Tuesday, May 8, 2012

"Beauty is Such a Terrible Thing"

Manic Street Preachers - 'The Holy Bible' (1994)

A lesson to the student of history, whose subject can be edifying and illustrative, but offers no recipe for happiness. The Holy Bible is a catalogue of human disaster and atrocity, a litany of inhumanity where the voice of God has instead fallen silent, and the bleak and brutal outside world looks inwards upon the soul. The album returns the gaze, being the antithesis of Gold’s inner monologue with a glare at a decrepit world with its cruel history and savage present: child prostitution, the Holocaust, serial killers, dictators, anorexia. In the hands of less-skillful musicians this could have been a blunt instrument indeed, and yet it's not - rightly lauded as one of the great albums of British rock. Yet it’s hard to find a radio-friendly single in all of it, even if the compositions are among Bradfield’s best (opening track Yes is that prime example of the lyrical iron fist within a velvet hook-lined melodic glove.)

"In these plagued streets of pity you can buy anything
For $200 anyone can conceive a God on video"

’s place in the Manics’ discography casts the greatest shadow, and everything released after this album is for better or worse held up against this release. It provides the context for the future of the band, even though it was conceived as a reaction to and rejection of the band’s early promise of chart success. Gold Against the Soul had done well enough, with the strongest single sales to date for the band, but critically it had floundered, and the band did not embrace it as their best work. Instead, Bible’s creation was marked by an eschewing of substantial budget and off-shore recording facilities (too ‘rock star’) for a smaller, more claustrophobic environment, the band retreating to a cramped studio in Cardiff's red light district in an attempt to return to the band’s earlier values and roots.

Bible is pointedly a political album, not only returning to the band's left wing roots, but marking a point where the rising Britpop culture would claim its own presence before being coopted into the New Labour election manifesto. Here's a visually uncormfortable Edwards interviewed by Paul King at the NME ‘Brat’ Awards, post-scripted by the appearance of Radiohead who would go on to occupy similar intellectual ground to the Manics with their next set of albums.

Meticulously and mathematically created with a frightening efficiency – four weeks seems no time at all for a product so refined and dense, and its immediacy is obvious. It’s put together so discreetly that it has to be treated as one whole work, even though it has no narrative nor structure, a tide of terror and repulsion punctuated by soundbites from Orwell, Camus, Dostoevsky, Ballard, and the voices of Nuremburg, the sex trade and families of the victims of Peter Sutcliffe.

 This album strikes you about the head to listen to. I listen to it rarely, not because I don’t enjoy or appreciate it, but because I’ve found that to genuinely listen I have to put myself into a particular head space. The more I listen, the deeper I sink. It is an impressive and immersive album, deeply uncomfortable to listen to in places, and difficult to take in superficially; weighed down by the postmortem facts of its creation, because The Holy Bible is also the diary of the last days of Richey Edwards.

 Recent years had marked the death of manager and discoverer Phillip Hall, and the mixed fortunes of Gold Against the Soul. Edwards had been admitted to The Priory in 1994 for treatment of (variously) alcoholism, depression, anorexia and self-harm. Generally the production of The Holy Bible saw a released Richie in obvious deterioration of mental and physical health. To listen to the album is to be forced back to the lyrics in the liner notes, James Dean Bradfield gamely wrapping his vocal chords around Edwards' nearly impossible breakneck lyrics offering little in the way of aurally deciphering them. This is no criticism, the staccato-vocals are a hallmark of early Manics songs - but then the lyrics are something else here. Within six months of the album's release and on the eve of a US tour Edwards disappeared and was never seen again.

 Perhaps the most affecting track for me is near the album's close, a merciful release after the grinding mechanical dread of the second Holocaust-themed song from the album, the aptly-titled The Intense Humming of Evil. Illustrated by innocent photos of the band members as young children, Die In the Summertime posits the desire of a world-weary mind aching to return to the vitality and happiness of youth's imagined eternal summer, the accrued wisdom of life experience providing no comfort nor enlightenment:

"I can't seem to stay a fixed ideal
Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene
See myself without ruining lines
Whole days throwing sticks into streams
I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I wanna die, die in the summertime"

Cover story: Stark and iconic, Jenny Saville's triptych Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) regards the viewer from every angle, the rest of the cover black on white with track names and artist titles, the first instance of the manics' use of the reversed 'R', which features irregularly in future works. On the reverse and inside, crosses, angels and cemeteries, photos and schematics for every featured track.

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