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Monday, September 08, 2014 

A triumph of art over logic.



What's the greatest album of all time?  General consensus, at least among critics, usually offers up either Revolver, Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper.  For good reason: all three were released within a year, all during that point in the Sixties, 4 years after Philip Larkin was later to declare sexual intercourse began, and before the murder of Sharon Tate, Woodstock and then Altamont brought the decade to a close.  The advances in production techniques; willingness to experiment with those techniques; outside, at the time exotic influences; drugs; they all combined, and it's no coincidence so many of what are now deemed to the finest collections of music you can buy all came out within a 3 or 4 year time period.  Hendrix, Dylan, Velvet Underground, Van Morrison, Led Zeppelin at a stretch, all operating at more or less the same time, all delivering magnum opuses, all inspired by each other, sometimes directly competing against each other.

Why then go against this consensus and instead say the greatest album of all time came out 28 years later, with the 20th anniversary of its release having just passed?  Simple, really: The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers is a singular achievement, an album out of its time, a triumph of art over logic, as Keith Cameron has described it.  It's the greatest precisely because of its imperfections, as opposed to the perfection of Pet Sounds.  In its original mix it sounds muddy, flat, and it's difficult as ever to decipher exactly what it is James Dean Bradfield is singing.  It sounds that way because it's how the band wanted it to sound, although they later preferred the mix prepared for the never released US version by Tom Lord Alge.  It doesn't matter because the music and lyrics are visceral in their intensity, the sound of a band playing for their lives, rejecting their previous mistakes and operating at a peak.

There's no getting away from what The Holy Bible has come to signify above all else, which is the disappearance and almost certain suicide of Richey James Edwards.  Some of the comment and search for meaning in his lyrics, with Edwards writing almost the entirety of the words to Bradfield and Sean Moore's music, where previously he had collaborated with Nicky Wire on the band's two previous albums, misses the mark as the album was finished before he was admitted to a mental health ward in Cardiff, later receiving treatment at the Priory.  Nonetheless, it's difficult to read the lyrics to Yes, Faster and Die in the Summertime and not visualise a mind in tumult, the culmination of what Edwards had been trying to say previously with Wire and hadn't quite achieved.

The Manics were after all treated as a bit of joke by some critics, at least to begin with.  Understandably, considering Wire's boasts of releasing a double album as their debut, it selling sixteen million copies, and then splitting up.  Motown Junk contains the line "I laughed when Lennon got shot", and some missed the intentional ridiculousness of You Love Us.  At the same time as rave was crossing over, the Manics were wearing eye make-up, reviving punk and quoting every revolutionary and cultural icon they could lay their hands on.  Generation Terrorists is a flawed, brilliant record, Motorcycle Emptiness not requiring any explanation, while Little Baby Nothing, Edwards' first song about the abuse, commodification and exploitation of women, both features Traci Lords and has the "culture, alienation, boredom and despair" line that so epitomises everything the early Manics stood for.  Famously, in response to interview questions from Steve Lamacq about their authenticity, Edwards invited the NME hack backstage, where he proceeded to carve "4 REAL" into his arm.  Most versions of the story then omit how the next day, after getting stitched up, Edwards rang Lamacq to apologise.

Edwards' mental health problems had begun in earnest at university, where by his own admission he drank to get to sleep, cut his arm with a compass and at one point weighed just 6 stone.  Twice during his time with the band he went to a health farm in an attempt to recover from the worst of what he did to himself, with any improvement being short-lived.  His behaviour was treated by both some fans and sections of the press as a bit of laugh, or even to be emulated; the worries of his closest friends and bandmates were downplayed, although others saw the path of destruction he was on for what it was.  He both hated and fed off the attention of those who idolised him; given a set of knives by a fan in Thailand, he refused to cut himself on stage as she wanted, instead slicing his chest horizontally beforehand, coming on topless with the blood trickling down his body.  There's a shot of Edwards in the 10th anniversary edition of the album, emaciated, looking heavenwards, the scars on his upper body lurid red, appearing for all the world like Christ down from the cross.

Wherever Edwards' mind was he as wrote the album's lyrics, they feel like, are his gospel.  Faster is his song, his response to critics both real and imagined.  "I am an architect, they call me a butcher," it opens.  "Self-abuse is anti-social, aggression still natural," he later commented.  How Bradfield and Moore wrote music to some of the lyrics defies explanation in itself, Bradfield commenting how he called Edwards "a crazy fucker ... expecting me to write music to this" but he managed it.  Imbibing post-punk after Gold Against the Soul had gone glam to indifferent results, the scuzz at times practically drips from the speakers, only relenting for This is Yesterday, the album's most straightforward and by the same token least interesting song, if you can describe a song that attacks the comforts of childhood as false in such terms.

