Manic Street Preachers – Gold Against the Soul

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Many find this to be the awkward one, the child that doesn’t belong anywhere. It’s slotted between two punk-spirited albums full of anger and vitriol, often eschewing melody for lyrics. The Manics sounded on their previous album like they’re more interested in starting fires than playing rock music. The Holy Bible was a philosophy professor going off-topic and refusing to let his students go. What does this collection of depressed soft rock has to do with anything?

Maybe these two albums were actually the abnormalities, not this. If you listen to them closely, you’ll find the same despair lurking there. Generation Terrorists wasn’t a victorious, rabble-rousing album but a car on fire just waiting to crash. What fueled its anger was despair, the thought that no matter how loud they’ll play nothing will change. That’s why it sounds so different compared to other political music. As for The Holy Bible, beneath the philosophy and big words it had “This is Yesterday”, “Die in the Summertime” and “4st 7lb”. The only reason the lattermost doesn’t fit here is because it’s not melodic enough.

This is the definitive Manic Street Preachers. It’s not their best album and it suffers from filler, but it’s one that captures their essence. If you have to distill the Manics, they’re a melodic rock band with as much brains as they got despair. ‘Despair’ is the key word here, because every song drips with it.

Just look at the song titles. It’s one of those albums that can convince you of having a concept – “Life Becoming a Landslide”, “From Despair to Where”, even a title like “Roses in the Hospital” hints more at despair than anything else. Even when they sing about something other than despair, it comes to that. “La Tristessa Durera” – a contender for their best song – is about a veteran who’s been abandoned by society, forced to live with his memories alone. I wasn’t in combat duty, but I did have a tough role in the military and that song is dead-on in expressing the alienation, the loneliness, how everyone treats your service like everyone goes through it. To me, this song is a godsend, showing us someone understands the loneliness of a discharged soldier.

The music is more softer, more melodic. Some expressed astonishment at this, but were the Manics ever brutal? Even The Holy Bible has its melodic, almost poppy moments. They just play at mid-tempo, which brings their melodic chops to the surface. If it was odd that their later records were so melodic, it’s only because we wanted to forget this record and believe in the Manics as explosive rock-n-rollers.

They never were that. Gold Against the Soul is the only logical continuation of their debut. All its fury and politics and anger and telling to people to fuck off were a last attempt at recovering from despair. Here, they wake up, quite indifferently, to a reality they knew they couldn’t change. How else to react to a rebellion you knew was lost in the first place?

The album’s power comes not just from despair, but a unique hopelessness. There was never a good time according to this music. Everything was always bad, but they just happen to sing about it now. “Life Becoming a Landslide”, in one sentence, points to a past that’s the same as the present. A lot of depressive music wax sentimental about a fall from grace. The fall is a common element in our thinking in dark times. Nostalgia is a place to run to, knowing that if things used to be good then maybe they have a chance of improving. The darkest albums have these, since they describe some kind of deterioration. There’s none of that here, just a monotony of despair.

The mood and sound are strong, but the songs alone don’t reach these heights. The album especially falters after “Roses in the Hospital”, and the final tracks are bursts of noise that only help to keep the overall mood, but not add to it too much. It’s also reliant on its sound more than anything. It sounds great when played from beginning to end, but if you find yourself choosing an individual song the choices narrow. “Sleepflower” is fantastic as an opener only.

When it’s good, it’s brilliant. “La Tristessa Durera” is a masterpiece. “Roses in the Hospital” is the second highlight, a funky Alternative Dance number that turns its despair into a protest. It’s the one song that captures some of the debut’s anger with the cry of “We don’t want your fucking love”, but only to fall back to despair. Other songs need the album’s mood to stick, but they’re good enough – “Life Becoming a Landslide” is strangely pretty, “From Despair to Where” is okay with brilliant lyrics and “Drug Drug Druggy” captures some Hard Rock intensity.

It’s also the album where the Manics begun their career as some of Rock’s best lyricist. The poetic titles are enough, but there are countless quotables here – “My idea of love comes from/A childhood glimpse of pornography”, “I am just a fashion accessory”, “I feel like I’m missing pieces of sleep”. If you need words to give your thesis or your book a title, there’s plenty here.

So it’s not their best album, but it is their best album, but if I have to direct a beginner I’ll direct them to this. They have more explosive albums, angrier albums, smarter albums and catchier albums. No album captured their essence like this, a poetry full of despair and intelligence that happens to go along with Pop hooks and guitar noise. Start your exploration here.

What the hell does the album title mean, by the way?

4 roses in 5 hospitals

Haruki Murakami – A Wild Sheep Chase

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Murakami created a unique niche in literature. He’s been called un-Japanese, but there’s something distinctive about him that separates him from his influence. He borrowed Western literature’s tough, rugged nature. Carver doesn’t just loom over his literature. You can feel him sitting behind Murakami as he writes. His novels also contain a fantastical nature that’s uncommon in Western fantasy – the bizarre, surreal events are far more similar to anime.

