Having released the bleakest record of their career, and quite possibly of the entire decade, with 1994’s ‘The Holy Bible’, the Manics were reaching critical mass and it seemed something had to give. Chief tunesmith James Dean Bradfield was becoming worried that he wouldn’t be able to fit the increasingly polemical lyrics of Richey Edwards, permanent icon and sometime guitar player, to workable melodies. After poor sales of their bold third album, the band feared they might be dropped and, in February 1995, an American tour was looming on the horizon when Edwards disappeared.
After several months of uncertainty, the band vowed to go on. Convening for a nervous get-together in a Cardiff studio, they attempted a run-through of a song called ‘A Design For Life’, assimilated from two different lyrics Nicky Wire had provided Bradfield with in the months after Edwards’ disappearance. Realising that they had something special on their hands, the Manics attempted to record, with Stephen Hague in the producer’s chair, but found the results to be mixed. Opting instead for Siouxsie and Associates producer Mike Hedges, revered at the time for his stellar work on McAlmont & Butler’s ‘Yes’, the band decamped to a French Chateau and got to work. Described by Bradfield as “the most idyllic experience the band has ever had,” the results were to reverse their commercial decline and redefine how the band was viewed.
After a tentative return to the public arena supporting The Stone Roses as 1995 came to a close, the first taste of Manics Mark II came in the not unimpressive shape of ‘A Design For Life’. This anthem for the working class was envisaged by Mike Hedges as “a jukebox record,” designed and destined to soundtrack the nation’s pubs and festivals for years to follow. He wasn’t wrong. Reaching Number Two in the singles chart and offering a fitting introduction to the sound of its parent album, its simplicity was its strength: killer melody, killer chorus, killer song.
‘Everything Must Go’ was a slow-burning sales success, resurfacing in the top ten a year after release thanks to awards successes and serving to introduce the band to an audience who never knew them as anything other than a three piece. As a result, it’s come to be regarded as their big pop-rock record, thanks largely to some classic singles and deft use of strings, but things are rather more bleak than they might at first seem. Having previously shared lyric writing duties with Edwards, Wire found himself having to provide the bulk of the words and, unsurprisingly, thoughts turned to an absent friend and the band’s decision to continue. ‘Australia’, despite its enormously buoyant chorus, recounts a desire to escape the emotional distress of 1995, seeking catharsis through suffering: “I want to run and fly till it hurts.” Album closer ‘No Surface, All Feeling’ offers a raw and impassioned climax, slowly building to a rousing final chorus and even featuring that great rock technique: the false ending. A testament to music as a release, the track feels like a chance to delight in a big sound, to lose yourself in a guitar riff and to shake off the shackles of expectation. It is an extraordinary way to finish an album and a fitting statement from a band reborn.
This is a piece I was commissioned to write for Clash’s ‘Spotlight’ feature and so it has adhered closely to a specific word limit. I’m fairly certain I could write thousands upon thousands of words about this wonderful album, partly due to its quality and partly because of its importance to me in what I think I’m meant to call my formative years. I present it here because this is where I put pretty much everything I write but I will gladly say much more on it if anyone wants me to and I wouldn’t rule out further thoughts in the not too distant future. Hard to believe it’s fifteen years this month since this record was released.