Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Journal for Plague Lovers – A fitting tribute to a lost genius

It is impossible to ignore the name of Richey James Edwards when listening to the Manic Street Preachers’ ninth studio album, Journal for Plague Lovers. Not only are all the words written by Edwards, but the album itself appears a heartfelt tribute to the band’s tragic lyricist. For those who are unaware, Edwards disappeared on February 1st 1995, having withdrawn £200 a day from his bank account in the previous two weeks. His car was reported as being abandoned at the Severn View service station on the 17th, and due to its proximity to the Severn Bridge, a previously renowned suicide location, it was believed that he had took his own life by jumping from the bridge. However the remaining band members refused to accept this assumption, and had kept Edwards’ share of the royalties separate until he was declared presumed deceased in November last year. The lyrics provided by Edwards are said to have been taken from a folder of songs, haikus, drawings and collages given to bassist Nicky Wire a few weeks before his disappearance. In a message on the Manics’ official website, the “brilliance and intelligence” of the lyrics are said to have compelled the band to use them, as they reiterated the “genius and intellect of Richey James Edwards”. In light of this the album can only be seen as a heartfelt tribute to, in the words of Stephen Erlewine of Allmusic, “their lost comrade”. It seems as if the album is as much the Manics’ paying their respects to Edwards as a chance to move on, having been able to “acknowledge and embrace the blackest portion of their past”. As bassist Nicky Wire points out, “there’s not gonna be a Journal for Plague Lovers Two”, a fact which only serves to make the album even more special, as the final offering from one of the most enigmatic, eloquent, poetic and intelligent lyricists British music has ever produced.

Opening track ‘Peeled Apples’, despite its rather mundane title, is one of the fiercest on the album and, according to Mark Eglinton of Quietus, “if there were [a single] this would probably be it”. Beginning with the ominous words, “you know so little about me, what if I turned into a werewolf or something”, from the 2004 film The Machinist, Peeled Apples sets the tone for the rest of the album. Lyrics such as “the more I see, the less I scream” detail Edwards’ depressed mental condition, whilst “the Levi Jean is always stronger than the Uzi” offers a humorous observation on consumer culture that wouldn’t have been out of place on the band’s debut album Generation Terrorists. The bizarrely-titled ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’, a song which “despite the lyrics”, according to Nicky Wire, “is very sweet and very pop” follows the raucous opener. Much like Peeled Apples it is one of the album’s more accessible tracks, with its rousing chorus of “Oh Mummy what’s a sex pistol” the perfect ‘festival chant’ before the last minute “rasping, pure hatred and anger, kind of spoils it all”. ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ is a stop and go effort interspersed with references varying from the world-renowned physicist to 1980s wrestler Giant Haystacks. The lyrics come across as a stream-of-consciousness; one minute Edwards plays on racial prejudice with the line “African Punch and Judy show at half the price”, the next he offers a humorous observation on his very public battle with anorexia, “Oh the joy, me and Stephen Hawking, we laugh, we missed the sex revolution”.

‘This Joke Sport Severed’ appears to deal with the sensitive subject of blood sports, and is one of the album’s bleakest songs, but in an interview with NME both James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire have stated their belief that the song is saying, “perhaps I’m not worthy of love, or love in relationships doesn’t work for me”. Edwards lyrics are fairly telling, when he describes wanting to “find a place where I became untethered”, again reflecting his distorted mental state in the weeks and days before his disappearance. The song itself is a gentle affair, with the music far outweighed by the gravitas of the lyrics and Edwards’ heart-wrenching plea for release. The title track follows, with an altogether more upbeat tempo and the return of the Manics’ ‘stadium rock’ sound that characterised Gold Against The Soul. The lyrics evoke memories of the band’s 1994 masterpiece, The Holy Bible, and appear to be a deep criticism of the medical establishment, or as Wire calls it, the idea of “doctors being Gods”. Lines such as “only a God can sooth” and “only a God reserves the right, to forgive those who revile him” could refer to Edwards’ stay in the Priory, “a mixture of Pseudo-God and religious bollocks”, as Wire described it, and his dissatisfaction with the homogenisation of cures, as reflected by his description of “PC certificate, all cuts unfocused”. ‘She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach’ is a collection of stories from people met by Edwards’ during his stay in hospital, about which Wire has stated “we’ve got to keep schtum”. The first is a particularly brutal story, evoking huge sympathy for someone Edwards would have felt a deep affinity with because of this fact. Lines such as “she’d walk on broken glass for love” and “she thought burnt skin would please her lover” paint an extremely vivid picture of suffering, and may serve to remind fans of Edwards’ carving of ‘4 Real’ into his arm when the Manics’ authenticity was questioned by then NME journalist Steve Lamacq in 1991.

