Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers (Sony)

Mark Skinner | Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers (Sony)

It has always been impossible to view the Manic Street Preachers' catalogue as a unified whole. Like Pink Floyd post-Syd Barrett or Fleetwood Mac without Peter Green, the loss of their visionary leader enforced a dramatic shift in direction in the last fourteen years.

There are the Richey Edwards albums - barbed, punky, obtuse and violent – and there are the post-Richey discs – epic, anthemic and glossily commercial. These were initially successful but the terrace chant choruses and sweeping strings became steadily more hollow as the 21st century wore on.

Journal For Plague Lovers is one of this year's most fascinating releases. It represents the first real attempt to marry Richey's tortured source material with the lean, radio-friendly rock of the Manics Mark 2. Edwards wrote these songs shortly before he disappeared - only now do his remaining bandmates feel able to put them to music. 

In a sense, it's a battle the Manics can't win: if the exercise fails the band stand accused of sullying Edwards' memory, whereas if it's a success everyone praises Edwards' lyrical brilliance and sees it as confirmation the group were never the same without him. 

Happily, for listeners at least, the latter scenario is most definitely the case. Edwards' words are as cryptic, verbose and gloriously unwieldy as they always were and you can only marvel at James Dean Bradfield's ability to fit all the syllables into the right time signature. 

But what marks Journal out from its obvious companion piece The Holy Bible is the sheer quality of the tunes. The title track is a blinding punk-pop song with a rousing chorus made all the more gripping by the portentousness of the lyrics, while the white hot fury of 'She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach' is powerfully translated into a thrillingly taut guitar attack. 

There is a lot of pain here but also a great mordant wit; you can't fail to chuckle at a title like 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time' or the assertion that Stephen Hawking "missed the sex revolution when he failed the physical."

A couple of the tracks feel slightly undercooked; 'Facing Page: Top Left' is a fragile ballad that doesn't really go anywhere while 'Doors Closing Slowly' sounds oddly like a number from a West End musical. But for the most part Journal For Plague Lovers is a marvellously unlikely success, and one that is due as much to the band's innate musicality as their tragic former colleague's lyrical worldview.

Rating: 4/5