Posted by SoC contributor Masticator
Anyway, a friend of mine just called and asked if I wanted to see Manic Street Preachers in London next month, and I surprised both of us with the vehemence of my refusal. At one point in my life I would have dropped everything to attend one of the band’s gigs; indeed, between the spring of 1994 and the summer of 1996, I saw them a total of six times. Three times before Richey Edwards’s disappearance and three after, including Edwards’s last gig and their first show as a three-piece (supporting the Stone Roses at Wembley Arena). But now… I believe I actually used the words “You couldn’t pay me to see the Manics.”
So why is this? They were my favourite band in my late teens and early twenties, so even if their recent recordings haven’t exactly given me the Welsh horn, there should be a certain nostalgia value in seeing them live. Although they’re promoting their new material, the setlist will include plenty of old favourites for the fans, right? I couldn’t be less interested if you told me Ocean Colour Scene were the support act and threw in a copy of Kula Shaker’s Greatest Hits.
Why? Because of the new single – and I’m physically cringing as I type this title – “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time”.
I still rate The Holy Bible as one of my favourite albums. All four Manics unarguably hit a creative peak with the 1994 record: lyricists Edwards and Nicky Wire mined a seam of raw, confessional/political poetry combined with a literary quality not evident in pop music since the heyday of the Clash; songwriters and chief musicians James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore pummelled the senses with ominous riffs, disconcerting rhythmic changes and thunderous beats. It was, and remains, an astonishing major-label release.
Either side of THB, the polished, more radio-friendly rock of Gold Against The Soul and Everything Must Go brought the band’s passion, integrity and songwriting nous to the charts – the albums contain most of the Manics’ biggest hits and best pop songs, while never less than fiercely intelligent. Their debut Generation Terrorists is mainly fuelled by angst and bravado, and certainly lacks much in the way of musicianship, but it still has a few great moments (“You Love Us”, “Motorcycle Emptiness”). However, it’s been downhill ever since 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, and “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time” marks a nadir.
In the early days, detractors sneered that the Manic Street Preachers were the worst kind of pseudo-intellectuals, using big words that they didn’t fully understand to show off and living up to the “preacher” part of their name. While it’s true that their lyrics are often awkward and make little sense at first glance (leading to countless “magnolia despair tumbles beneath basketball jumpsuit vegetable misery”-style parodies), fans pored over them and discovered – especially in the Edwards days – they were allusive, literary, even erudite, betraying the lyricists’ sharp intellects.
But surely even fans can’t defend bloody “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time”. The title is the worst kind of sixth-form non-profundity (the 40ish band members don’t even have the excuse of callow youth any more), with the use of “existential” particularly heinous. Its clever-clever juxtaposition of lowbrow and highbrow subjects is intensely irritating, not least because it’s hard to believe any of the band would actually read a Collins novel. Also because it has nothing to do with the song itself, which seems to be a reactionary rant about the supposed coarsening of society, with some nonsense about the marital fidelity of Catholics and the chorus a repetition of the question, “Mummy, what’s a sex pistol?”
“Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”, the lead single from the Manics’ otherwise unlistenable last album Send Away The Tigers, employed the Cardigans’ Nina Persson on vocals (it was almost as if they were trying to win me personally back as a fan). Although it did go on a bit, it was a decent track with a big chorus that harked back to the Everything Must Go period. “JCEQT” is a screechy, repetitive nonentity of a song whose aluminium-y production sets my teeth on edge. I gather the new material, including this song, uses lyrics left behind by Edwards (who has been declared legally dead). Perhaps there’s a reason they weren’t used in the intervening 14 years.
Manic Street Preachers seem to have reached that period of their career where every album is hailed by critics as a “return to form”, which is a pretty obvious journalistic reduction of “Bloody hell, are they still going? Can anyone remember their last album? Fuck it – let’s just say this album’s their best one since that really successful one they did.” I seriously doubt whether there’s any form to return to. On the evidence of “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time”, Wire’s and Bradfield’s breaks to record hugely underwhelming solo albums didn’t recharge any creative batteries, and if the rest of the album sounds like the lead single, you might be better off with a good book. Or even a bad book.