On the 23rd of November 2008 Richey James Edwards was officially declared presumed deceased. After fifteen years having disappeared without trace his story was never fully resolved, with Edwards' family declining to allow him to be declared dead until this time, and in the case of his surviving bandmates and friends, a percentage of profits from each album being set aside for Richey. 2008's official announcement would prove to bring some closure at last to the tale, or the nest best thing at least, though greatly far from the most perfect closure, of course.
Fifteen years on, the Manic Street Preachers were a markedly different band from their Holy Bible selves: successful, middle-aged, on the perimeters of the establishment of course, but so established in themselves that they have been regarded Britpop survivors, elder statesmen of that era. They had two comebacks, and on the strength of the success of Send Away the Tigers, could have easily stayed the course and plumbed their works for more mainstream adulation. And yet... Journal for Plague Lovers is the result of this catharsis, created as it was from Richey's legacy to his best friend Nicky Wire, a scrapbook of his writings, photos, poetry and lyrics, not recreated, but given life by the surviving band. Some have seen the album also as a tribute to the band's fans, particularly those fans of the late Richey, and in all the project seems painstakingly co-ordinated, mannered to fit the model of the band as they were, rather than as they are. No singles were released from the album, although a video for Jackie Collin Existential Question Time was made (see below) which hits the right notes for me. And that note is 'energy.'
There's something touching also about the relationship between lyrics and performers here. Richey's words are entirely of their time, and yet written by a twenty-eight year old to have them sung by his forty-something friends is remarkable - it's really as though the years haven't passed. One suspects some cosmetic enhancement went on between lyrics and song, however - there's less of the Gatling gun approach in the lyrics, and overall it appears Bradfield and Wire have had more control over the songs than they may have had with Richey about. The references contained in the words aren't as marooned in the mid-Nineties as they could be - either Richey was more prescient in his writing than you'd grant, or his poems and fragments were simply not that specific to a time and place, or perhaps some judicious editing was undertaken? It's a minor thing. For what it's worth the lyrics are a passing thing for me - maybe it's the state by now of Nicky Wire's writing, but I found that by this album I'd tuned my ears out to the lyrical content and more into how the group were playing together; maybe that's laziness, but it's not to say I don't still sing along.
What does matter is the work in full; Manic Street Preachers re-energised, revitalised. A celebration instead of a commemoration, and I can’t think of a better example of both turning back the clock in the most perfect way possible, nor creating as fitting and devoted a tribute to the work and creativity of a departed friend. As close to a perfect Manics album as you could find. Where did Bradfield find the compositions? Eking out whole songs from scraps of verses, haiku, sometimes repeated verse, and yet the music seems as though it had been kept on ice since 1994. This is the follow-up promised by The Holy Bible, diverted into Everything Must Go, and yet devoid of the treatment (“Pantera meets Nine Inch Nails meets Screamadelica”) that Edwards would have intended at the time – and yet for all that it’s not a jarring anachronism; it’s a beautiful, elegant, sad and loving miracle.
And as it turn out, this marvelous album is also something of a detour. The follow-up will be, promised Wire, something lighter; more poppy, more accessible - so, Send Away the Tigers revisited, rather than another Journal. But for its time and place, its sentiment and its truth, if Plague Lovers had been anything more than a one-off then I might have been suspicious. There are two ways to assuage your audience, sounding like you once did, or sounding like something entirely new. if this is nostalgia (and it's much more than that), then this brief, magical trip into the past was worth taking. It's reminded me of how much potential the early Manics, now outnumbered and outgunned by the mature three piece, was once. And it's a cracker.
Cover Story: To continue the link with The Holy Bible's era, the cover art is another Jenny Saville piece, and was deemed offensive enough to have the album not displayed in Tescoes, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morison's (Bradfield pointed out the hypocrisy of still having lads mags on display in the same shop, but to no avail.) It's a beautiful and arresting piece, striking the tone of the album - diverting, possibly shocking, provocative, but not gratuitous. Inside, if you're lucky enough to have the deluxe edition, reproductions of Richey's scrapbook pages and lyrics. In the standard edition, lyrics and a simple gatefold shot of the man himself.