The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

“Under Neon Loneliness” – A Beginner’s Guide to Manic Street Preachers

Know Your Enemy (2001)

Flushed with success coming off the back of two platinum-selling records, the Manics released Know Your Enemy, a sprawling 16 track effort into a world where their stock was at an all-time high. Some Manics fans see it as the start of Wire’s lyrical malaise that would manifest itself more fully on 2004’s Lifeblood, and it’s easy to see that with hindsight. Confronted with the hazy harmonies and comparative softness of co-lead single ‘So Why So Sad’ (the Manics promoted the album with the strategy of releasing two singles on the same day) many long-term fans and comparative newcomers must have thought it was the work of a different band.

But Know Your Enemy is intriguing more than anything, and that was in many ways the whole point of the exercise. It makes sense as a deliberate flinch from the spotlight, the conscious decision to turn away from the trappings of major success. Straightforward punk and pop moments like ‘Found That Soul’, ‘Ocean Spray’ and ‘Dead Martyrs’ uncomfortably rub up against longer, experimental efforts like ‘The Convalescent’, ‘Epicentre’ and ‘Wattsville Blues’. Overall, it’s a collage of musical styles and lyrical fragments that makes for a dense listening experience that requires close attention. Structurally, it’s rather similar to 1992 debut Generation Terrorists – MSP could have cut four or five songs to make a coherent, shorter and better album on both occasions. But the record is responsible for a piece of history: Know Your Enemy saw the band travel to Cuba to perform in Havana in front of Fidel Castro, making Manic Street Preachers the first Western rock band to do so since the revolution – not The Rolling Stones, as everyone seems to say. When Castro was told about MSP’s music, he asked “it cannot be louder than war – can it?” (6/10) (LISTEN)

Lifeblood (2004)

After the 2002 best-of compilation Forever Delayed and B-sides/rarities package Lipstick Traces had drawn a line under the first decade of their career, the Manic Street Preachers opened their second with the subdued Lifeblood. Their seventh album was a suite of elegiac, Depeche Mode-influenced synth rock, helmed on three songs by Bowie producer Tony Visconti but produced in the main by Greg Haver, who had worked on Know Your Enemy. It had a few things going for it, like a strong opening trio: the gorgeous opener ‘1985’ seeing Wire reminiscing about the band’s teenage years, the ambiguous politics of ‘The Love Of Richard Nixon’, the addictive, sonorous piano hook of ‘Empty Souls’. The likes of ‘Glasnost’ and ‘To Repel Ghosts’ have an infectious, profound quality that makes them linger in your mind despite their modest appearances.

For many critics and no small amount of their fanbase, though, Lifeblood was significantly less than the sum of its parts, the complete absence of the Manics’ signature energy being the most noticeable aspect. Indeed, it often doesn’t feel like a Manics record at all, with Wire’s lyrics frequently lacking inspiration and hinting at lethargy and alienation (‘I Live To Fall Asleep’, anybody?). Arguably, it’s what Lifeblood represents in MSP’s career arc that explains its poor reputation. It limped in to the charts at number 13, the lowest first week sales since their 1992 debut, before sliding out of view completely. Only four years since they were topping the charts, selling millions and filling out Cardiff Millennium Stadium on New Year’s Eve, the Manics were forgotten by their public, forced to tour tiny venues they’d not visited since the early ’90s. But time has been kind to Lifeblood, and increasingly it’s receiving the plaudits it deserved. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Send Away The Tigers (2007)

After the audience-splitting affair that was Lifeblood, the Manics had to redeem themselves in the eyes of a public that had forsaken them. That they managed to do so in such style is testament to their versatility and ingenuity. Just think of how many of their ’90s contemporaries have managed to do the same – consistently put out challenging material that satisfies critics and casuals alike without turning into a greatest-hits, nostalgia cash cow – practically nobody, right? Send Away The Tigers, their eighth album, was everything its predecessor wasn’t: stripped back, defiant and, unusually, it actually sounded like the Manics were enjoying themselves. Even the artwork showed it – the reversed ‘R’ letters in the font were last used for 1994’s The Holy Bible, as though you were getting a different version of the band you were used to.

