions its own boldness to tackle itself, "Tokyo Skyline" is a genuine love letter to Japan and yet is all but blatant about how it's an escapist fantasy for Wire to escape to, and "30-Year War" simply switches the melancholy to anger as the personal moves to political. Wire's been introspective before but Rewind the Film is straight soul-purging more often than it's not and it's oddly harrowing, especially when it's sung by other people; it's hard to grasp just how depressing the album really is when the attention is mostly on the sudden new sounds that allow the songs to hide their real nature.

The thing is - and I'm sorry to keep the sad artisté cliché alive and well - Wire's introspective moments have often coincided with creative musical peaks for the band and once again his melancholy has heralded the trio finding the right direction again. After the mass communication wilderness years of the past three albums, the band were in a desperate need of rerouting, and Rewind the Film a realisation - albeit not a flawless one - of the promises the band made after the chart-seeking years fizzled out to their end. It's an album that looks somewhere new for the group and doesn't abide to any strictly set doctrine of how the band should represent themselves, and for the first time in a while it feels like the band just allowed themselves to create without ulterior motives. In other words, despite its placid nature Rewind the Film is thoroughly exciting, and that often directly translates to the music being excellent. Even though the album attempts to bare things down at places, it's especially the parts where Rewind the Film shows its flair a little that come alive well and truly. The busy electronic skittering against the scene-setting violin of "Tokyo Skyline" sounds genuinely giddy, the brief horn outro for "Builder of Routines" is a drop-dead gorgeous finale for the slowly intensifying song and you wish it would last so much longer (alongside the rest of the song), and the heftly layered part-sample backdrop for "Rewind the Film" is sweepingly cinematic. Moving away from guitar solos and the need to write constant anthems has revitalised the band's creative spree so you get more variety, more twists, more sudden moments that you love to point out. Wire's melancholy may dominate the album lyrically but around it, the band have created a very varied and often surprising album that is practically undersold by its "acoustic album" reputation. Not that it couldn't have been just as good had it been more restrained: "Running Out of Fantasy" and "This Sullen Welsh Heart" are fantastic proof that James requires very little around his songs to make something great, and especially "This Sullen Welsh Heart" is among one of James' best solo spots and opens the album wonderfully. Similarly, the album closes excellently: as the atmospheric instrumental "Manorbier" wonderfully bridges the acoustic sound into the aggravated electro-stomper "30-Year War", moving from Wire's internal politics to very blatantly the external and with the rage to boot, the album as a whole looks forward, showing yet another new aspect of itself while linking it to Futurology. It's a transition between two separate pairs that do not need the context to work, but the inherent qualities of which are amplified by the meta aspect.

There's a few areas where Rewind the Film falters. "Show Me the Wonder" is the obligatory single that Bradfield is bound to write under some ancient oath; the radio single that somewhat undersells the main album is the main carryover from the previous albums and a hard habit for the band to shake, and despite its eventually poignant verses and the bright horns that the song rides its hooks on, it grinds to a halt in its thumping chorus and its perky retro-styling feels at odds with the rest of the album. "3 Ways to See Despair", one of the few songs featuring James' faithful electric guitar, is the opposite as it takes an intentional stab to pair Wire's lyrics with the musical tone to match, and comes off anvilicious in its emotional heaviness - a try-hard dark night of the soul that ends up being a little corny instead. "As Holy as the Soil" is the least abrupt of the lot but it's like an awkward Sunday school original, going for a light gospel twang that maybe would have worked on Postcards From a Young Man but here is clear filler even if boasts the only Wire-vocal. The silver lining here is that part of why these songs stand up so clumsily is because the rest of the album is so well put together and natural in its skin; so the weak spots are the ones that either feel like leftovers from prior ideas or attempts to intentionally match a set tone and mood.When directly comparing it to its sibling album, you get the slight feeling that the initial batch of songs that lead to Rewind the Film were the minority of the session material and that's why you get a few songs where the lines blur between the two albums, and another couple of songs like these that probably would have ended up as b-sides if not for a need to bulk the record up a little bit more.

But the one big takeaway from Rewind the Film is that at its brightest it shines so well. It's amusing to describe a largely calm, collected and aching album as a revitalising jolt but it's exactly what Rewind the Film is - for the band and the listener. It's an audible document of the Manics brushing off the self-inflicted awkwardness of their previous years, and with that, they sound like themselves again: fearless and invested. I don't dislike the 2007-2010 period as much it seems like I do (and Journal for Plague Lovers right in the middle of it is the odd one out that doesn't quite fit in with the main criticisms I have of those years), but for the most parts it saw the Manics putting on a role and colouring by numbers, and it lacked that unpredictability the Manics had always treasured. Rewind the Film brings that spirit back again and comfortably slots in the continuum, like it had never gone away and the past couple of albums were a dream. I hate the phrase "return to form" because it implies artists should stick to their past and not take risks changing, but Rewind the Film is that risk after a series of safe bets. It's a case where that phrase really feels like it applies, because it's back to the most important aspect of the past greats: it's an album where it's clear the band put their conviction into it.

Manics had been pushing deluxe versions of each of their studio albums since 2009 and the one for Rewind the Film comes with the now-standard bonus disc of original demos and few other goodies. The demos are fine but not too interesting for the most parts - most of the songs are already fully realised and there's no interesting sketches, rather it's just rougher versions of the album tracks with placeholders over future production elements (keyboards instead of horns, etc). You can get a hint of the barebones Nebraska version album through some of them and have an idea of what it would've sounded like, but for most parts it's clear these songs were intended to be fuller works to start with. Few interesting details still remain: "Rewind the Film" and "4 Lonely Roads" feature Wire in vocals, a child choir comes out of nowhere on "3 Ways to See Despair" (and axing it was the right choice but I did not expect a child choir to appear in a demo), and the version of "30-Year War" gives an idea of what a true Rewind the Film-version of the song would have sounded like, as opposed to the duology hybrid of the album version. Far more interesting are the live songs. Capping off the hit-chasing years, the band released the singles collection National Treasures in 2011 and closed off the era with a residency at the O2 in London, playing every one of those singles. Including the ones they've deliberately ignored for years. A live album never realised and instead the band provided bulk of the gig through b-sides, free downloads and bonus material like this; and the great thing is that they didn't shy away from releasing some of the less obvious songs this way. We may never get the full gig but I'm glad we have the excellent recordings of "There By the Grace of God" and "The Love of Richard Nixon", dusted off for one night and probably never to be heard again. "Stay Beautiful" is great fun live with a full stadium audience screaming the lyrics at the band, "Revol" comes back with a vengeance with some muscle and, uh, "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough" is there and the combined charisma of Nina Persson and Bradfield still can't save it. If you're cobbling together your own live album like I am the deluxe version is sort of worth it, but the demos aren't particularly interesting this time around just due to the nature of the album.

