Manic Street Preachers: 'Know Your Enemy' (2001)
"Hello, it's us again" – The Masses Against the Classes
A new millennium has dawned, and Manic Street Preachers have turned ten, seeing in the new2 era with a live concert in Cardiff Arms Stadium, and after the success of the last album (and the group’s first number one in If You Tolerate This) releasing a standalone single: The Masses Against the Classes – a stomping rallying cry to fans who were critical of This Is My Truth’s ‘sell out’ sound. This gesture of goodwill, reminiscent in its verses of Blur’s Movin’ On from their eponymous album was boosted through the dedication of an enlarged fanbase, and turned into a surprise second number one after its release and immediate deletion with no accompanying video. And then…?
Know Your Enemy’s creation doesn’t quite speak from the success of This Is My Truth or Masses. With the band still not making head roads into a larger US market, the risk was seen of the Manics being a UK-only success was real, and so resources for the follow-up were cut significantly. It seems churlish of their record company, especially after a second number one. And yet, this seems to be the story, and perhaps Enemy is a reaction as much to this. Gone are the sweeping panoramic string sections, back is the overdrive pedal; lyrics less concerned with internalised melancholy and longing, and more agitprop and cut-up politics. Overall the sound and approach mark a lo-fi retreat along the lines of U2's Achtung Baby and, again, that crucial self-titled fifth Blur album. The result is perhaps best put kindly as a mix of styles – described by one Pitchfork review as an attempt to write a protest song in every genre. It’s not quite that, but the grab-bag approach is obvious, as are the influences from The Byrds (the uplifting Let Robeson Sing), The Beach Boys (So Why So Sad), New Order (The Convalescent, Intravenous Agnostic), REM (Year of Purification, His Last Painting), early U2 (My Guernica, with a drumbeat recalling Joy Division’s Transmission) and Nirvana (Dead Martyrs). All are good compositions, but strangely not recognisable Manic Street Preacher songs – the mimesis makes the album sound little like anything they’ve done, or were known for – particularly after two very strong chart-teasing works.
It’s this inconsistency which I think plays against Know Your Enemy on the whole, rendering it less cohesive than its predecessors. There’s less to latch onto here.
"You Don't Just Sit in a Rocking Chair When You've Built a Revolution" – Baby Elian
From the outset the album seems misjudged: Promoted with the questionable decision to play in Havana and a personal press meeting with Castro (Wire has seemingly since recanted) and released in May 2001 – a full six months before the September 11 attacks that would turn global geopolitics completely over and really give the group something to talk about (but who would have known?) If the previous album’s S.Y.M.M and its lyrics (“The subtext of this song / I've thought about it for so long / But it's really not the sort of thing / That people want to hear us sing") were in any way a warning sign of lyrics to come then they were ignored – the Pop-like Miss Europa Disco Dancer stuttering to a profanity-laced conclusion, pop culture names dropped in carelessly. The remainder, the vast remainder of Know Your Enemy is something of a slog lyrics-wise, lazy rhyming and lines that could have done with a second and third pass (and maybe an external eye – even seventeen-year-old me could have told Nicky Wire that T S Eliot’s lugubrious antihero is the weakly-named J Alfred Prufrock, not Alfred J Prufrock.)
It’s less well-wrought than Richey Edwards’ stream of conscious stuff, and sadly Bradfield’s contribution, Ocean Spray (I was astonished in thinking that the band couldn’t have realised that the song’s name is also that of a popular cranberry drink – then gobsmacked when I realised that this is what the song is about), just proves that he’s every bit the lyricist that Nicky Wire is a vocalist.
Know Your Enemy seems a long album (the version I have includes The Masses as a bonus track plus a perfunctory Avalances remix of So Why So Sad) but delivers so little. I was off them by now, and hearing snippets of So Why So Sad and Ocean Spray didn’t endear me to check the album out further. The next release would be longer in the making and prove another departure, by which time Manic Street Preachers were almost entirely off my radar.
Cover Story: After two albums featuring the band members on the front, this one is all text and grit, with nods to the group’s past penchant for stenciled statements on their stage clothes. Inside the lyrics are reproduced as facsimiles of the songbooks they came from – all very verite, but all the more revealing for the typos and formative lyrical ideas.
Here's a thing. Trying to decide which video to feature as a standout or typical track from the album? There is none, so I had to pick two.