The gentle folk guitar of ‘Facing Page: Top Left’ brings listeners back to the simple beauty of ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’, one of five songs penned by Edwards on Everything Must Go. Whilst it shares the desperation of ‘Small Black Flowers’ and feeling of being enclosed, the chorus of ‘Facing Page: Top Left’ seems to also offer hope, rather than remaining mired in misery. The pivotal line “this beauty here dipping neophobia’ will undoubtedly be a source of confusion for many listeners, but to a certain extent it can be seen as part of the album’s wider criticism of the homogenisation of treatment and institutionalised nature of beauty, the former a subject close to Edwards given his protracted hospital stays. If the meaning of ‘Facing Page’ seems difficult to discern, the subsequent track is far easier to figure out. ‘Marlon JD’ begins with the line “he stood like a statue, as he was beaten across the face”, a reference to the 1967 Marlon Brando film “Reflections In A Golden Eye”; the track appears very much to refer to Brando, about whom Edwards was fascinated, as he was “the idealisation in his mind of what the ideal man could be, but also because he turned to shit as well”, in the words of James Dean Bradfield. The ‘JD’ referred to in the title remains a mystery, with many believing it to be the cult ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, Bradfield’s namesake. If this is the case Edwards could be seen to be showing two sides of the same coin; both were 1950s sex symbols, film icons and critically lauded actors, yet whilst Brando lived on, losing his looks and the respect he’d accumulated, Dean was cut down in his prime, and his brief career has assured him untainted cult status. Perhaps ‘Marlon JD’ is an attempt to illustrate the sadness of natural human decline, and the fragility of existence, which would be an appropriate conclusion given the rest of the album’s content.

‘Doors Closing Slowly’ follows with a funereal opening, in which the gentle piano notes sound like those of a death march “summoning doom and despair”. The repetitive drumming creates again the sense of a journey into darkness, whilst the ominous title implies a certain religious undertone. Edwards was known for his ambiguous relationship with God and religion, and in ‘Doors Closing Slowly “his religious obsession or rejection of it is quite strange”. As Bradfield states, “the depiction of death as being beautiful and self-glorious” in religious art was both troubling and inspiring for Edwards, as the line “crucifixion is the easy life” shows. Edwards seems to be deliberately inciting controversy and pulling on the listeners’ emotional heartstrings, whilst the song’s final line “listen to the selfish ones, they are the voice of accomplishment” is extremely profound, and a sadly accurate observation on the nature of capitalist existence. The audio clip following this is taken from the Virgin Suicides, due to Edwards’ fondness for the book, as the film was released in 1999, four years after his disappearance. ‘All is Vanity’ continues Edwards’ seeming obsession with beauty and glamour and the shallow nature of such concepts. The title refers to Charles Gilbert’s 1892 drawing ‘All Is Vanity’, an optical illusion or ‘double image’ depicting a woman admiring herself in the mirror, yet from a distance a grinning human skull. Musically it is deeply similar to ‘Faster’, but with an even greater sense of urgency. Edwards appears to be calling for authoritarianism, advocating “no choice, one bread, one milk, one food, that’s all”, and “one truth”, seemingly a response to the dearth in quality of modern music due to the greater range available, as well as a demonstration of his “slightly unfashionable” left-wing side. The line “it’s not what’s wrong, it’s what’s right”, followed up by “it’s a fact of life sunshine” seems to be a response to perceived criticism, and an attempt to show that “sometimes your emotions are not your best guides or friends”, quite an unfashionable view and one which links into the concept of authoritarianism and limits expressed in the verse. ‘Pretension/Repulsion’ begins with an onslaught of verbs and the bewildering line “bornagraphic vs. pornographic”, which begins to make some sense when the line “Odalisque by Ingres, yet your bones for sale” is taken into the equation. Edwards appears to be commenting on the phenomenon of ‘lads’ magazines prevalent in the 1990s, and the distinction between ‘art’ designed to demonstrate the beauty of human form and the sale of such beauty for erotic and money-making purposes.

‘Virginia State Epileptic Colony’ constitutes an additional criticism of the homogenisation of healthcare provision, with the title possibly referring to the United States Supreme Court ruling in 1927 on the Buck vs. Bell case, which upheld the institution of compulsory sterilisation for the mentally ill. The lyrics, such as “they sit around tables rendered dumb” and “six chalk colours the very meaning of life” reflect the song’s deep sarcasm, whilst playing on the listener’s deepest held moral beliefs in a way few other songwriters have been able to. Yet in terms of the emotional impact of Edwards’ writing, few if any songs have come close to ‘William’s Last Words’. Whilst on the surface it would appear to be a thinly-veiled suicide note, Wire has rejected this assertion, stating that although “it obviously sounds very autobiographical, and very sad and like some kind of goodbye”, he believes it to not be referring to Edwards. Even if this is the case however, the lyrics are rather telling. The song’s closing line “I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy” is undoubtedly Journal for Plague Lovers most poignant moment, and one which may prove upsetting for many fans. Yet despite the lyrics, the emotions they convey and their possible implications, ‘William’s Last Words’ is by no means desperate. If anything there is a palpable sense of relief throughout as Edwards, if one assumes the song is about him, pays tribute to his fellow band members, “the best friends I ever had”, adding “I'm just gonna close my eyes, think about my family, and shed a little tear”. Although Wire believes there to be no sense of catharsis, one can’t help but feel that whoever the song refers to has found peace by the end. I imagine that ‘Williams Last Words’ will remain a difficult listening experience for fans and the band alike, seeing as Bradfield felt himself unable to sing and encouraged Wire to deputise, as he believed that it would “resonate much more”. The four-minute long silence which follows if anything affords the song an even greater significance, and allows the listener to absorb Edwards’ tender lyrics and Wire’s gentle vocal performance. We can only hope to see Richey James Edwards again, but in the meanwhile there is only one thing we can say. Nos da, your genius will never be forgotten.

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