Physically: So I actually own two copies of this - both the standard album, in the usual jewel case and with the lyrics booklet, as well as the deluxe edition. The latter is housed in a book-shaped case with a bound lyrics booklet containing some additional artwork. The quote is the same on both: "Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present" -Albert Camus.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2014 9 "Futurology", "Europa Geht Durch Mich", "The View from Stow Hill"

1) Futurology; 2) Walk Me to the Bridge; 3) Let's Go to War; 4) The Next Jet to Leave Moscow; 5) Europa Geht Durch Mich (feat. Nina Hoss); 6) Divine Youth (feat. Georgia Ruth Williams); 7) Sex, Power, Love and Money; 8) Dreaming a City (Hugheskova); 9) Black Square; 10) Between the Clock and the Bed (feat. Green Gartside); 11) Misguided Missile; 12) The View From Stow Hill; 13) Mayakovsky
Deluxe Edition CD2: Original Demos: 1) Futurology; 2) Walk Me to the Bridge; 3) Let's Go to War; 4) The Next Jet to Leave Moscow; 5) Europa Geht Durch Mich; 6) Divine Youth; 7) Sex, Power, Love and Money; 8) Dreaming a City (Hugheskova); 9) Black Square; 10) Between the Clock and the Bed; 11) Misguided Missile; 12) The View From Stow Hill; 13) Mayakovsky Bonus tracks: 14) Blistered Mirrors; 15) Empty Motorcade; 16) The Last Time I Saw Paris

German roads gave the Manic Street Preachers a vision of the way forward, and have revitalised their creativity.

For the purposes of this page, I've been reviewing Manics' albums across a good 2-3 months and mostly in their order of release. I've done this sort of chronological blitz through the band's back catalogue a few times over the years - not counting listening to these albums as and when they came out - and I'm sharing this behind-the-scenes glimpse here because going through the records in order always makes Futurology's position in that line-up clear, and it's hard not to think about the album with that in mind. While there's an obvious personal bias (call it nostalgia if you will) factor to how I value the band's first seven albums so highly, they were all also products of the band operating ahead without fear; they've never been the most challenging band, but during that initial stretch of albums they were frequently challenging themselves and introducing new ideas. In the late 2000s that fizzled out to some degreee and the band started to tread on eggshells, operating a little too safely in a particular musical space they had degreed their comfort zone. I bring this up (once more, if you've stumbled into this review after the others) because it's actually relevant here instead of an aging fan complaining, and 2013's Rewind the Film showed the signs of Manics correcting their course. It contained traces of the same spirit and modus operandi that the band's first decade and a half had, with signs pointing towards the trio realising that something had happened to their sense of adventure and maybe breaking out of that comfort zone was necessary again. And if Rewind the Film was the promise being made, then Futurology is where they held true to it.

As the story goes, the origin of Futurology is tied in with that of Rewind the Film, with the two albums coming out of the same sessions and split into two separately released chapters. Neither of them are an afterthought, and I strongly believe the band when they've said they were on a creative high to a point where two separate albums were a legit possibility. And still, Futurology gives the impression that this is what they were originally moving towards before Rewind the Film started to rear its head along the way. That album spread its wings surprisingly wide around its acoustic base concept (less charitable would call it ‘slightly incohesive’ but that’s too negative) almost as if the original idea wasn't quite enough to make up a full record. Compare this to Futurology, which is a traditionally meticulously planned Manics album through and through, with a firm musical concept and a high-design visual theme to go with it, both of which you could distill into a Nicky Wire promotional tagline. It’s too much to just be one half of one period and the way its sound bled to Rewind the Film at places indicates as much. It's almost a high level concept album, the kind of thing that passion projects are sparked out of when someone gets an idea into their head they just can't shake - and it would go a long way to explain how invested the band sound in it.

It's impossible to convey just in words how rejuvenated and new the Manics sound on Futurology. If there's an overarching theme to the album that overshadows all the other running themes through it, it's that of the Manics throwing their previous rulesets into the recycling bin and following their whims to places they may have felt too reserved to go to across the past few albums. The twist is how it manifests in the strangest way - besides the obvious differences in sound (and we'll get to that in a minute) Futurology is one of the few times where the band have really leaned against their offbeat sense of humour. Where Rewind the Film was a sad album of middle-age depression and loneliness, Futurology is a cheeky bastard. Wire has said the album is the most optimistic album they've made and despite the usual Manics lyrical tropes rearing their head (war, alienation, despair, the lot) the band are having fun with them to an almost self-aware fashion. Wire is still in an introspective mode following Rewind the Film but he's no longer completely defeated by his demons, and either spends time reflecting on them with insight or even actively snarking at himself. In a delightfully twisted way it's a joyous album, and that odd positivity is reflected in the wild adventurousness of the record. Its curveballs are full of the kind of free-spirited levity that the Manics have mostly hidden in their b-sides in the past - now it's coming out in broad daylight and Futurology revels in it.

To match this, the subdued and largely acoustic fields of Rewind the Film are gone and in their place are mirror-glad skyscrapers and modernist angles. Futurology is a sharp, dynamic album that rushes forward while looking forward as per its title, the band making a ruckus with Bradfield's guitars in lead after they had been quieted down for Rewind the Film, with programmed elements and synthesizers intermingling at every step. Manics have dabbled with electronic elements in the past but in more introspective settings; this is the first time they find their way into the band's favoured mode of bold guitar rock. There's an abstract European, and more specifically German, influence to it - it was recorded in Berlin (and the band were very self-aware how it was their "Berlin album") and inspired by their travels across Europe and the sense of escapism they associate with the continent. There's a kind of propulsive, repetitive rhythm to most tracks that could vaguely be associated with krautrock motoriks, while the synthesized elements together with the live band dynamic bring forth associations with other famous Berlin-based experiments across rock history. The band hired Alex Silva as the producer, who they had previously worked with on The Holy Bible, and while the two albums are sonically worlds apart, Silva brings out the same kind of zealous drive from the band to Futurology: like The Holy Bible, Futurology is an album guided very clearly by a particular vision and everyone involved is throwing in everything they have to get that vision turned into reality. There's parts of the album where the lines between a "rock" album and something else start to blur and veer across to something subtler and stranger, and yet it still comes off louder and more bolsterous than many of the Manics albums that deliberately tried to tap into those rock and roll ideals directly. This in practice means that the band's strengths are in full display but with a new set of clothes on, which the title track at the start so strongly shows: "Futurology" is a traditional Manics anthem at heart but with a new paint coat over it and a brandy lit fire under its belly that makes it a propulsive, earnest manifesto for the record. It's an opener that sounds better each time you hear it, because the way it runs through the album's ideas becomes more and more evident the more you hear it start the journey.

The title track also features Wire singing its towering stadium-ready chorus, his rough voice bringing a hint of vulnerability to the lining of the song - it's his first time (outside his solo songs) leading the chorus of a Manics song, and a single at that, after so many cameos and verse trade-offs with Bradfield. The experimenting around Bradfield taking a backseat in lead vocals that was first shown on Rewind the Film continues its casual development here, but you could easily argue that the whole premise has been realised better this time around: or in other words, the other vocals are now used to augment James rather than replace him outright. Wire doesn’t get any solo songs (unless you count the seemingly unscripted shouting in the otherwise instrumental “Mayakovsky”) but his supporting vocal spots are prominent and play off Bradfield's lead vocals excellently, two songs feature choirs (a proper one in “Misguided Missile” and a gathering of studio visitors in “Let’s Go to War”) to give Bradfield a boost from the behind, and where the guest vocal spots are back they’re not obscuring James completely. The three songs with featured vocalists are all clear duets this time, with Bradfield and the collaborators exchanging lines between one another and sharing equal parts of the songs' weights. The co-headliners are overall great as well and probably even better utilised than on Rewind the Film which already did a great job with it, with Georgia Ruth Williams lending a tenderness to the contemplative slow cut “Divine Youth” that contrasts with James’ stadium-ready vocals and Green Gartside’s very distinctive nasal tone working in tandem with the general dreamland surreality of “Between the Clock and the Bed”.

