Friday, 22 July 2011

GIG: The Lost Songs of Richey Manic, Live

Manic Street Preachers @ The Roundhouse, Camden May 28, 2009

It’s a strange ritual, the initiation by Electrical Audio, and only for the pure of heart. Shorn of overdubs, and naked but for your instrument, you confront a man known as “Whippet”, and in less than an hour you’re shown your true worth. Some have passed through into legend (Spiderland, In Utero, After Murder Park), others have been pure, but their weapons were wrong (Mogwai, GYBE!), and then… then there’s the rank failures, like Razorblade Suitcase. Whether it comes to be regarded as great or merely good, Journal for Plague Lovers was always going to be an important release.

So. Leaving aside discussion of the lyrics of Richard James Edwards (as we’re calling him now), Manic Street Preachers have learned to play Journal for Plague Lovers live, under the tutelage of Steve Albini, and they’re going to do so tonight, in its entirety. You already know it’s the best album they’ve made – sonically – in years, and if you haven’t played it on shuffle with the rest of their opus, you should. Tonight’s show at The Roundhouse, Camden, could almost be a “Don’t Look Back” set, for an album that would have been legendary if anyone dared to believe Richey’s carefully guarded folder of lyrics would ever surface.

Studying the set-dressing (lots of smoke; that banned album-cover, by Jenny Saville; nothing else), and listening closely to the wording of James Dean Bradfield’s introduction, you can tell this series of shows isn’t meant to be a wake, or an elegy, or a requiem for the dead. There’s no painful sense of Richey’s absence… and no attempts to assert his presence by making the stage a shrine. As friends and band-members, the Manics have worked through the rituals, the legal protocol, and even the ritual of authenticity (only half-jokingly) described above. This is the band, remember, who played without Richey, in 1994, so as to pay his hospital bills. Theatrical by design, not by nature.

Anyhow: as a performance, you get the same sense that Journal is a muscular record, a well-poised record, a typology of thoroughly modern characters (‘Me and Stephen Hawking’, ‘Jackie Collins’ Existential Question’) that almost complete Edwards’ intellectual trajectory from the Political to the Personal – he wants to believe in the “table for two / such a sweet delight…” but can’t quite relate. This doesn’t make the record (and its lyrics) a failure; rather, it’s an exemplary struggle to share everyone else’s normality. ‘Marlon JD’ is greeted with the most furious pointing of fingers, and LED-displays on cameras glow like cigarette lighters during the acoustic numbers.

Having only heard it three or four times though, the record stands up pretty damn well – in fact, it’s almost distracting to watch how efficiently JDB darts about the stage, trading his white Gibson for an acoustic, and introducing the string quartet, so that the performance feels seamless, unlike an actual Don’t Look Back gig. It occurs to me that this is what “Lifetime Achievements” are for – doing the duckwalk like Chuck Berry, spinning around on one foot, gabbling out all those lyrics – JDB should get some kind of Trooper of the Year award. If only Nicky hadn’t injured his back it wouldn’t look so much like James is over-compensating, or as Nicky puts it: “up at 7am for an interview on breakfast television; running around, playing four guitars at once… Mister James Dean Bradfield: my ultimate guitar hero…!”

A Greatest Hits set follows. It’s not yet apparent which of the new songs would have made the grade – ‘Peeled Apples’? ‘Virginia State Epileptic Colony’? – but that’s no criticism. ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ is up first, in a double gesture of confidence and historical importance: this is how good we were from the Word Go, and this is how unfazed we are, when it comes to matching past glories. ‘Your Love Is Not Enough’ follows – the only song, it seems, from the three later (and lesser?) albums – but sounds strong. Having focused so heavily on “Richey’s album” in the first set, the second set only has one song apiece from Gold Against the Soul (1993) and The Holy Bible (1995), those documents of his physical decline… and mental peak. After ‘No Surface’, ‘You Love Us’, and ‘Tsunami’, we get the defiant singles ‘La Tristessa Durera’ and ‘Faster’. Either song could have been the highlight, but the best are delivered as a fistful, with ‘If you tolerate this…’ (from This Is My Truth…) and ‘Little Baby Nothing’ (from Generation Terrorists).

For my money, singles tend to be a guide to what you can leave off an album, or a Best Of… but maybe there are other things going on here. Yes, ‘Australia’ and ‘You Stole the Sun from My Heart’ boast choruses as dramatic and exuberantly sing-along as those earlier selections from Everything Must Go (1996) and This Is My Truth… (1998), but their emotion is weaker; these are songs of retreat… and, granted, retreat from something more devastating than many of us face so young, or can articulate, but they’re not songs about confronting the horror (“the horror…”), or wallowing in it. This isn’t an ad hominem criticism, or attack on Nicky (and James and Sean); just an explanation of why so many later Manics songs don’t have the same impact. Take that line from ‘If you tolerate this, then your children will be next’ – “I’ve walked Las Ramblas / but not with real intent”. Prior to The Holy Bible, Richey became a voyeur in the fleshpits of South-east Asia, indulging himself to understand humanity… Las Ramblas, on the other hand, is a European red light district, making the song both a critique of alienation (or the abstraction that allows us to tolerate so much), and an enactment of the process.

Less anthemic, but, no less energetic, the final portion of the set has a historic feel to it: one of the earliest Manics songs, ‘Sorrow 16’, is dedicated to their first label, Heavenly, and then ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ segues into ‘Motown Junk’. When the South Wales Quartet sidle onto the stage, you can tell we’re going to be played out with ‘Everything Must Go’ and ‘A Design for Life’, with strings that could have been scored by John Barry. Neither song has ever been a favourite, and both were unpleasantly ubiquitous in ’96 / ’97, but there’s nowhere to go, at a gig, and no better track to skip to. Listening in depth for the first time in years, there are no nuances to discover – these are still a pair of songs about compromised and debased idealism, with an irony that’s uncomfortable; i.e. everyone “gets” the irony of singing about selling-out & getting drunk, but do they get the complexity of the ideas that have been put on hold for the duration of these songs? Doesn’t irony grate because it makes it seem uncool to say any more… like Duh, of course?! Still, the Manics didn’t pursue that direction, and those songs were a necessary line in the sand: this is what lies outside the venue, and at the end of the night; the (impoverishment of) values that defines the world out there.

[Unpublished review]

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