Words are never enough
Right, finally I’m beginning my 1993-in-music-type-project in earnest, starting with a post on the Manic Street Preachers’ second album, Gold Against the Soul. While it is far from my favourite album of 1993, it was the first album I could gather up enough thoughts and opinions to write about. The Manics were a band that I read about before I listened to. I remember picking up a cassette of their single Little Baby Nothing in the bargain bin at Woolworth’s. I loved it, but it was far less abrasive than I’d imagined they’d sound from reading the reviews and interviews. Still, it was the start of them being one of my favourite groups of my teenage years.
Manic Street Preachers in 1993 were far more of a great concept than a great band. In a post-baggy/post-grunge age they were a rare band who cared about how they looked, even if sometimes they looked ridiculous. They had plenty to say – their interviews were generally more entertaining than their records. They talked about politics, art, films, history, feminism. In 1992 they’d released their debut album, Generation Terrorists. They promised a mix of Guns ‘N Roses and Public Enemy, they promised to sell a million albums, they promised to break up after the album’s release. They failed to live up to any of those promises, and were far more interesting because of it.
Releasing a second album was pretty much an admission of hypocrisy and failure, and made them far more complicated and nuanced than the slightly cartoon-y Clash they’d appeared to be over the previous two years. While Generation Terrorists had its moments, Gold Against the Soul felt like the Manics were actually settling down into being a proper band, rather than just a mechanism for sloganeering and outrage.
This wasn’t as far off their original template as you might think. From very early on they had made the conscious decision to make accessible records to get their message across – Gold Against the Soul with its slick, vaguely corporate rock seemed to fit the bill for this. They realised, I think, that the anthemic template of Motorcycle Emptiness was the way forward.
There is also an argument that their next album, the not-for-mainstream-radio-by-any-means The Holy Bible, is actually the anomaly in their back catalogue, as virtually everything they produced after that was far more like their second album than their first or third. Gold Against the Soul was the beginnings of the band that would, for better or worse, actually achieve proper, genuine mainstream success in the late nineties.
Up to this point I haven’t mentioned the disappearance of their guitarist, Richey Edwards, in 1995. It is easy to look at their career purely through the prism of that, but I’m not sure how helpful that is with Gold Against the Soul. Sure, you can start looking for clues (Edwards co-wrote the lyrics with bassist Nicky Wire) but that feels a little lazy.
The group was not only growing musically (singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore wrote the music for those unfamiliar with the band/the band’s internal structure) but was also tackling broader issues in a more sophisticated way. Their early output was great in parts, but veered dangerously close to bad sixth form poetry in others. They’d always tackled a broad set of issues, now they began doing so in a more subtle way.
Childhood, and a fear of adulthood, is a thread throughout the album. The band had been close since childhood, and I think there is something in the theory that we maintain our friendships at the age they were initially made. There was something admirably juvenile about the Manics in their early years – they thought they could change the world, they stuck together like a gang generally refusing to fraternise with other groups, they spoke of books and films and records like they could change your life, as they had changed theirs. In some ways, they were still those four boys holed up in a bedroom listening to records, because nobody else liked them and they liked nobody else.
Adulthood takes all that is good in childhood away – “There’s nothing nice in my head, the adult world took it all away” to “My idea of love comes from a childhood glimpse of pornography”. When James sings “I don’t want to be a man” it was easy to look at the group with their eyeliner and glam look and think it was a renunciation of masculinity. While I’m sure that was a small part of it, I think it was more to do with rejecting adulthood.
This ties in to a broader disappointment with the world. Adulthood doesn’t satisfy, and neither does art – “One day I realise oil on canvas can never paint a petal so so delicate.” Indeed, even they can’t articulate what they want to – “Words are never enough, just cheap, tarnished glitter.”
The lead-off single From Despair To Where lacks a question mark, and so in some ways removes the hope of something more than despair in the future, or at least acknowledges that “Where” is another place that might not be any better, but is something that will follow.
However, the album is not completely inward-looking. La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh) tells the tale of a war veteran’s despair (that word again) and disappointment with the world, showing Edwards/Wire capable of great empathy and a great capacity to present the themes of the album within a different context. As much as I love From Despair To Where (I remember watching them playing it on a Saturday kids’ TV show and being completely mesmerised) La Tristesse Durera is probably the album’s finest, most complete moment.
I loved the Manics as a teenager, and they feel like a great band for teenagers. They not only articulated those classic adolescent feelings of isolation, but projected them onto wider cultural concerns. They were the outsiders worth rooting for. They were the older brothers I didn’t have who could introduce me to great books and great films. They taught me plenty about the personal and the political. And let’s not forget, they wrote a great tune too – and it is funny that the best songs were also those with the best lyrics – Gold Against the Soul is an album of great singles, rather than a great album per se. However, listening again, I think it deserves more than to sit in the shadow of their other work. They were great at melancholy in 1993, and I think helped me accept and embrace that emotion rather than fear it.