And then there’s “Europa Geht Durch Mich”, the album’s unofficial theme song and the epitome of the record’s fixation with its country of recording. It’s a ridiculous song, and there’s no better way to describe it: built upon a hulking stomp that sounds like someone is pounding an industrial complex, it’s lead by what sounds like an air raid siren and culminates in the German actress Nina Hoss sing-shouting taglines about Europe in German. It’s somewhere between krautrock and industrial dance clubs, and it’s absolutely not the work of people who take themselves Very Very Seriously. And that’s why it’s so great, and there’s no better song to tie the album together - literally, as echoes of it cameo across the album’s length. There’s an irreverence to it that’s not entirely unlike the antagonising wink-wink posturing of Generation Terrorists or the more chaotic parts of Know Your Enemy, but reinterpreted by a group of veteran musicians on a road trip across some fantasy Europe. That off-kilterness isn't just restricted to "Europa Geht Durch Mich" either - the sci-fi secret agent theme "Dreaming a City" that's so unlike any other Manics instrumental so far (and easily the best one they've released by this point), the bitterly gleeful group chorus of “Let’s Go to War” that marches onto death with a smile on its face and the completely bonkers futuristic disco-rock of “Sex, Power, Love & Money” are things that are hard to believe they exist after years of the band taking themselves very seriously on record.

Futurology isn't all absurd style experiments and studio curios, and between the lines there's an honest and serious Manic Street Preachers album waiting to emerge. The likes of "The Next Jet to Leave Moscow", "Black Square" and "Futurology" are timeless Manics songs, but now playing around with the same risk-embracing attitude as the rest of the album. “Walk Me to the Bridge” is a standard straight-to-point latter-day Manics lead single but this time it's genuinely exciting and continues to be just as thrilling and refreshing no matter how many times you hear it, with a fantastic, almost menacing bass-driven structure that explodes into a blitz of synths in its chorus. That continuous sense of freshness and excitement runs across throughout, sometimes for the simple reason that the band are hitting all the exact right notes you look for in their music, like with the propulsive and beautifully sarcastic "The Next Jet to Leave Moscow", the soaring title track or the undeniably massive "Misguided Missile" where the finale - choirs blowing and all - sounds immense in a nigh-physically moving way. Other times it's in the sense of discovery within the deep production layers, reminiscent of prior richly immersive albums like Lifeblood and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours - "Between the Clock and the Bed" loops and swirls around beautifully, and the layers of the brilliant "Black Square" hide little secrets in some of the album's strongest melodies, culminating in a breakdown that literally breaks the body of the song away for a moment of chaotic rush before the chorus hits again stronger than ever. The half-acoustic half-electronic "The View From Stow Hill" not just bridges the two sibling albums together, but it radiates the classic beautiful melancholy that the band have always mastered and knocks it out of the park so well that even Wire namedropping Twitter and Facebook in the lyrics manages to sound decent. It's a beautiful song with a particularly resonant chorus melody, and ranks among the band's best album closers - or it would, if "Mayakovsky" wouldn't burst through the door like Kramer and rowdily thrash around the room. Futurology is a cheeky album, and it does not want you to forget about that right as you imagine the record is about to end in a genuinely poignant note.

It's a baffling but genuinely rather fun way to end the album and even after you've gotten used to it and know it's coming, it still feels like a surprise every time it appears - just like "Futurology" feels more resonant each time it starts the album and never loses its freshness. The disparate parts of Futurology could come loose at any moment but the Manics hold them down through a very strong vision for what they've set out to do, and the earnest willingness to take risks along the way which pays off fantastically. To go back on my personal experiences - and this is my review so I can - the great triumph of Futurology is that it's so clearly reminiscent of the band's golden years in its vigour, creativity and spirit; it reminds me of the Manics I was obsessed with and like that particular iteration of band has returned after a period where it felt like they were in danger of becoming another veteran band releasing good but inessential records to pad out their catalogue for fans only. But Futurology is anything but padding: it's a creative resurrection and revitalisation that builds on the potential that Rewind the Film hinted at, in a way that is downright joyous from fan's perspective but doesn't need that stamp of approval to stand up, because it's consistently exciting just from the point of view of a fan of music in general. Futurology features Manics' best songwriting in years, a style of production and choice of soundworld that brings the best out of those melodies and gives them to kick to send them soaring, and it's a return of the attitude the band had when they were on their peak. Twelve albums in and hitting their third decade, here the Manics sound as thrilling and vital as they've ever been in their prime. As the title track states: "we'll come back one day - we never really went away".

The deluxe edition offers the standard demo versions: no hidden secrets this time, just a few extra Wire lead vocals, a fully English-language version "Europa Geht Durch Mich" and a couple of takes with just James and his guitar (and occasionally a drum machine), otherwise it's mainly rougher takes and some surprisingly finished versions that are 90% close to the final version. The three bonus studio tracks are the more exciting thing, as the band had started to ween away from strict singles and b-sides at this stage and bonus drops like this have replaced them. "Blistered Mirrors" occupies the sort of halfway point between Rewind the Film and Futurology that most of the non-album tracks from these two eras exist in, and is the weakest of the lot to the point that there's not much to say about it. "The Last Time I Saw Paris" is the closest to the main album in its Euro-fetishism and guest vocals, with an uncredited vocalist (who I believe might be James' wife) providing spoken word narration across a sweeping cinematic backing. And while it's really neat and wonderfully lush, the award goes to "Empty Motorcade" - full of urgency as it speeds down the highway on its part-programmed rhythm, running on the main album's dynamics and escalating into a chorus that some would say is too good for a bonus track.

Physically: At this point I decided to simply start buying the deluxe editions from the get-go, rather than get the standard jewel case first. So, I've only got the special edition which comes in the usual Manics-esque book-shaped packaging with all the lyrics and loads of photos, all in extremely glossy paper as is befitting for this album's production aesthetic. "The lines are joined by finding one another" -Aleksandr Rodchenko


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2018 6 "International Blue", "Vivian", "Hold Me Like a Heaven"

1) People Give In; 2) International Blue; 3) Distant Colours; 4) Vivian; 5) Dylan & Caitlin (feat. The Anchoress); 6) Liverpool Revisited; 7) Sequels of Forgotten Wars; 8) Hold Me Like a Heaven; 9) In Eternity; 10) Broken Algorithms; 11) A Song for the Sadness; 12) The Left Behind
Deluxe Edition CD2: Original Demos: 1) People Give In; 2) International Blue; 3) Distant Colours; 4) Vivian; 5) Dylan & Caitlin; 6) Liverpool Revisited; 7) Sequels of Forgotten Wars; 8) Hold Me Like a Heaven; 9) In Eternity; 10) Broken Algorithms; 11) A Song for the Sadness; 12) The Left Behind; Bonus tracks: 13) Concrete Fields; 14) A Soundtrack to Complete Withdrawal

Bright and happy but lacking in meat around its promising bones.

