If your only memory of the Manic Street Preachers has been the ‘post-Richey’ period – an era of increasingly bland and uninspired albums epitomised by the rather too polished Lifeblood – then you could be forgiven for wondering exactly what the fuss is about the Welsh rockers.
Yet it’s hard to describe exactly how vital the Manics were back in 1992. In an era populated by ‘post-shoegazing’ bands and ruled by grunge, the sight of the four piece bellowing “Repeat after me – fuck Queen and Country” on TV car crash The Word was almost impossibly exciting. And over the next few years they remained one of the most intriguing acts around – culminating in the genuinely harrowing The Holy Bible.
A lot of the credit for the band’s early years has to go to Richey Edwards of course, but it would be wrong to play down the influence of his writing partner Nicky Wire. While James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore were the musical brains behind the band, it was Edwards and Wire who set out their aesthetic – the very thing that made them unique when they first started.
For his first solo project, it appears as if Wire’s gone back to basics. From the collage of the album sleeve to the raw, unpolished sound within, it’s a million miles away from late period Manics. In sharp contrast to Bradfield’s surprisingly successful poppy new direction, this is a much more experimental and challenging listen. It’s not impenetrable – Break My Heart Slowly is wonderfully catchy – but it certainly won’t be classed under ‘easy listening’.
The album itself started off as a poetry project and flashes of this still remain, most explicitly in (Nicky Wire’s) Last. Yet the lyrics never stray into pretentiousness, tackling both the personal (You Will Always Be My Home) and the political (The Shining Path, about terrorism).
The one drawback with the album though is very clear a couple of tracks in – Wire is no singer. His voice is a characterless drone, and becomes incredibly wearisome over the course of an album. Goodbye Suicide pulls off the cunning trick of seeming to go on forever while also being under three minutes long, while the piano dirge of So Much For The Future becomes almost painful to listen to.
However, perhaps that can only be expected. Musically, the album is pleasingly varied, ranging from the acoustic strum along of Break My Heart Slowly to The Jesus And Mary Chain soundalike of Withdraw Retreat. The excellent Bobby Untitled is a certain highlight, while the instrumental Sehnsucht at least gives us a break from Wire’s vocals.
Ultimately, this should be treated as what it is – an excuse for Wire to experiment and be unconstrained by the job of being in a band. It’s a different beast to Bradfield’s solo project and it’s useless even trying to compare them. It’s unlikely to appeal to anyone outside the Manics fanbase, and even a few of those may find it a bit hard-going.
It does possess a certain eerie charm though, and is likely to become a well regarded curio when the history of the Manics is raked over in a few years’ time. Certainly if these solo projects have done the job of re-energising Bradfield and Wire, then maybe we’ll have a return to form for their band before long.