Friday, July 20, 2012

"Rebuild the Void with Flowers"

Manic Street Preachers - 'The Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours' (1998)

Cover story: Good album covers often capture a mood or a point in time, delivering the message of an artist’s latest work in a visual sense – for point of sale, perhaps, or to support the ideas contained within. Consider the cover for This is My Truth Tell Me Yours: the band walk along an empty beach, clad in pale greys and whites under cleansing sunlight. It speaks of solitude, purity, and of surrender to a moment of catharsis.

Britpop is dead, and the future awaits as the movement's survivors look to ways to reinvent themselves for the coming millennium. Now nearing their second decade, Manic Street Preachers have the affirmation of a multi award-winning album behind them. What's their next move? Is it really more of the same? This is a crucial time for the band, and This is My Truth in light of the new line-up may as well be the Manics' sophomore effort, with all the usual caveats and risks pertaining thereof. Its working title, maybe something of an indicator, was simply Manic Street Preachers. Within a tracks about the Spanish Civil War (If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next) and the Silent Twins (Tsunami), Nicky Wire lyrics that wouldn't have been out of place among the works of Richey James; but This Is My Truth is the first full album not to feature any of James' words, and that matters too.

To me, This is My Truth is simultaneously more of the same (delivered with Everything Must Go) and a moving forward. Mike Hedges is once again the producer, offering even more space to the band’s sound with a contemplative use of volume, reverb and instrumentation. Sound-wise not a lot has changed, although things have moved on - The Everlasting and If You Tolerate This open with shimmering guitar, an instrument that has in the past dominated the Manics' albums, yet here is mixed further back, sharing the space with other instruments - orchestral sections for some parts. It's a mature approach, and gives the album a real cohesion. As the band's output goes it's in most places an opposite to the darkness of The Holy Bible (which isn't to say there aren't dark moment in this album), but overall it shares its predecessor's sense of continuity. At the time I bought this, almost unheard up to that point, the album was a new sound, and it got played a lot as background music – no criticism, but it was a good mood-enhancer for a heavy year study-wise. Reflecting back on it now the album’s sense of space and mood strikes me as something like a post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd piece – all the notes are there and a similar message, but overall it’s smoother, less frenetic, less overwrought. Richey’s gone, and this is a big part of the new sound of the future of the Manic Street Preachers.

Which isn’t to say the album isn’t dynamic – it is where it matters, and it’s not an entirely ‘up’ work – there are definite moments of melancholy, particularly around the middle (My Little Empire, I’m Not Working, Ready for Drowning, not to mention the aching and sparse Born a Girl); but overall the whole work seems more crafted, leaps about less in its direction, and only really reclaims Bradfield's guitar and lets rip towards the end with the Richey-dedicated Nobody Loved You and the ill-wrought Hillsborough-derived S.Y.M.M. The latter song aside, the album works because it’s so well balanced. I’m avoiding use of the term ‘middle of the road’, although some might not – it’s radio-friendly, and built on the success of its predecessor with more top ten hits and a second consecutive Best Album award at the Brits, but deservedly so. This is My Truth’s success is that in all of this reception the message has not been lost or confused as it arguably was with A Design for Life.

Though it occupies a moment in the band's life - the halfway mark as I write this, and captures a lingering euphoria post-Everything Must Go, I think that This Is My Truth merits contention as one of the most important manic Street Preachers albums. if the band were still in any way following their initial;ly-stated masterplan of chart success, then they had it here for the second time around, and their next number one would be just around the corner. The curious thing though, is that as far as the Manics are concerned, they are fortune's playthings. The fickle tastes of the record-buying public do not rest well with grandiose statements by the likes of Nicky Wire - infamous for his often ill-chosen proclamations and outbursts, not to mention steering of the band's sound. As the next bracket of albums will show, This Is My Truth is a high water mark for Manic Street Preachers, where message and reception are in harmony. The road ahead from this desolate Black Rock Sands beach of the album's cover is about to get a fair bit rockier.

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