Few albums of late have carried the sheer weight of expectation like Journal For Plague Lovers, consisting entirely of lyrics left by the band’s long departed guitarist Richey Edwards. Immediately fans and critics alike went into overdrive wondering whether the source material would simply be too dark, or if the Manics would be able to do the lyrics justice with music. Matters were made worse with the news that alt-rock hero Steve Albini, the legendary “recorder” of Surfer Rosa by the Pixies and In Utero by Nirvana (he refuses to be known as a producer), was working with them. Before long the bands ever reliable mouthpiece, troublemaker and occasional Bassist, Nicky Wire was proclaiming that the album was going to be The Holy Bible Part Two.
It is this link to The Holy Bible, the band’s most famous and critically acclaimed album, which caused the most concern. The reputation of that album and its departed lyricist have hung over the Manics ever since. Their entire career post-Bible and Richey has been one long effort to come to terms with who they are as a band. This has seen them travel through the bombast of comeback Everything Must Go to the quiet parochialism of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, the punk mess of Know Your Enemy, the autumnal Lifeblood and then coming full circle with 2007’s Send Away The Tigers. However for all the chart success and mostly positive reviews, the band never seemed to fully escape the lingering legacy of the long departed Richey Edwards. With Journal For Plague Lovers the band are finally confronting that grim legacy head on, using the lyrics Richey left them just weeks before his disappearance in 1995.
Hearing his words once again committed to tape immediately reminds the listener of how much of a lyrical talent Richey Edwards were. A dense and often cryptic maze of references quote figures as diverse as leading left-wing academic Noam Chomsky and the 70’s tea-time telly wrestler Giant Haystacks, the lyrics are clearly a product of a fiercely intellectual mind. What is striking though is how different the lyrics are to those on The Holy Bible. Whereas on that album Richey was clearly troubled and battling many demons, Journal For Plague Lovers presents a calmer and more collected mind. Rather than the Holocaust and persecution, the recurring motifs on the album are perfection, infinity and escaping to a cleaner less cluttered existence.
Though admittedly rather unsettling at times and punctuated by the poignancy of hindsight, the lyrics are nowhere near as dark as those on The Holy Bible. The opening salvo of ‘Peeled Apples’, ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’ and ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ are punchy and defiant, the latter even managing to shoehorn a Larkin-esque joke into its chorus. Meanwhile songs such as ‘All Is Vanity’ and ‘Marlon J.D.’ suggest the austere and Stalinist existence desired by Richey. Quoting Marlon Brando in ‘Marlon J.D.’ he claims that all he needs is “a well oiled rifle”.
Despite all this bluster, it is the moments of quiet self reflection that hit the hardest. Detached and dispossessed, the likes of ‘The Joke Sport Severed’, ‘Facing Page: Top Left’ and ‘Doors Closing Slowly’ are mournful and cloaked in a creeping sense of loss. They are instantly reminiscent of ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’, a Richey lyric from Everything Must Go where he wrote about the sadness of zoo animals as a metaphor for his time in mental health wards. Like Ian Curtis’ lyrics on the second half of the final Joy Division album, Closer, it seems as if he is simply observing other peoples’ sorrow, completely disembodied from all around him. Only on the final song, and album standout, ‘William’s Last Words’ is there anything that feels like a genuine insight into Richey’s mind. The final cries of “Wish me some luck as you wave goodbye to me/ You’re the best friends I’ve ever had/ Good night, Sleep tight” and the doleful resignation of “’Cause I’m really tired/ I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy” are beautiful yet harrowing.
As important as the lyrics are, the truth is that to simply view this album as a collection of lyrics is demeaning to say the least. This album is as superb musically as it is lyrically. The band has not only risen to the occasion but have excelled themselves. It feels as if all the disparate musical directions that they have mined in the years following the The Holy Bible have come together to form their best album since then. What is most clear is that it sounds like The Manic Street Preachers at their most direct and potent. This is not simply a monument to the lyrical talents of their departed friend but more like an obelisk stretching out across modern music reminding all of just how essential and important the Manics are. For the first time they appear truly comfortable and at ease with their own legacy and history and as a result they have made their best album since The Holy Bible. Like that album, Journal for Plague Lovers is a triumph of art over logic, a timeless masterpiece that could well be considered one of the best albums this decade.