Although they're huge stars in Britain now and Q magazine's 1998 Greatest Band in the World Wales' Manic Street Preachers have never quite had their watches synchronized with their fellow Britons'. Early singles like "Suicide Alley" and "New Art Riot" peddled trashy, sneering punk to the "baggy" generation. By the time of their first LP, Generation Terrorists (1992), the sound was more Guns "n' Roses than Sex Pistols, although the dystopian lyrics remained. The grunge legions took little notice, but all of this early stuff is great. Subsequent records have ranged even further afield. As the Britpop bands were memorizing Revolver or Village Green Preservation Society, the Manics seemed more interested in Plastic Ono Band; no Union Jacks on these boys. Their early amped-up adrenaline has evolved over the past few years into something spare and serious, drawing emotional power from its almost uncomfortable intimacy from music for 10,000 people in an arena to music for two people in a room.
The sad saga of guitarist/songwriter Richey James has a lot to do with this unexpected maturity. James, the classic rock & roll dreamer who believed the myths of self-destruction, was always cast as the band nutcase, Keith Moon with a Welsh accent. Much early notoriety for the Manics came in 1991, when James razored "4REAL" into his arm to prove the band's authenticity to a doubtful music journalist. As the years went by, James grew more and more erratic, until his stunts looked like something far darker than pop-star shenanigans. His 1995 disappearance remains unsolved.
James' bandmates faced up to the reality of the cheap glam nihilism they had been trading in and kept on. For all its energy and wit, their punk-glam stuff rang tinny and false against the true story of Richey James. "I laughed when Lennon got shot," to quote one early lyric, now seemed more stupid than cool. The rejection of the Brian Jones/Sid Vicious ethic is clear on the cover of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours: the three living band members dressed in white, small against a huge blue sky and vast gray flats (Portmeirion, Wales, near where The Prisoner TV series was filmed). Not a half-empty bottle, Marshall stack or razor blade in sight.
The music is equally striking in its life-affirming casting-off of bullshit. "You Stole the Sun from My Heart" is a pretty, pulsing pop tune with a classic thrashed-out Manics chorus. Its devotional romantic lyrics repeatedly insist, "I love you all the same." We find a bit of the band's old polemicism on "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next," along with a stoned dance beat and weirdly treated guitars. It added up to a huge U.K. hit single; we'll see whether the Spanish Civil War references in the lyrics catch on here. "Black Dog on My Shoulder" toys with vaguely Latin rhythms, acoustic guitars and a string section, achieving a kind of mutant Burt Bacharach feel, and "Nobody Loved You" maintains the emotional closeness of the album even while providing grandiose, soaring rock.
Through it all, the tempos stay moderate, and wide-open spaces abound. The sparse arrangements give the album a cohesive tone despite the variety and color of its songs. It can sound a bit draggy at first, and there is the occasional awkward vocal phrasing or maudlin lyric. You won't be vaulting around your bedroom with any air instruments. But music this inventive and subtle has a way of overcoming its flaws. It might not set you instantly aflame, but stick with it and you'll capture a rare beast: an intelligent, innovative chill-out album for rock & roll people. So this is what they're so excited about over there...