Viewed from 2014, the idea of a song criticising political correctness making the top 40 and getting played on the radio is laughable, let alone from a band known for its left-wing sympathies.  As a double A-side with Faster, PCP reached number 16 in 1994.  Equally out of place and out of time was Archives of Pain, Edwards taking Foucault's work on discipline and punishment and tongue-in-cheek using it as a justification for the death penalty, as well as being a reaction against the cult of the serial killer.  Ifwhiteamerica... is a more standard piece of anti-American, anti-imperialist agitprop, on which Wire did the most work of any song on the album, with the lines "Zapruder the first to masturbate / the world's first taste of crucified grace" staying in the mind.  Just to slam the message of brutality further home, there's not one but two songs addressing the Holocaust and man's inhumanity to man, both written after the band had visited Dachau and Belsen, as well as the museum at Hiroshima.  If Mausoleum is one of the album's weaker tracks, for all its bleak, beautiful imagery, then Intense Humming of Evil is among the best, haunting, respectful, necessary.  "6 million screaming souls / maybe misery - maybe nothing at all / lives that wouldn't have changed a thing / never counted - never mattered - never be".

As absurd as Faster and PCP getting radio play seems 20 years on, it was only Edwards' disappearance that prevented Yes from being released as a single.  Used as we all are now to cussing in tracks being masked for radio edits, quite how a song about prostitution and the commodification of everything written in the most unflinching terms would have gone down can only be imagined.  Opening with the line "For sale? Dumb cunts same dumb questions" and with the chorus featuring "He's a boy, you want a girl so tear off his cock / Tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want", it's just as much about Edwards himself as it is the other topics it addresses.  "Can't shout, can't scream, I hurt myself to get pain out" is almost the exact reasoning he gave when asked why he self-harmed.

Most important of all is 4st 7lbs, without a doubt Edwards' and also Bradfield's true masterpiece.  Told from the perspective of a young female anorexic, it nails the vanity of wanting to be "so skinny that I rot from view", while not for a moment either judging or glamourising that desire.  Two-thirds of the way through the track changes completely, slowing gradually to a crawl, mirroring the way life is ebbing from our narrator as she approaches 4st 7lb, the weight below which death becomes medically certain.  "Yeh 4st 7, an epilogue of youth / such beautiful dignity in self-abuse / I've finally come to understand life / through staring blankly at my navel".

It's still not properly known what triggered Edwards' admittance to hospital in August 1994.  Some have suggested it was a culmination of his self-harm, alcoholism and anorexia, while reports, denied at the time, of a suicide attempt could well be nearer the mark.  Certainly, if he really had wanted to Die in the Summertime, then he didn't have the weakness, the strength to succeed.  While Edwards claimed the lyrics were written from the perspective of a pensioner remembering his childhood, dying with the thoughts of his happiest time, it's not every OAP who would think "scratch my leg with a rusty nail / sadly, it heals" or "a tiny animal turned into a quarter circle".  Easy as it is to interpret it straight to Edwards' own thoughts knowing how events would turn out, in this instance it could well be the correct one.

Speaking a couple of years ago, Wire said had Edwards lived he expected he would have been "writing books ... an amazing artist ... I like to think still writing amazing lyrics with myself".  The "like" is key: both the rest of the band and Edwards without saying as much almost certainly realised things couldn't go on as they had.  The hospital admission had proved that.  The day before they were due to go to America in their first real attempt to make it there, Edwards disappeared.  His car was found at Severn View, formerly Aust services, near to the Severn crossing.  Apart from a few almost certainly wishful sightings, no trace of Edwards has been found since.  Although his sister continues to hope he will either be found or one day return, he was declared presumed dead in 2008.

Genius is a word thrown about far too liberally.  That it often goes hand in hand with "tortured" is almost always a cliché too far.  Depression, mental illness, they strike without discrimination; we just don't hear about the millions who kill themselves who aren't renowned.  The fascination with the famous or celebrities with personal deficiencies is part wanting to rationalise why it is they reached where they did, part wanting to think they aren't "better" than us and part not wanting their success due to its ill effects.  Edwards wasn't a genius in the true sense, nor was he anything other than a terribly flawed human being.  What he did have was a blinding intellect, a lyrical gift that blazed all too briefly.  The Holy Bible is his epitaph, like it or not.

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