As indicated in an earlier post, Everything Must Go was my real entry point into the work of Manic Street Preachers, which is somewhat appropriate given the efforts and intention behind the album. Four discs in and nearly ten years after their debut, Everything is their most accessible album to date; big, broad in sound (helped immensely by the production of Mike Hedges, the first in a long line of collaborations) and popular appeal, it's in many ways album of redemption. It's also by accident a very British album, and perhaps owes much of its great critical and chart success to its timing amid a groundswell of popular British cultural identity. What could be more British, after all, than a hankering to escape the trials of British life for the idealised empty space of Australia? And yet this wish for distance underpins much of the album's genesis and mood. It's a different work from its predecessor from its less-dense lyrics, greater melody and broader range of instruments (including of all things, a harp). Like the song's protagonist, Everything Must Go is yearning to breathe again, and it succeeds here, and is for all of that a success.
There could never be another Holy Bible, and retrospectively it's quite apparent that Bradfield, Wire and Moore had no intention to repeat the exercise. Instead, Everything is a deliberate push forward, a maturing of sound which reaped the group the rewards it had been chasing for nearly ten years, and which had seemed so elusive while they were a four-piece.It was, as such projects often are, a make or break scenario - Bible's success had been more critical than commercial, and the band were in torpor following James' disappearance, and so one more release and stab at the big time was a not small gambles. four singles released in the UK, each making the top 10, with A Design for Life reaching number 2. It is, simply put, four minutes and twenty-two seconds of triumph. At the same time it's a neat (unintended?) parallel - a working class anthem delivered in the midst of Britpop, whose zeitgeist made the idea of class loyalty something ironic, as much a part of Britain's pop culture re-branding as Union Jack guitars and retreads of The Kinks and The Beatles. Crucially, Design, arriving as it did mid-Britpop could only through its success be absorbed by the culture's obsessions, which also incorporated a significant degree of Loaded-era New Laddishness; hence "We don't talk about love / We only wanna get drunk" was taken completely at face value and without irony, an anthem not just for the Brit Awards closing, but to be sung from the terraces as well (c.f. Underworld's Born Slippy). Such are the bargains one makes when one courts the popular ear (personally they had me at the opening line: "Libraries gave us power"), and maybe it's this wholesale adoption by the masses that led some formerly die-hard Manics fans away from the band, as much as the album's clear indication that it would not seek to follow the path of its predecessor, nor departed creator. In that respect, Everything's title track is less an address to the departed Richey (as I had thought at the time) and is instead an address to the band's fans.
Not that Richey is absent from the album, of course, but for every one of Edwards' works (Elvis Impersonator Blackpool Promenade, Kevin Carter, No Surface All Feeling, the sorrowful and beautiful Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky) it seems there's an answer immediately following - a more strident, focused alternative reading of the band's manifesto (Design, Everything Must Go etc). The past isn't being erased nor rewritten, but it is being contained and, I'd argue, put somewhat in its place. Despite threads of Edwards' presence running through the work, it's a credit to the album that it's not a memorial nor a facsimile, doesn't take the easier route to garner fan loyalty or public sympathy, but is a stronger work for looking to the future.
Cover Story: Now we are three. The remaining band gaze out of the sleeve and regard one another - vulnerable, leaner, paler (I suspect Mister Photoshop may have been visiting) and stripped back. Significantly, this is the first release that features the band themselves as the cover image (the singles are anonymous affairs though, presumably presenting Bradfield, Wire and Moore as matter-of-fact, pretense aside. For that it's their most effective album cover, and they've never looked better. Inside, the band cut into detail - fingers, hair, the back of a neck, a nipple - the shelves are deliberately kept bare.