A lot happened in the world after the last Manics album. Following Futurology, the band’s love letter to Europe, their native country decided to isolate themselves from the continent. The Western world became a political egg-and-spoon race of which country could make the biggest mess and the rest of the world wasn’t far behind, each month a new scandal. You would expect all this to have become a baiting carrot in front of Manics’ eyes - a band once famous for their open politics and their frustrated takedowns of the system they lived under, who you would think would be ready to face the new world order with fire and brimstone once more. But the Manics are no longer young angry punks, they’re now grown men with established careers, families and everything else that mellows a man out. So rather than facing the anger and misery around them, Resistance Is Futile became an album about how to run away from them. Despite its antagonistic title it’s really about the band wanting to openly welcome whoever would listen to it, inspired by the small pieces of hope to cling onto in life and the things you can retreat away from the world into, from art to family and the small pieces of good news in a world increasingly lacking in them.

Resistance Is Futile circles back towards the brighter and friendlier side of the Manics, as probably expected from an album that aspires to be positive. The marked difference from the previous albums where they focused on quick hooks and crowd-friendly choruses - say e.g. Postcards From a Young Man - is that Resistance Is Futile carves a little corner for itself rather than repeating past tricks, even if it does so by looking back. There's a very pristine, processed sound to the album with snappy drums, bright keyboard accents and clean guitars, which draw a direct line towards the 1980s. It's not Manics gone retro per se but there's a distinct element of the band flirting with the sounds of their own youth, tapping onto an aesthetic that takes them to their happy days of innocence. and which just so happens to combine very well with a more significantly melodic approach. In the past the band have always teetered on the edge of coming across calculated when being this direct, but Resistance Is Futile is above all sincere in its ideas: it sounds like a record that a group of friends make with themselves in mind above everyone else.

"International Blue" is the proof of concept. It was the made-to-measure lead single and with its shimmering production, tracked and processed drums and Bradfield's snappy guitar hooks, with all the sunshine pouring all over its pristine surface, it reflects across its parent album. It didn't sound like much when it was first announced but it's really shown its teeth as time has progressed and when in the context of the rest of the album, it's turned out to be an effortless and genuinely uplifting piece of summer-time rock most at home when life's looking lush. But while it's indicative of its parent album, the song that better exemplifies the album is "Liverpool Revisited". Its middle section from the solo onwards, all the melody rising to the sky and Bradfield adopting the millennial whoop/wordless vocal trend and claiming it as his own territory is genuinely superb: at that point the song reaches a timelessly epic nature, with a steel-strong melody taking a stand and announcing itself as something iconic right there then. It's the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Resistance Is Futile, partially thanks to its cunning use in the album's announcement trailer. But it's an incredible section surrounded by padding of much lesser caliber. If it wasn't for how clunky the stuttering gear switch between its verse and chorus is, you'd be inclined to forget the song existed. And that's the great conflict of Resistance Is Futile.

There are constant traces that Resistance Is Futile could be a surprising yet excellent new addition to the Manics' run, but then so much of it is best described as fine. It's an album that's on an even plateau of quality for most of its duration, but the climb isn't particularly tall and rarely does it leave an impression. There's a key hook to each song that's enough to keep them alive in memory but not so vividly that you'd come back for them. At worst it's when there's clearly something great in the background but it's weighed down by the rest of the song: like the sad case of "Liverpool Revisited", the Anchoress duet "Dylan & Caitlin" which is an exercise at creating a story sung from two perspectives that's a first for the Manics and which only occasionally almost gets as exciting in practice as it is in concept, "In Eternity" threatens to be an appropriately glamorous tribute to David Bowie but the band practically hold it back, and the Wire-sung "The Left Behind" could be a deliciously whiplashing subdued and melancholy finale for the otherwise bouncy album but largely it just plods along and whimpers to an ending. And that's the songs where there's an easy point of interest poking out - so many others play out pleasantly enough but fade into the background. The trio's performance is great and Wire's lyrics are mostly genuinely interesting as he tilts his introspective pen to a new angle, but the songs let them down. It's hard to pin down what exactly has gone awry there, but simply put the material simply isn't that strong despite its best efforts, like everything is a revision or two away from the standards Manics fare. But on the plus side there's only one clear dip and that's "Broken Algorithms", another Nicky Wire vs The Modern Technology ramble which is at odds with the rest of the album's message and sonically is a throwback to Send Away the Tigers, which no one really needs.

Credit where credit's due though, and there are a few songs across the album where the album does reach the potential it shyly displays throughout. "Vivian" is a lush uptempo cut and effectively takes what "International Blue" does right and improves on it even further. Throughout the album Bradfield loves delivering short signature riffs that make up most of the earworm hooks for those songs, and the chorus licks of "Vivian" are the best of their kind on the record - especially when they begin to alternate with one of the album's strongest vocal melodies (in particular when The Anchoress does another cameo in the later choruses). With a little drama in its verses and the soaring centrepoint moments it's practically playful, and it puts a big dumb smirk on my face whenever it comes along. And if "Vivian" is the joy in the album's soul, "Hold Me Like a Heaven" is its heart. Wire's mother passed away between the last album and this, and "Hold Me Like a Heaven" is an ode to her, which the band use to dive into the idea of music as a positive, healing element in a time of uncertainty and sadness. It's the epitome of the album's concept because it's a real, personal angle to it and so it becomes by and far the greatest song on it, with a chorus melody so poignant and effective that even the re-appearance of those very anti-Manicsesque wordless whoah-ohs hit precisely with the personal but universal appeal they strive to be. It's a beautiful tearjerker dressed up as a stadium pop moment - pulled off brilliantly.

Highlighting so few songs across an entire record seems a little unfair for Resistance Is Futile because it's an album I want to root for - there's a solid concept, there's places where that concept is proven to work and if everything clicked together as well as it could I'd quite happily accept a friendly shoulder of optimism from a band who rarely offer it. Yet even I, the rambling man who has written a small book's worth of words about this band by now, am stuck at finding anything really that interesting to talk about it. It's fine. It's nice. And for most of its duration that's all it reaches. When Manics have stumbled in the past they've at least fallen head-first into the gutter; Resistance Is Futile is the first time they've delivered an album that's enjoyable enough but doesn't invite any real reaction about it, good or bad - even if I'm disappointed about it I can't even feel that dismayed, it simply doesn't provoke that strong a reaction. It begs for stronger set of songs to go with the ideas it represents and no matter how in tune the band sound, it's the strength of the material that ultimately matters: and so, Resistance Is Futile is a nice enough listen that gets wheeled out once a year to be enjoyed briefly before being returned to the shelf to be forgotten again.

The set of demos on the deluxe edition are rather unexciting as well, and many of them resemble the album versions to the point that they sound more like rough mixes than work in progress - and at that stage you're better off just listening to the record. The two studio originals are more interesting though. "Concrete Fields" is a bittersweet nostalgic stroll sung by Wire, an autobiographical rant that sounds jolly but Wire looking at through melancholy lenses - complete with an interpolation of Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun" towards the end that after the initial shock actually works. "A Soundtrack to Complete Withdrawal" shares the soundscape of the main album but tonally is closer to the last few records, and creates an introspective mini-epic with a decidedly moodier lurch forward than the rest of this era. And in all honesty? While neither are true b-side standouts, they both probably could have made the album in lieu of some other songs that are on the main disc without me batting an eyelid. They likely didn't make the cut because they're at odds with the album's general quest for optimism, which is fair - but they've would've been intriguing offshoots.

