14 years after the initial disappearance of original band member Richey Edwards, the Manic Street Preachers take the “risky” move of writing an album based entirely around the remains of Edwards’ lyrics. With their third album, The Holy Bible becoming synonymous with the often impenetrable contemplations of their almost-guitarist and lyricist, it is inevitable that the new album will be held up to the high standard set by The Holy Bible – a standard that seems unachievable. But the Manics have made a great job of trying to reach it.
From the very beginning, Journal for Plague Lovers evokes nostalgia for the band’s classic, The Holy Bible, through its sample-based opening – a concept that almost littered the latter record. Unavoidably, there are many common links with the album that became Edwards’ swansong, with Journal for Plague Lovers continuing the theme of lyrics on the slightly darker side of human thought. Whilst the Manics have never exactly been the happiest of bands throughout their career, their prior release Send Away the Tigers, whilst an enjoyable album musically, had some overtly uninspired lyrics (such as the chorus to hook-laden swayer ‘Autumnsong’, insipidly rambling about ‘what you’ve done with your hair’). As a result, it’s a welcome change to actually be able to appreciate the lyrics on their own, as nihilistic and self-pitying they are. As to be expected, there are references to a variety of topics, ranging from social commentary to artistic output, serving as a vehicle for displaying the intelligence, observational skill and huge ability to absorb information that Edwards had. As with The Holy Bible, the lyrics alone have a great propensity to stick in your head, with simple chorus lines such as the title track’s ‘Only a God can bruise / Only a God can soothe’ becoming a perpetual placement in one’s mind.
Great emphasis was put on the use of Edwards’ words by the rest of the band throughout the creation of the album, leading to many expectations of another The Holy Bible, with its suffocatingly enjoyable song-writing immersing the listener in a world of incomprehensible and unchangeable anguish. However, whilst the musical side of Journal for Plague Lovers is impressive, it doesn’t live up to the almost unreachable goals set by its effective predecessor. Where The Holy Bible was muddily and disconcertingly produced, Journal is primed and polished. Where Bible had an oppressive wall of sound (take for instance the chilling-beginning of ‘Of Walking Abortion’, where the violently sludging and ominous instrumentation kicks in over a suddenly garbled quote), Journal is extremely tame on the ear. There are moments of trying to capture that unique sound through the use of similar guitar tones (for instance, the verse guitar lines of track ‘Marlon J.D.’), but it would be impossible to recreate. And why would they want to? The songs are well-constructed, but despite the band believing the record as a whole to be possible commercial suicide, there are more than enough sing-along moments for even the most casual of Manics listeners to enjoy the record. Taking a few song-writing cues from one of their best received records, Everything Must Go, the songs are far less alienating than the lyrics might suggest, but still act as a completely suitable accompaniment to Edwards’ hard to follow and deeply alarming lyrics.
The album has a fair mix of radio-friendly rock songs (the first single, ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’ immediately comes to mind), energetic songs (‘Pretension/Repulsion’s chorus makes punching the air almost compulsory) and unnervingly soothing acoustic songs (with ‘William’s Last Words’ reading almost like a pleasant suicide note). Whilst the Manics are no stranger to musical variety (indeed, they have come a long way from their Guns N’ Roses meets politics and occasional bad drum machine debut), Journal seems to do a brilliant job at encompassing all the aspects that have made the high points of their back catalogue so good – catchy choruses, well crafted songs, exceptional performances (especially from James Dean Bradfield, whose voice seems to not have wavered in quality in the last 15 years, as well as his guitar playing being criminally underrated) and intelligent lyrics. Journal for Plague Lovers, perhaps most importantly, stays consistent through out. There is not a weak song on the record and, despite its variation. Journal seems to remain appropriately in tone with itself keeping a steady feel, rather than an erratic mish-mash of different styles. Whilst not blown away on initial listening, the album has certainly proved to be a grower, with some of the best aspects of it only showing themselves after repeated listens (for instance, the charmingly dated and yet fantastically placed piano segment after ‘Viriginia State Epileptic Colony’s second chorus). Whilst Journal for Plague Lovers was never going to be able to live up to the legacy of The Holy Bible, it is a great record in its own right. Not only has it shown that the three-piece of James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore are still a musical force to be reckoned with, but it is a more than worthy way to honour their clearly sorely missed band-mate, Richey Edwards. It’s only a shame that Journal for Plague Lovers is damned to live in The Holy Bible’s shadow because of it.