It seems somewhat appropriate that James Dean Bradfield’s debut solo album should follow so quickly on the heels of Thom Yorke‘s The Eraser. Both men’s bands emerged at around the same time during the early ’90s, earned an almost obsessive following and evolved musically throughout the decade.
How Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers differed though was in their style of evolution. Whereas Radiohead were initially dismissed and ignored as a typically grey indie band, the Manics were press darlings right from the off. Thanks to their glamourous, political image (a novelty itself in the days of shoegazing) and some truly incendiary tracks such as Motown Junk or Repeat, the Welsh band were never short of column inches.
With the disappearance of founder member Richey Edwards though, the Manics as we were to know them ceased to exist and turned into a pretty bog-standard rock group. Their last couple of albums were dull in the extreme, and smacked of a band in desperate need of a break from each other.
It remains to be seen how Nicky Wire has reacted to the apparently temporary dissolution of the band, but it certainly seems to have reinvigorated Bradfield. The Great Western is an album full of great, swooping guitar songs, with an energy and palpable enthusiasm that was desperately missing from latter day Manics material.
It’s unlikely to win anyone back who’s somehow expecting a sequel to The Holy Bible of course, but that was never going to happen anyway. It’s perhaps closest to the Manics’ best post-Richey album Everything Must Go, being thoughtful, a bit melodramatic and boasting several tunes that crawl up inside your cranium and set up home there for months on end.
Indeed, it’s somewhat of a shock to hear opening track That’s No Way To Tell A Lie, with its handclaps and ‘sha-la-la’ refrain. It’s instantly likeable and accessible, and sets the tone nicely for the rest of the album. Bad Boys And Painkillers (co-written with Nicky Wire) has a lovely, summery feel to it and a majestic chorus, while Run Romeo Run is another catchy highlight.
Perhaps the most affecting track is An English Gentleman, written about the Manics’ late mentor Philip Hall. Bradfield’s only previous lyric before this album was the moving Ocean Spray, about his late mother, so perhaps its no surprise he can write so succinctly about a friend who has passed. Lines like “But you gave us more than we needed, friend/We were so happy to be at the door of an English gentleman” aptly sum up Hall’s relationship with the band, and the bursts of harmonies turn it into a life-affirming song rather than a depressing one.
Not all the tracks work so well – Still A Long Way To Go is a bit overwrought, while Emigre and Say Hello To The Pope are a bit too anonymous and bland to make any real impression. Yet mostly it’s a relief to hear Bradfield singing his own lyrics, which make a lot more sense than Wire’s sometimes rather abstract polemic did.
Of course, those who find Bradfield’s voice irritating will find nothing to convince them otherwise here. His vocals are big and passionate but do grate a bit somewhat over the course of an album. Unlike fellow Welshman Kelly Jones though, he knows never to mix up passion with growling – indeed, To See A Friend In Tears sounds a lot better for Bradfield being more restrained. It’s a style that he should explore a bit more.
Whether or not The Great Western signals the end for the Manic Street Preachers, long-term fans should have no reason to mourn. This is Bradfield’s best work for quite a while, and a good advert for the revitalizing advantages of going solo.