Physically: Another book-box with lyrics and photos, this time with a more worn-out aesthetic and a more "rustic" feel. "I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past" -Virginia Woolf. Nostalgia and memories.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2021 8 "Still Snowing in Sapporo", "The Secret He Had Missed", "Afterending"

CD1: 1) Still Snowing in Sapporo; 2) Orwellian; 3) The Secret He Had Missed (feat. Julia Cumming); 4) Quest for Ancient Colour; 5) Don't Let the Night Divide Us; 6) Diapause; 7) Complicated Illusions; 8) Into the Waves of Love; 9) Blank Diary Entry (feat. Mark Lanegan); 10) Happy Bored Alone; 12) Afterending
CD2: 1) Still Snowing in Sapporo (Demo); 2) Orwellian (Demo); 3) The Secret He Had Missed (Demo); 4) Quest for Ancient Colour (Demo); 5) Don't Let the Night Divide Us (Nicky Wire Home Demo); 6) Don't Let the Night Divide Us (Demo); 7) Diapause (Demo); 8) Complicated Illusions (Nicky Wire Home Demo); 9) Complicated Illusions (Demo); 10) Into the Waves of Love (Demo); 11) Blank Diary Entry (Demo); 12) Happy Bored Alone (Demo); 13) Afterending (Demo)

ABBA, piano, introspection and haphazard politics, in the return of the elegiac pop strain of the Manics' songwriting.

The Ultra Vivid Lament isn’t strictly speaking an album from the COVID era as it was recorded with the band all together in the same studio after the UK lockdown restrictions had began to loosen up, but it was born against the backdrop of the pandemic. The title itself is Wire’s description of how the loneliness and anxiety of so many people became so tangible – vivid – when the world shut down but the modern social media continued to fill with their individual voices - everyone forced apart but still talking to each other, narrating the disruption in their lives. The Manics were of course affected by the same events and even though some initial work had started on the earliest song drafts before the pandemic, the lockdown reset the process. Manics have always been a band who often lets their personal kneejerk reactions to their most recent work dictate the direction towards the next, but the time spent alone wiped the slate clean and what we actually ended up with is more of a mirror of how the album's two primary writers experienced the isolation.

James Dean Bradfield, for one, has literally never taken a break. I don't think he actually can: even during the Manics' few break periods over the years he's embarked on solo albums and side projects, started producing for other artists or written soundtracks for obscure plays and movies few have heard of and fewer have seen. The man is a workaholic and so a mandated, socially distanced lockdown was likely agony for his idle but eager hands - especially as Bradfield's always been most comfortable working with others to create art rather than acting as a solo star (his first solo album is retroactively defined by his own shy embarrassement of having to do things on his own and the second is a collaboration for all intents and purposes). So, during the isolation, rather than just write music without a band to take the sketches to, he started to focus on how to evolve his writing as he began practicing the piano seriously. Much of The Ultra Vivid Lament was composed on a piano rather than Bradfield's signature guitar, and even in the more guitar-carried songs the piano is always present, leading the melody and often the rhythm as well while the guitarwork primarily lays out detail and texture. A piano isn't a stranger to the world of the Manics, but being in such a focal role is something novel to them and lends a new voice to the familiar songwriting. Everything flows lighter, with a feather-weight step even during the snappiest moments.

Meanwhile Nicky Wire, the man who has now spent a good several decades writing about the bliss of solitude and the beauty of boredom, had to face some genuine solitude and boredom for once and he's emerged from the other side even more contemplative than he was before. The years right before COVID had generally seen Wire in a much more self-reflective mood due to a combination of his increasing age and growing further away from his idealistic past, the loss of both of his parents and the general feeling of being left behind in a world that had changed direction. At first glance The Ultra Vivid Lament isn't anything atypical from a modern Manics album in its lyrics: Wire is sullen and forecoming about his anxieties, he examines the inner life of his soul and finds solace in nostalgia. A closer look reveals that those familiar tracts now show a new kind of vulnerability: the man who once fought against the world with proud arrogance is now waving a flag of defeat and has found himself at a crossroads, uncertain where to go from here - but he's also openly finding solace in company now, repeatedly extending his metaphorical hand to anyone willing to share the journey into the unknown with him. If the lockdown did anything, it's made Wire realise that it's not a weakness to need company - something that crops throughout the new album.

The Ultra Vivid Lament draws its ideas from both of those creative pulls, but what's particularly interesting (if you're into the nitty-gritty Manics details) is that in the process it lands the album in the approximate halfway point between the band's own conflicting tendencies. The Manics have been operating for a while now on a two-instinct mode: one carefully experimental where they daringly move beyond their usual comfort zones, and the other being that very same comfort zone where the goal is to just create catchy singalong choruses reminiscent of their old classic anthems, befit for (dwindling) airplay and festival appearances. Those two sides have been pushing and pulling the band throughout the second half of their career, two sides of a coin where which face it lands on depends on how self-conscious the group were feeling at the time. The Ultra Vivid Lament sounds like the first natural compromise between the two forces - the coin landing on its edge - we've heard in a long time. It's a lushly melodic and invitingly catchy album: the big inspiration the band namedropped was ABBA and the biggest surprise of all (for anyone familiar with Wire's often... far-fetched descriptions of their albums) is that the influence does actually audibly run through the record. From the strong basslines and intricate melodies to details like the punctuating piano stabs in "Orwellian" and "The Secret He Had Missed" and the theatrically posing chorus of "Happy Bored Alone", there's a lot of the post-divorce Swedish melodrama present which cuts through the more familiar aspects of Manics' songwriting. But it's also an introspective, sonically stretching record: there's atmospheric passages to "Diapause" and "Still Snowing in Sapporo" that sound like a band once again in search of new frontiers, and in its arrangement and drawl "Blank Diary Entry" is positively like a strange b-side experiment from the band's turn-of-millennium golden years. A common reference point to The Ultra Vivid Lament which others have invoked is 2004's Lifeblood, also a pristinely produced "elegiac pop" record that interpreted its obsession with nostalgia, legacy, time and the ghosts of the past through a set of luxuriously melodic songs which de-emphasised guitar; and while we're far from the high standards evoked through that comparison, there is a valid point there. But the songwriting style and directness of The Ultra Vivid Lament is much more in line with Manics' more contemporary moods and there's a clear path visible from the last album, 2018's Resistance Is Futile, to here which demonstrates how the original writing began shortly afterwards - but what they finally landed on in 2021 doesn't sound like they're selling themselves short this time around.

In fact, in its core The Ultra Vivid Lament introduces new tones and ideas to what is now a veteran discography, and that's often very exciting and occasionally downright great to hear and experience. With "Orwellian" and "The Secret He Had Missed" the band introduce two giddily sharp anthems into their repertoire which illustrate Bradfield's desire to not just be influenced by ABBA but to challenge them on their own game, and "The Secret He Had Missed" especially grows to a thunderously swivelling pop spectacle full of drama and hooks, with a brilliant duet vocal from Sunflower Bean's Julia Cumming who exhibits tremendous chemistry with Bradfield as they trade off lines - it's a seriously exhilirating killer hit-in-intention single and proves the point that it's not a bad thing for the Manics to go for the jugular, there's just a stark difference when they go for it with clear intent and passion. "Complicated Illusions", "Quest for Ancient Colour" and "Into the Waves of Love" are airy and dreamy, littered with layers of melodies and showing off a natural effortlessness in their delivery that makes them all immediate and resonate, and carry a hint of the style of Bradfield's solo albums in their DNA, brought into the Manics' widescreen mode. "Complicated Illusions" in particular hitting something brightly resonant in its majestically soaring choruses, while "Quest for Ancient Colour" retains its piano origins the tightest and while it's hardly anything new in the history of music, hearing Bradfield with just a piano as his accompaniment in parts of the song is something novel to the Manics and makes for a strong appearance. "Diapause" takes its longing mood for a journey via Moore's ever-shuffling drums and together with "Still Snowing in Sapporo" reminds of the band's most studio-focused, exploratory works in the most positive manner; "Still Snowing in Sapporo" instantly becomes one of the Manics' best album openers with its soaring guitars and the wistful yet soothing atmosphere, hazily lost in the memories of the band in the early 1990s with all the wistful longing that comes with the territory.

