I Think I Found It. Again.

Nicky Wire really believes in his band. His passion is obvious, his fervour frequently unconstrained and his spelling frankly atrocious. He still writes messily spontaneous manifestos for each record, as if twenty years haven’t passed. He takes wilful potshots at the famous and revered and stands as tall as his knackered knees will allow as he proclaims his songs “so good every radio station will have to play them.” It is, unquestionably, all genuine. It’s often quite obvious that Nicky Wire is a massive fan of the Manic Street Preachers. Camcorder footage from the recording of ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ preserves last winter’s snow as it fell around Faster Studios in Cardiff, soundtracked by Wire clumsily, feebly but – crucially – enthusiastically singing an early incarnation of ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’. Featuring a guest vocal from Ian McCulloch alongside James Dean Bradfield’s formidable pipes, it is one of the most magical moments on ‘Postcards’ and surely ranks amongst the best Manics songs to date. It embodies all of the pop swagger Nicky dreamt of when plotting this latest bid for recognition. Notes such as ‘Queen plating ABBA’ and ‘strings to break your heart’ make it quite clear that this is an album which is unashamedly commercial, unashamedly polished and unashamedly huge.

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Some Kind Of Nothingness’ is a beautiful meeting of minds, melodies and voices played out across an epic soundscape, bolstered by swooning strings and a gospel choir which stays just the right side of cheesy. It is perfect pop music and it’s something which the band couldn’t have done ten or even five years ago. It is the ultimate manifestation of a band truly at ease with itself. The spectre of ‘The Holy Bible’ hung over them for years; a long time fan favourite but a totem of trickier times, it was a far cry from the tinny sheen of ‘So Why So Sad’ and the cascading piano of ‘I Live To Fall Asleep’. ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ offered more in that vein and brought the spellbinding lyrics of Richey Edwards to a new audience along with the exorcising of a few musical demons along the way. It cleared the decks and firmly flung all baggage overboard. The confidence borne of the realisation that there’s no longer anything to prove doesn’t always lead to positive results, but on this occasion all is well. As the choir swells behind Mac bellowing ‘never stop, never stop, never stop, never’ prior to the final chorus of ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’ the shameless pursuit of pristine pop is realised and the smartest gamble the band have taken in a while pays off in style. Though this song, and the album as a whole, will rub some people up the wrong way as a result of its fearless ambition, it has prompted a rebirth which had seemed so unlikely. ‘Postcards’, like ‘Everything Must Go’ before it, stirs something in me, triggers a casual euphoria and a day without it seems so very, very wrong.

29. Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers

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Noisy and shouty, it was heralded as a proper follow up to ‘The Holy Bible’ in some quarters, but it was too much fun to listen to for it to be too closely associated with the aforementioned 1994 masterpiece. Whereas the Manic Street Preachers’ third album makes for heavy listening, their ninth made good use of the sizeable confidence boost they received as a result of the success of 2007’s ‘Send Away The Tigers’.

29 Manics

Watching them perform it, in full and in order, at Wolverhampton Civic Hall earlier this year, I was once again utterly captivated by one-man-whirlwind James Dean Bradfield as he charged through the album’s first twelve songs with the vim and vigour of someone half his age. The pride in the songs, based around lyrics left by Richey Edwards, was palpable and the performance did them proud. The final track, ‘William’s Last Words’ is sung by the band’s bassist and anti-singer, Nicky Wire. And, for anyone who’s been a Manics fan for any length of time, it’ll absolutely floor you. The delicately crafted music loses out in the battle for attention to lyrics like “I’m really tied. I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy.” The full lyric, published in the deluxe edition – one of the packaging feats of the year – makes the subject matter rather more ambiguous, but in the edited form used for this musical rendering, it’s hard not to hear it as a message from Richey to his three best mates. I may have had something in my eye the first time I heard it. And the time after that, as it happens.

Journal For Plague Lovers’ also provided one of the great non-singles of the year in ‘Jackie Collins’ Existential Question Time’ which was farmed out to radio around the time of the album’s release. “Oh mummy, what’s a sex pistol?” chimes the chorus and it sounds even better than you could imagine. The band deserve further credit for inspiring a wonderful retooling of the track by pop legends, Saint Etienne, which was released as part of an otherwise largely unsuccessful remix version.

Spiky, awkward and twitchy, it was a renewed Manics and yet the end of an era. February will mark fifteen years since Richey disappeared. I’ll be marking that time with this record. A fitting tribute and no mistake.