Released hot on the heels of the spectacular comeback single ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’ which again made lyrical reference to one of their past (their 1999 hit ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’), Send Away The Tigers stormed into the charts at number 2, becoming their biggest seller since the late ’90s. While it doesn’t stand up to repeated listens – the noisy ‘Imperial Bodybags’ and an ill-advised cover of Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ betray a slight lack of ideas, while ‘Underdogs’ has long been panned as a condescending portrayal of their dedicated fanbase – it’s one of their most immediately gratifying ones, with singalong classics like ‘Autumnsong’, ‘The Second Great Depression’ and ‘Indian Summer’ providing some real treats. (6/10) (LISTEN)

Journal For Plague Lovers (2009)

Having redeemed themselves in the eyes of the public with Send Away The Tigers, the Manic Street Preachers finally decided to embark upon a project they’d been holding back from for over ten years: finally laying the ghost of Richey Edwards to rest. When their chief songwriter disappeared in early 1995, he had left behind folders full of unused lyrics in the form of completed songs, brief poems or haikus, or incomplete fragments. Wire took it upon himself to sift through the lyrics to construct songs, while Bradfield and Moore tried to set the frequently bizarre words to music that would not only be musically consistent as an album but also faithful to the moods they thought Edwards would have been imagining (or not) as he wrote them. It was a much more complicated project than it sounds, and the result, entitled Journal For Plague Lovers, was a hugely creditable success in artistic terms.

A conscious effort was made to ensure that the new record would be a kind of counterpart to The Holy Bible, which is Edwards’ infamous masterpiece. Alternative rock legend Steve Albini (Big Black, Pixies, Nirvana) was brought in on production; the reversed ‘R’s on the album’s font were brought back once more; even Jenny Savile, who provided the grotesque artwork for The Holy Bible, was commissioned to provide another painting for Journal…. Albini’s crushing, airless production provides the perfect sonic accompaniment the broken, dense and often startling imagery of Edwards’ lyrics on the likes of ‘Peeled Apples’, ‘Marlon J.D.’ and ‘Virginia State Epileptic Colony’, whereas the lighter guitars of ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’ and the fully acoustic ‘This Joke Sport Severed’ showed variety. Nicky Wire even took the microphone for the unbearably poignant ‘William’s Last Words’ (“I’ll be watching over you”). Journal For Plague Lovers was an album that could easily have gone wrong, and it’s a testament to the Manics’ artistry that it was such a resounding triumph. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Postcards From A Young Man (2010)

Perhaps spurred on, or even depressed by, their relative lack of exposure at the end of a decade that had held mixed fortunes for them, the band’s tenth album was billed by Nicky Wire as “one last shot at mass communication”. Postcards From A Young Man pulls out all the stops as the Manics rage gloriously against the dying of the light. At its best it recalled the anthemic, string-laden arena rock of their commercial peak, headed by three massive-sounding singles in ‘It’s Not War (Just The End Of Love)’, the ever-so-slightly ludicrous duet with Ian McCulloch ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’ and the heroic waltz of ‘Postcards From A Young Man’.

The performance of the last of these at the Christmas 2011 singles blowout at London’s O2 Arena was unbearably poignant amid rumours of the band going into retirement straight afterwards. ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’ was even performed on the BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, proof that the Manic Street Preachers could still be cultural Trojan horses within the establishment even twenty years after their inception. But despite its bravado and dignity, parts of PFAYM are extremely forgettable, the glossy mainstream production often flattening the songs and rendering them two-dimensional. After you’ve got past the beautiful poise of ‘Hazelton Avenue’ and ‘The Descent’ aside, there’s very little to recommend the second half of the album at all as it blurs into an identikit sequence of drivetime rock. (4/10) (LISTEN)

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