There's also "Afterending", which gets its own paragraph because it's the titular ultra vivid lament and really brings the album together at the end - literally, as it nods towards to prior lyrical themes, where "we now enter into a night of nothingness" contrasts with the earlier and more optimistic "don't let the night divide us" from the song of the same name, and "sail into the abyss with me" invokes the same call for companionship in the face of the frightening unknown as "I'll walk you through the apocalypse" does in "Orwellian. It starts out as a description of the mess of a state that the UK had found itself in the early 2020s, from Brexit to Tory corruption and everything surrounding COVID, but after the first chorus the attention turns from the outside world to inside people’s homes, to the solitude that once felt like a resting place until it became enforced, and to the technology that once gave freedom but suddenly became both the only means of communication as well as the source of constant doomscrolling about a present that never seemed to get better. Once upon a time this could have resulted in a fiery rant from Wire, naming names and probably linking those names to dictators and despots from across history, but not in 2021. Everything now is too much to handle and given Wire’s open statements about his lack of belief in any major political powers anymore – i.e. most of this very album where he frequently voices his struggles with his loss of (non-religious) faith – he can’t see a way forward either. “Afterending” is a song of quiet and mournful acceptance, that there is no visible light at the end of the tunnel as “the near future has been and gone” - nut you can at least find company in someone else during the end, and that’s comforting enough. It brings the album to a rest not with a bang or even a sigh, but a kind of melancholy serenity. It puts in overt words what the rest of the album often only glances at, provides the context to everything that came before and thus appropriately closes the circle as the record ends. No grand solos, no bombastic gestures – even the sing-along towards the end feels like a gentle farewell with your established comrades in arms rather than anything that would invite a crowd together from scratch. But it’s gorgeously arranged, poignantly performed and is a downright perfect melody/lyric combo. It is everything the album has been working towards from an emotional perspective and puts it together with a musical language that’s a comfortable evolution of the band during their greatest introspective moments.

The fact that we've got something the magnitude of "Afterending" on this album already makes it a worthy addition to the canon and overall The Ultra Vivid Lament is on its way shaping up to be an unequivocally excellent album, which is why it's particularly pesky how it keeps tripping over itself in the most minor of ways, but like a death from a thousand cuts those - sometimes admittedly nitpicky - issues keep pulling me away from the album's magic whenever they pop up. It's like an AI art image, looking wonderful until you realise just how many fingers and teeth there are everywhere and then you can't stop staring at them. The biggest of these issues is "Don't Let the Night Divide Us", an all-around flimsy song where Wire comes up with the rhyme "don't let those boys from Eton / suggest we are beaten" and considers it a job well done, song's finished, we can go on a break now - the anemic tune, the twee delivery (I guess the inspiration here are all the ABBA songs everyone collectively forgets about when praising them) and the Muse-level fridge magnet anecdotes that constitute as attempts of a political rally song all make it an obvious rough spot, and one that is badly sandwiched between two of the album's most interesting arrangement jobs just to highlight the discrepancy. The smidge of politics appearing across the album is in general comes across somewhat awkward: Wire no longer has the political fire of a young punk, which is fine, we all get old, but as a Famous Political Lyricist he seemingly can't stop writing about the subject even though all he can specifically think about is his own disillusionment towards all the current political parties in the UK. This leads to clunkily self-centered lyrical snippets where Wire either sounds like a parody of himself ("Don't Let the Night Divide Us") or inadvertently paints a congratulatory centrist view of himself (I say inadvertently because if you've invested the time to read any Manics interviews from the past five years you can see what he's getting at, but I just don't think he knows how to phrase those thoughts within the limits of a simple verse-chorus songs), and "Orwellian" derails its points by misusing its titular phrase. It's only "Afterending" that manages to make something coherent out of Wire's political musings, and that's by placing the focus away from Wire himself. Elsewhere you have ill-fitting arrangement choices with the overwrought "The Great Gig in the Sky"-style vocal solo in "Into the Waves of Love" which is too over the top for such a deftly delicate song, and the muscular production given to "Happy Bored Alone" brings it too close to a Token Late-Album Rock Song that doesn't click with the rest of the record's vibe. And while "Blank Diary Entry" is a very intriguing song from a musical and arrangement perspective (I recommend going into it with headphones and paying attention to all the layers of intricately arranged guitars weaving in and out of the composition) and I generally love Mark Lanegan, he doesn't work together with Bradfield's more polished vocals and his duet appearance is like a pasted-on remix feature rather than an actual duet. It doesn't kill the song and when the two men are isolated in their respective they do their parts fine, but whenever the voices overlap or swap lines Lanegan just doesn't fit in the same space as James

None of this would necessarily have a particularly strong impact in isolation (except maybe "Don't Let the Night Divide Us" which is just such a flaccid song that it keeps annoying me even just by thinking about it), but over the course of the full album these little dents in the armour begin to nag. I've had surprising trouble coming up a neat conclusion of exactly what I think about The Ultra Vivid Lament because it feels more slippery than the sum of its parts: those parts being a set of primarily very good and often excellent songs, and the sum being an interesting and even exciting late-period record that brushes off any fears of stagnation after Resistance Is Futile and adds something new to the story. They're the kind of complaints that make you pause while thinking about which number out of ten to allocate next to the album on a website as if that sort of thing mattered in the slightest when it came to your actual enjoyment of the music. And while they're valid points that are worth bringing up in a breakdown of the album - for me, anyway, and this is all about me - it shouldn't really take away from such strong positives that the album has to offer. I've always had a big soft spot whenever the Manics have followed their instinct without fear and especially without any care for the outside world - it's how we've ended up with some of their wildest and strongest albums - and viewed as an entity, the crystalline pop and deep-dive atmospherics that coat the bulk of the album are clearly born from that particular instinct. It may not be as drastic as some of the past steps askew, but it feels like they've not only managed to pull themselves out of the malaise that they (in retrospect) admitted had plagued them during the Resistance Is Futile sessions but that they've succeeded in finding a way to channel their endless desire to create the grand anthems they're known for - both their inherit strength as well as the occasional weight on their shoulders - in a manner that breathes new life into the proceedings. Despite the inherent melancholy across The Ultra Vivid Lament there's genuine joy to be found in its melodic abundance.

The deluxe edition comes with the typical set of demos and nothing else this time, and as usual most of it is largely unexciting even for a hardcore fan: primarily just a few slightly rougher versions of the full band tracks (still pretty hi-fi all things considered) and a few James solo spots with an acoustic guitar, with or without some layered vocals or simple drum machines to keep the rhythm. There's a few neat points of interest, though. Both "Complicated Illusions" and "Don't Let the Night Divide Us" feature Wire's minute-long initial sketches of the songs, and it's interesting to compare those original ideas with how Bradfield subsequently fleshes them out in his own demos. The version of "Into the Waves of Love" is identical to the album version but drops the vocal solo and instead has a more typical Manics instrumental section in its place (which is buried under the mix on the main disc), and it's a vast improvement to the song by removing the one thing I had to complain about it. The genuine takeaway is the demo of "Quest for Ancient Colour", which is James playing through the song alone but with his piano. It's a really lovely version and given the most piano-centric parts were my favourite sections of the final song, this - effectively an alternate piano version of the song - is something I've been coming back to regularly which has never happened with these demo discs otherwise.

