The sequel to The Holy Bible. Thirteen tracks pieced together from lyrics written by Richie Edwards, who disappeared a generation ago but was pronounced legally dead only last year. Produced by Steve Albini, with whom Edwards was somewhat obsessed. Does this latest Manic Street Preachers work add up to the album of the year, or is it just a cynical cash-in from some aging rockers grasping desperately at the edginess of their younger days?
Though individual tracks struggle to stand out on first listen, Journal For Plague Lovers has a good stab at living up to near-impossible expectations to become a real grower, creeping up on you just when you’re about to write it off. It’s neither as raw and visceral as the Manics’ work with Richie, nor as anthemic and accessible as their work without him but, despite itself, it works.
A ninth stadium album should be a safe collection of songs from a middle-aged band who know what their middle-aged fans expect and simply serve it up. Journal For Plague Lovers is much less ordered and much less comfortable than this, both a ‘goodbye’ from Richie and an exercise in closure from a band finally hoping to lay to rest a story whose ending we may never know for sure.
From the cover by Jenny Saville, who also provided the sleeve art for The Holy Bible, to the mid-1990s font of the title, the album looks back without being quite able to actually return to where it came from. The temptation is to think too much time has passed, but perhaps it’s more that this album has ended up being what it always would have been – a transition between the angry young Manics and the more mature, stadium epics of their destiny.
What might have been a visceral album seems in places softened down, but if the Manics hadn’t evolved, we’d probably have grown bored of them long before now. She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach not only sounds like a parody of an early Manics song title, it would also be absurd faux-teenage angst coming from a man who’s the wrong side of 40 unless there was a very good reason for it.
Yet the more you try to pick Journal For Plague Lovers apart, the more it seems to come together. Peeled Apples starts to sound anthemic, Jackie Collins Existential Question Time plays with intellectual humour in the same way as Faster once did and the soaring strings of This Joke Sport Severed lift it towards becoming a Motorcycle Emptiness for our century. Final track William’s Last Words may not convince anyone that Nicky Wire should be allowed near lead vocals again, but the words and sentiment are heart wrenching.
Journal For Plague Lovers teeters on an edge, between what the Manics might have been and what they did become. Maybe the two aren’t so different. This is not so much the finishing off of an unfinished symphony as a sense of closure, a last chapter in the life of Richey Edwards. Disjointed, imperfect, tender and raw, at the final reckoning it sits as a fitting epitaph.