Those chart-topping days are gone though, and, on the back of recognition for their acheivements through the likes of NME’s ‘Godlike Genius Award’ and, perhaps more importantly, the change in status of Edwards from ‘Missing’ to ‘Presumed Dead’, they have now turned once more to their comrades parting gift. Drawn entirely from Edwards’ reservoir of work, Journal For Plague Lovers is a return to the Manic’s of old, the culmination of several years of steady improvement. This is no simple cash-in either though, no attempt to capitalise on Edward’s material to reverse stalling fortunes or at least garner a couple more print lines. The sincerity of the band and their unflinching respect for the man is unquestionable, even today they keep a share of profits for his increasingly unlikely return, instead this is a tribute and a chance to reflect.
However no tribute to Edwards, an early and isolated critic of the softening sound demonstrated in Everything Must Go, would be true without a return to the ferocity and lyrical fury of old, some have even dismissed it as merely The Holy Bible Mark II. This, however, is a misguided claim. Instead it indulges only occasionally in the full-on assault that marked that release, songs like album opener ‘Peeled Apples’, a rumbling, bass-driven explosion, ‘Marlon J.D.’, ‘She Bathed Herself In A Bath of Bleach’ and even hidden track ‘Bag Lady’ are vintage Manics, pulsing, pounding bass over razor sharp guitars whilst Bradfield leads with his inimitable howls. If anything it’s merely knowingly nostalgic to those bygone days, from the reversed R’s on the cover to the artwork itself(by Holy Bible contributor Jenny Saville and strangely banned in some stores) it all evokes a connection to Edwards and the album but also an acceptance.
At times however it abandons the beaten track and ventures into new territory, Nicky Wire’s move into vocals on album closer and emotional powerhouse ‘William’s Last Words’, its similarity to a suicide note acknowledged by Bradfield, is a notable misstep and leaves what should have been the album centerpiece feeling slightly dull and light, the lyrics however are more than enough to carry it and it’s a moving, almost ballad-like, farewell to his bandmates and ‘The best friends I ever had’. The intellectual and personal force of Edward’s words, lent even more weight by knowledge of his fate and condition, ensures that every song is still well worth a listen though, at the very least to gain one last insight into his troubled psyche. Filled with angst and culture in equal measure it’s less political and more personal than many of their recent works, less laden in cliche and counter-culturalism and more morbidly entrancing in Edward’s unique way.
The lack of a sustained barrage means that it flits between styles however, alternating between their more soft-rock sound of recent albums and the punk power of old. The result is an album that’s not as much of a ‘whole’ as classics like The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go, it’s filled with great tracks but they just don’t mesh together, there’s no real coherence to elevate from merely good listening to a real ‘experience’, whereas it’s easy to find oneself sucked in to the despair and darkness of Holy Bible when only a quick dip was intended, here it’s much less collective.
All the same it’s still the finest work of one of Britain’s finest bands in a decade, a defiant statement that, just in case you were wondering, the Manics are still here and they’re still a force to be reckoned with.