Physically: The deluxe edition comes once again in a book-like packaging, with plenty of extra artwork by the lyrics (and pull quotes from the lyrics). The sleeve quote this time is from Joan Didion: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear." Which is poignant and appropriate for an introspective album.



Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1992 7 "Slash 'n' Burn (US Mix)"

1) Slash 'n' Burn (US Mix); 2) Nat West-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds (US Mix); 3) You Love Us (US Mix); 4) Democracy Coma; 5) Crucifix Kiss (US Mix); 6) Little Baby Nothing (US Mix); 7) Repeat (UK); 8) Repeat (Stars and Stripes)

A Japan-exclusive release of US-exclusive songs by a British band.

When Sony were preparing to introduce Manic Street Preachers to the US market, they deemed that the naughty little punk boys needed a little bit of tidying up. The intentionally bloated Generation Terrorists was the right debut album in the UK where the band's self-created hype made such excess appropriate, but for its Stateside release it was edited with a heavy hand. The 18 tracks got cut down to 12, the A-side worthy b-side "Democracy Coma" was given a deserving spot on the album over some of the more obvious filler, and most notably a number of key tracks got remixed with live drums replacing the infamous drum machine of the original release, played by a session musician with no oversight from the band. Meanwhile on the opposite side of the globe, Manics hysteria was rapidly growing in Japan's rock underground and the local Sony wing needed more to fan the flames. So, this gets released: an EP (or a mini album) putting together the new US mixes, the previously unreleased in Japan "Democracy Coma" and for whatever reason the two versions of "Repeat" which were already part of the standard album in every single region.

"Democracy Coma" can be found (among other places) on Lipstick Traces, so for completionist Western Manics fans the reason to get a hold of this release are the US mixes of the Generation Terrorists favourites (and "Crucifix Kiss"). The biggest difference are of course the live drums, which are technically speaking done well: the session drummer drums don't do anything new, but no one genuinely likes the fake drums on Generation Terrorists and the real drums simply sound better. It's not a straightforward upgrade, though - the mixing of the drums sticks out from the original production a little too much and it's clear they've been recorded after everything else, in a hurry. It's like watching a film with lots of post-production: it's technically solid but you can still tell a bit too obviously that no one was shooting on location. The mixes also generally brighten up some of the additional elements like the few scattered piano parts, and "Crucifix Kiss" (which hasn't had any new drum parts recorded otherwise) particularly benefits from this. It's not as in your face, but those more minor mix changes are maybe even nicer than the pasted-on new drums because they're highlighting what's already there.

As far as random Manics releases go this is the kind of thing you hunt down when you're close to exhausting all the other even barely meaningful collectibles, and it's not going to change the way you hear these songs or unlock their true potential now that the programmed beats are gone. It's telling that these have never been included in any other reissue since (though it wouldn't be out of the ordinary if the band had simply forgotten they exist), and most fans aren't missing out on anything important. For those who are simply that curious, maybe finding the original US release of Generation Terrorists is even cheaper or easier - but then you'd also miss out on the gloriously excessive packaging aimed at the Japanese fanbase. The booklet is thick with full sections devoted to each member, there's a little biography and you even get stickers which is genuinely kind of cute. The release as a whole is somewhere between getting more money from the fans and giving the fandom the kind of attention they appreciate, and that might give it more lasting enjoyment for me than the mixes themselves.

Physically: Most of this was already described above as it made more sense: thick booklet with all kinds of fun sub-sections, stickers, etc. All stored in a jewel case.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2002 8 I mean it's a hits compilation so technically everything but "There by the Grace of God" and "Door to the River" deserve to be highlighted

1) A Design for Life; 2) Motorcycle Emptiness; 3) If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next; 4) La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh); 5) There By the Grace of God; 6) You Love Us; 7) Australia; 8) You Stole the Sun from My Heart; 9) Kevin Carter; 10) Tsunami; 11) The Masses Against the Classes; 12) From Despair to Where; 13) Door to the River; 14) Everything Must Go; 15) Faster; 16) Little Baby Nothing; 17) Suicide Is Painless (Theme from MASH); 18) So Why So Sad; 19) The Everlasting; 20) Motown Junk

The post career derail hits compilation!

After the intentional brake-pull that the Manics caused with the less commercially instant Know Your Enemy, the clear follow-up move is... obviously a greatest hits compilation, for the label to get some cash in while the band's name is still somewhat relevant.

Summing up six albums within 80 minutes isn't a particularly easy task, especially given how varied the Manics' career had already been by this point - even if you limit yourself to just the singles. Forever Delayed mostly takes the predictable route and does pretty well with it all things considered. All the singles from Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours are here obviously, and they're accompanied by all the obvious favourites you'd expect to find here. The non-album singles "Suicide Is Painless", "Motown Junk" and "The Masses Against the Classes" have been included which is great both from a completionist point of view as well as convenient for fans. The fan and critic favourite The Holy Bible is represented by a single song in "Faster", which looks outrageous at first glance until you realise that trying to pretend the other singles from that album would fit within a hit compilation would constitute as an unbelievable act of self-delusion (and trying to squeeze in "Faster" alone with the rest of these songs stylistically was an impossible mission to start with, and it's really abrupt when it does appear). The exclusion of "Stay Beautiful" raises an eyebrow given how iconic it is, but admittedly the other Generation Terrorists cuts have an even more valid reason to be included. The only actual baffling matter is choosing "So Why So Sad" to be the only album to represent Know Your Enemy: I can get why only song would be taken from that record, but you have "Ocean Spray" right there to pick, i.e. the one thing close to a hit single and the one song the band regularly continue to play from the album live to this day.

But without the nitpicking, it does what a greatest hits collection should do: provide a snappy overview of the big successes and accompanying back catalogue colleagues to make for a good listen, and you could do a far worse of a job than this to entice you to explore the back catalogue further. The edits included here are downright painful in some cases ("Motorcycle Emptiness" being particularly egregious), but the songs themselves are fantastic and even if not fully representative of the band's first decade, they're a great snapshot.

That includes the token two new songs, because both "There By the Grace of God" and "Door to the River" are more than justified to be here. They are transitional songs, included here as a taste of things to come as the band would explore a more keyboard-driven, intricately produced direction up next, and so sound-wise they're something completely new rather than retreading past glories. But they're phenomenal teasers and rival many of the actual hit songs on this very record. The ethereal "There By the Grace of God" is one of the band's most subtly gorgeous, atmospheric songs, while "Door to the River" is overtly so: the former a haunting anthem that sounds resigned to an unknown bittersweet fate, the latter a grand string-laden tearjerker of a ballad with one of Wire's most poignant lyrics. They're masterful, far far away from the sort of throwaways that the mandatory new songs on hit compilations are associated with. If anything, it's a crime they're confined here because they really should have headed an album of their own.