It’s a long road to such a distinctive, versatile style. Murakami kept his first novels from being translated worldwide because he found them the work of an inexperienced author who wasn’t ready. The result is the bizarre situations where A Wild Sheep Chase – the last of the trilogy – is the only one published worldwide. Based on Murakami’s words, it should’ve remained unavailable.

It’s far from a bad book, but it screams ‘inexperience’. There are first novels which show their authors’ age – think Fight Club and Less Than Zero in their minimalism – but they also have a firm grip on their style. Ellis’ novel was skeletal, but he had a small enough aim that fit. Moreover, he knew exactly what he was making. Murakami doesn’t. He mostly tries to get away from Carver’s influence while paying him tribute.

The two styles Murakami tries to play with here are opposites. Carver deals with the ordinary, with the so mundane that his stories and characters blur togehter. His writing reflects that with how straightforward it is, but the result is something not resembling storytelling but poetry. He creates an intimacy with his situation because of how direct he is. Anything strange is the opposite of his literature.

Murakami’s fantasy aims for the bizarre. In contrast to the worldbuilding-obsessed West, the world in the novel is one where anything can happen. The key to doing this right is to make sure the bizarre events appear in rhythm, and have different levels of weirdness. You’ll get things that seem ludicrous but somehow possible like a girl with an extremely attractive ears. Then you’d get something that’s out of place in a realist novel – like a shadow organization controlling everything. At last something completely fantastical happens, like a spirit sheep.

Just because these two styles are opposite doesn’t mean they can be merged. Murakami did it later, but here he can’t. He doesn’t really try. The novel jumps from one style to another. Whenever it settles into one, it tries to make the best of it. It never tries to find the connection between the two.

The result feels dishonest and self-centered. Adding something a new element to a familiar style isn’t enough. If the new element doesn’t affect how the style works, then what have you done? Moreover, Murakami doesn’t so much tell a story as he exercises his style. Showing off what the writing can do is nice, but that’s not a story and you need to be a great author (and a lot less pages) to make a stylistic exercise work.

When he imitates Carver, he does nothing but makes me glad I’m reading something like Carver. I have pretty much all of Carver’s bibliography on my shelf and some followers who took his style to new directions (like the aforementioned Easton Ellis). Why would I want to read a copy? Worse, it’s often a caricature. The nameless protagonist is apathetic towards everything. It’s not just the writing, but he describes all his interactions with apathy and treats them like they don’t mean anything.

Easton Ellis tried to do this, but he explored a specific lifestyle. The apathy was contrasted with the hardcore partying. When Ellis wrote this, he wrote with full conviction – the writing so apathetic he crammed many events into one sentence but the events themselves were both ridiculous and not very different from each other. Apathy in this novel doesn’t mean anything. The protagonist feels alone, but why? What does it say about loneliness? What his journey have to do with loneliness?

As for the fantastical part, it’s cowardly. As an attempt to revamp the hardboiled pulp detective thing, it’s unconvincing. The mystery isn’t exactly related to crime, but the protagonist doesn’t actually try to solve it. Rather, answers drop on him from the sky. Twice his girlfriend provides a quest arrow. Her ability ends up a little meaningless. It may have something to do with how our protagonist needs her, needs anyone because his loneliness is suffocating but you don’t see it. Loneliness is there, but its effect isn’t showing.

Although the protagonist moves from place to place, every situation is the same. Paragraphs full of apathetic writings about eating and drinking and occasionally having sex are the result. Unlike the master minimalists, Murakami is bad at choosing what details to include. When Ellis piled them on, it was because the abundance was meaningful. Carver simply stripped everything that didn’t matter. What our protagonists eats exactly, what is in the room exactly isn’t important. There’s no reason for an RPG-like description of a room once the protagonist enters. Describe the couch when it comes important.

What carries the novel is the seeds of Murakami’s potential. He may not know what to do exactly with these two styles, but their combination is intriguing. The story is bizarre enough, and while the writing is inexperienced it’s not horrible. The unnecessary details occasionally appear but not too much. If the events don’t gel together very well, they’re at least memorable on their own – a completely ordinary girl with extremely attractive ears? A professor obsessed with sheep? These type of ideas are things Murakami would later work with in his short stories with better results.

One lone highlight is when our protagonist stares at an office building. His describes what goes on, what each person does but he can never understand what the purpose of the office actually is. It’s either a statement about how uniform, dull and caging office work is or an expression of the protagonist’s loneliness and inability to connect. If Carver wrote this scene, he’d mine it for a brilliant short story.

Compared to other works by Murakami, it’s much worse. It shows its age and Murakami’s youth, but also his potential. If I read this without knowing about his later works, I could easily imagine him making something fantastic like Hard-Boiled Wonderland. There’s a unique mind at work who chooses his influence rather than throw everything. He just didn’t find an idea to express here.

2.5 wild sheep out of 5