The Manic Street Preachers found themselves at a traumatic crossroads in 1995.
Lawless lyricist Richey Edwards, who along with bassist Nicky Wire had been the chief songwriter of their most recent and iconoclastic album, The Holy Bible of 1994, has suddenly passed away.
The post-punk rockers had previously performed without Edwards at a festival when he checked in at the Priory due to alcoholism and self-harm issues (he once carved the words “4 Real” into his arm. with a knife for the benefit of NME reporter Steve Lamacq).
But the prospect of continuing without him while an investigation into his disappearance was underway was a different matter altogether.
Then, about six months after Edwards disappeared, a new song changed everything.
“A Design For Life saved us,” recalls singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield.
“We were like, ‘Well, we don’t know if Richey would want to be in that band any more, but we think he maybe liked that song.” And that got us going. ”
Edwards was never found, but after numerous false leads and rumors of sightings, he was legally pronounced dead in 2008, a fact some still question. For years, the Manics continued to pay royalties to his estate and left an empty microphone on stage in hopes that their backing vocalist and childhood friend would return.
Meanwhile, A Design For Life, a string-laden anthemic dissection of working-class life in the UK, has taken its cult hero group to a part of the mainstream Britpop landscape. While supporting Oasis at the then-defining Knebworth concert in 1996, the Manics closed their set with the track, which appeared alongside five contributions from Edwards on their fourth album, Award-winning Everything Must Go. a Brit Award.
“We were just coming out of our own trauma at that point,” Bradfield continues. “Design for Life turned out to be something that kept us going as a group, that validated us, that took us beyond the process of not knowing if we could be in the Manics anymore.
“It kind of solved a lot of really embarrassing emotional puzzles for us. We were on our way to something, reasserting ourselves and avoiding having to think about really serious and damaging things about Richey and his family.”
“Snow globe moment”
A Design for Life is what Bradfield describes as a ‘manic Trojan horse’ tune – using epic rock adapted to radio to convey a political message.
Using similar tactics, they then managed to get If You Tolerate It, Your Kids Will Be Next And The Masses Against the Classes to the top of the UK Singles Rankings. (The former addressed the Spanish Civil War, while the latter contained quotes from Noam Chomsky and Albert Camus.)
On their 14th and final album, their signature big guitar sound was largely replaced by piano-inspired, Abba-inspired pop melodies. Bradfield, the band’s main musical force, learned to play the piano properly while locked out after inheriting Edwards from each other – a 105-year-old Mrs Edwards in Cardiff.
“It was like a special gift given to us,” he says. And he soon began to find new joy in old chords.
“I had this great experience on the piano of getting by and saying, ‘Oh my God, I have to call Billy Joel. If the band doesn’t want that, they’ll do it!'” he.
Recorded between closings at their own new studio in Newport, as well as the famous Rockfield, the album feels like a “snowball moment,” the singer says. “It all sounded like a living, waking dream. Sometimes you would write music to try to prove that life always worked the same way.”
Hidden within the dreamy new pop packaging, as always, is a sharp message from the quill of the word creator Wire. Debut single Orwellian discovers the band is waking up to a dystopian future where political waters are cloudy – “We live in the Orwellian era / It seems impossible to choose a side “- and the language is deliberately misused by those in power – “Words make war, meanings are missed / I’ll guide you through the apocalypse”.
“It’s about how language can be rearranged and then appropriated to accuse or justify to build or destroy,” says Bradfield.
“I would say the people who seem to rule halfway, when they get up every morning and they see the crop war raging around them, they say, ‘Yeah, they’re still fighting each other, us. we’re still going to be in government for the next 10 years. That’s how I see it. “
Back then, the Manics weren’t opposed to a mean pun. Edwards once said that they “would always hate [shoegaze band] Slowdive more than Hitler. ”Bradfield feels that this sort of ironic vitriol, which was“ part of the dance ”of being in a band, has now come out of music and into modern day life, but in a more “blatant” way.
“The genres merge into each other [these days] so the music is less tribal, but the culture is more tribal, ”says Bradfield.
A damaging effect of cultural wars, he adds, is that “people who should be vaguely on the same side cannot be on the same side.” The veteran rocker believes the “confusing” times also make it harder for young bands to write political anthems than they were when the “naturally angry” Manics formed in 1986, fueled by the “storm. in front of our window “very clear – a reference to the miners’ strikes.
When BBC News caught up with the band several years ago, they were wireless, with the bassist missing his Biggest title of the weekend in Belfast due to her mother’s terminal illness and sadly now gone.
The specter of death and the shadow of their missing comrade Edwards hangs over this album on tracks like the opening Snowing in Sapporo and closer Afterending, while Diapause is a reflection on our recently imposed hibernation.
On the LP’s second single, The Secret He Had Missed, which tells the story of sibling artists Gwen and Augustus John, Bradfield duet with Julia Cumming from New York band Sunflower Bean. Another guest, Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees, joins them for the sinister but fragile Blank Diary Entry.
All now in their early 50s, Bradfield jokes that the members of The Manics look less like their heroes The Clash, Iggy Pop, Public Enemy or Guns N ‘Roses, and more like the Last of the Summer Wine gang these days. .
Their stance on their group’s first manifesto, which said they would never write a love song, softened slightly. “As we get older, we realize that sometimes there is only love,” he admits. “It’s the only thing that saves you sometimes … You don’t know when you’re 16.”
Now, in 2021, Britpop’s oldest statesmen appear to have come to another crossroads.
“It seems more and more difficult for us to commit ourselves to playing songs from the Holy Bible as a group,” reveals Bradfield. “You have to be very physical. You have to practice playing this music. It’s really pretty intense.
“This is not a closed chapter,” he adds, leaving the door ajar to play their old Edwards-era material. “But there aren’t many other ways to investigate what happened with Richey and what we went through with him.
“I don’t really think we want to dig into it because we’ve looked at it a million times and there are no answers.”
Manic Street Preacher’s album The Ultra Vivid Lament is out now.