Really, the only thing that holds this record back - besides the fact that it's a greatest hits compilation and not an actual album - is that it's outdated; not just because in the streaming era the idea of a single-disc career summation is a quaint antiquity, but because Manics themselves released another compilation later down the line which features all but one of the songs from here. The only reason I'm grading it an 8 instead of a 9 or even a 10 that it would deserve from an objective point of view is that I've never really formed any kind of relationship with this one: I was already way into the Manics rabbit hole by the time this was released and the edits kept me away from listening to this when I could just listen to the actual albums. It's an utilitarian rating. My copy is also the bog standard version. I would recommend any other completionist fan to dig a little deeper and find the deluxe 2-CD version which includes most of the remixes that had been scattered across the band's singles as b-sides in the prior decade, which does include some particularly good versions amongst the chaff.

Physically: I only own the standard version of this, though maybe one day I'll try and find the special edition with a bonus disc of remixes (which are... varying in quality). Standard jewel case with a booklet. In a wonderful Manics fashion, the booklet contains the liner quotes for each of the physical singles for the songs; "Door to the River" which wasn't released as a single gets its own quote too. The liner quote for the compilation itself is by the collective Group Material: "We invite everyone to question the entire culture we take for granted."


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2022 5 "Vision Blurred", "The Instrumental", "Endless Plain of Fortune"

1) Borderline; 2) Jean's Not Happening (feat. Finlay George); 3) (Feels Like) Heaven (Live at the BBC); 4) Pennyroyal Tea (Live at the BBC); 5) Let's Stay Together (Live at the BBC); 6) Vision Blurred; 7) Wake Up Alone; 8) Bright Eyes (Full Band Version); 9) In Between Days (Live at the BBC); 10) Sweet Child o' Mine (Live at Cardiff Castle); 11) All or Nothing (Live at the BBC); 12) Bring on the Dancing Horses (Live at the BBC); 13) Under My Wheels (Live at the BBC); 14) The Instrumental; 15) Summer Wind (Live at the BBC); 16) Endless Plain of Fortune; 17) Primitive Painters

A supplemental slapdash selection of random covers - and we all know what an exciting covers band the Manics are...

To popularise on the unexpected success of The Ultra Vivid Lament (which debuted at #1 on the UK album charts after a fierce battle with Steps of all acts - in 2021, may I remind you), the Manics’ PR team started to release themed playlists of the band’s back catalogue on streaming services, treating them like semi-official compilations: the playlists were given actual names and usually included at least one rarer recording that had previously been unavailable to stream, they came with some minor promo from Nicky Wire himself, etc. In this vein, the release of the playlist of covers performed by Manics was accompanied by the separate digital release of Sleep Next to Plastic (which confusingly shares its name with the playlist), ostensibly a compilation of various covers from throughout the band's career (primarily from mid-2000s onwards) which hadn't been made digitally available before. To the surprise of fans the band's team went above and beyond the bare minimal input required for the exercise, because they had dug out a surprising amount of previously completely unreleased material for the compilation in form of both studio recordings and live performances. And so if the playlist was a way for the general public to spend their valuable streaming pennies to Manics' benefit, the compilation was an unexpected boon for the fans. From a completionist's perspective, anyway.

It's worth mentioning right in the very beginning that the Manics aren't actually a very good covers band. They rarely introduce their own take on the songs they cover and tend to prefer playing their borrowed material very straight; often the strength of these covers is purely in the fact that the songs they've chosen now have the benefit of James Dean Bradfield singing them. This was already a problem earlier on in the band's career (see the second disc of Lipstick Traces which no one ever listens to) and if anything, it's even more apparent as the band have gotten older and started playing covers primarily for their own nostalgia. The vast majority of the songs on this compilation fall in this category, including the brand new cover of Madonna's "Borderline" which the band had performed live a few months earlier and then decided to record it in studio in promotion for this playlist - and it really just sounds like an average wedding band playing through "Borderline" to raise a nostalgic smile from the drunken attendees, only this time the singer just happens to be one of the most charismatic front men in rock. The various live recordings included here have the benefit of sometimes finding a bit of extra ad hoc energy from the general dynamic of the live setting, even if the rendition itself is a little too by-the-book: that's how the recording of "Sweet Child o' Mine" salvages itself, through the combined joy of Bradfield clearly enjoying the chance to play one of his favourite songs and show off his mastery of the solo, and the audience reacting to his energy by losing themselves in the moment and singing along to the big hooks. Most of the versions here don't quite reach that and because there's so many of these sudden live renditions, they all start bleeding into one another; though thanks to the version of "Under My Wheels" being recorded in 1992 as opposed to the post-2000s nature of everything else, the sudden switch to young Manics mode is always a bit of a startle.

On the more positive side, the best thing about Sleep Next to Plastic is its effective resurrection of a number of the few actually great covers that had been left to rot in obscurity over the years: "The Instrumental" (June Brides) was originally released on a barely-acknowledged tribute album, "The Endless Plain of Fortune" (John Cale) was a vinyl-only bonus track on a store-exclusive promotional version of National Treasures, "Primitive Painters" (Felt) was a Japan-only bonus track and "Vision Blurred" (The Horrors) was a free download gift in 2009 which had never been released in any higher quality than the original lossy MP3 file. Now they've actually been given the chance to be heard by the wider subset of fans who aren't obsessed about tracking every single thing, and while they in most parts fall into the same pitfalls as most Manics covers, they're overall well worth hearing and have repeated play value. "The Instrumental" was recorded around the Lifeblood sessions and bears the albums's glacial keyboard shine and sounds haunting and beautiful, "The Endless Plain of Fortune" is a faithful 1-to-1 rendition of the original but it's a song that suits the band so perfectly that it's just a great listen and you could almost imagine it's a Manics original, "Primitive Painters" has a tender ache married to a softly soaring chorus that the Manics nail down so brilliantly and "Vision Blurred" has so much raw fury and aggression in its churning bulldozer guitars that it's almost shocking given the band's general lean towards easy anthems during the latter half of the 2000s.

Besides, though it's commendable that the band's team (and I in no way believe the band had anything to do with this themselves) tried to be as complete as possible, including digging out things no one even knew existed (a full band live-in-studio version of "Bright Eyes" as opposed to the more familiar acoustic live cover, "Jean's Not Happening" which no one has been able to trace whether it's new or old), the collection as a whole comes across slapdash. The volume levels are all over the place with no attempt at normalising the volume between the songs, "Sweet Child o' Mine" ends with a good ten seconds of "La Tristesse Durera" as the band launch into the next song after the applause, and "The Endless Plain of Fortune" sounds like a direct vinyl rip that someone then tried to clean up via an editing software but made it sound horribly compressed instead. It's a death by a thousand cuts that gives the compilation the feel of a bootleg collection with no real internal sense or harmony - though even I've made my DIY Manics compilations that sound more cohesively put together.

But that's what this is at the end of the day though, isn't it? It's not a "real" release per se, as evidenced by the complete lack of any physical versions: it's a collection of things to feed into a wider playlist, which is the actual main attraction. This standalone album is practically coincidental, bought or listened to by the hardcore fans only. Those same fans will then take away the individual bits they want to and add them into their own compilations, mixes and playlists; I know the first thing I did after downloading this was obviously to listen through it, and my second act immediately afterwards was picking apart the studio cuts and replacing the old rips and dodgy downloads in my DIY Manics rarities compilations with the files from this. It's hard to really recommend this as a listening experience and I can't imagine there's ever going to be a time when I'd genuinely seek to listen to this if not imposed by one reason or another. It's a perfunctory supplemental release, so treat (and rate) it as one.

Physically: This is a digital-only release.

In the beginning, when we were winning...