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

Manic Street Preachers – Generation Terrorists

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In the gigantic discography of the Manics, this is the anomaly. Other albums have unique points – The Holy Bible is steeped in philosophical pessimism, Gold Against the Soul is almost funky, This is My Truth is the most melodic. However, they all paint a consistent picture. Manic Street Preachers are a band who plays traditional rock music without being traditional people. They play like they got Bowie levels of fame, but instead of hot, skinny dudes they’re a bunch of well-read guys who lived their whole life in a university and are despairing from the human condition.

Generation Terrorist does fit the narrative, but the Manics here are different people. Instead of despair, there’s anger. The lyrics are incoherent, mostly mumbling something about how much the world sucks and that we should leave this country. It hints at the despair of the later record, but anger is the keyword here. That’s why it still sounds so bizarre yet so familiar at the same time.

Is Glam Rock an angry genre? I don’t know, but listening to Queen or David Bowie points otherwise. In fact, a lot of classic rock paints a fairly nice image of reality. Sure, there’s heartbreak but the people playing it are always cool, always kind of weird but not really and will give great sex to your daughter. Velvet Underground are guilty of it, too. Their debut isn’t that scary anymore since, at the end, it’s just more praise for how cool New York is.

Although Rock ‘n’ Roll has always been painted as rebellious art, art that’s meant to shock and devastate and scare your parents, it hasn’t always been this way. Actually, maybe it is but nowadays who is scared of David Bowie or Queen? They paint a fairly nice picture of the world, rarely, if ever, addressing hostility or darkness. For all of their theatrics, they never sound like outsiders or oddballs or dangerous people. Rather, they just have above-average social skills and can afford to express their sexuality.

The Manics don’t sound like this. Generation Terrorists has zero political coherency because it’s so angry. “Love’s Sweet Exile”, “Slash N’ Burn” and “Repeat” blaze through, making a lot of noise and saying how much the world sucks. Sometimes it sounds like they’re trying to be happy or cool, but underneath it the anger and misanthropy is all the more apparent. “Love’s Sweet Exile” has a riff that sounds like an engine and lyrics about leaving the country. It’s more of a cry of distress, a song about loneliness rather than the joy of leaving your country.

The sound is Glam Rock, but there’s a roughness to it that fits the despair. The riff in “Love’s Sweet Exile” couldn’t appear in Ziggy Stardust. It’s too loud, too aggressive for it. “Another Invented Disease” is hilarious. The melody is victorious and the rhythm is danceable, but the lyrics – perhaps attacking psychiatry? – break the illusion. It’s another cry against something, protesting about how much something sucks. “Damn Dog” would be a fun number in other albums, but here Bradfield sounds in genuine panic and self-loathing when he screams “feed me!”.

At this stage of their career, Bradfield’s vocals are integral to their unique sound. He sometimes sounds like Bowie, but his voice is rougher. In some songs he just screams, such as “Repeat”. This edge in his voice never leaves him. He’s the star of the record. The other band members kick a lot of good riffs and rhythms, but he adds the hatred to “So Dead”. I can imagine these songs played by different Glam bands, and none of them would sound as good. No one could match the scream in the beginning of “Repeat”. Two versions of it appear here, and both sound great.

It’s a loud, angry album that states this from the band’s name to the title to the song titles to the lyrics. It’s so angry that you forget how accessible this material is. People shouldn’t be surprised the Manics became a Pop band. “Stay Beautiful”, “Love’s Sweet Exile” and “Another Invented Disease” have joyous melodies. They’re written like old-fashioned Glam Rock, back when we believed the world is a fine place. The contrast is all the more fascinating. It’s a bunch of victorious songs played with the demeanor of “Fuck everything, we need extinction”.

Sound is what drives the album though, not hooks. Then again, this album is 73 minutes long. The performance is good enough that the band doesn’t lose steam – “Crucifix Kiss” is played with as much bravado as “Stay Beautiful”, but the writing suffers. Few songs rise out, with many sound better in context than outside. It’s an album to put on, headbang or sing out your rage to and then put aside. The sound isn’t too varied either. Many songs are interchangeable, and most are just weaker re-writes of “Stay Beautiful” that are good enough for a few spins. As for their ballads, they still haven’t found their gorgeous melodies with “Little Baby Nothing” relying mainly on its lyrics, but “Motorcycle Emptiness” could go on forever. Along with “Spectators of Suicide”, we get songs that predict their most acclaimed albums.

Generation Terrorists sounds more important than good. No surprise the band bullshitted about selling millions of records in Senegal and then breaking up. There’s something iconic in this bravado and cocksure attitude mixed with misanthropy, along with despair creeping at the edges. More than any record, it sounds like the bridge between the happy-go-lucky silliness of the 70’s and the serious (sometimes overly so) demeanor that we have since the 90’s. Add “Stay Beautiful”, “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “Another Invented Disease” and you got yourself an album worth owning. They would only improve from this.

another 3 invented diseases out of 5

Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

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It’s amazing how you can both capture a sound perfectly and have no idea what to do with it. The problem with Humbug isn’t that it’s a departure. They didn’t sounded too excited about the Dance-Punk sound in the previous album anyway. The problem isn’t necessarily the lack of hooks because plenty of records can survive without hooks.

The problem is they’re playing a form of psychedelia that relies on melodies. Psychedelic music is often melodic and accessible. It uses weird sounds along with an easy melody to make something both weird and accessible. That’s why “Tomorrow Never Knows” is so popular (or at least covers of it).

This is not the Heavy Psych that blasts off to outer space. It’s closer to “Planet Caravan” and Monster Magnet’s ballads. These songs were brilliant because their sound enchanted already great melodies. “Planet Caravan” would’ve been nothing if the melody wasn’t sound so close to the lonely Bluegrass style.

“Crying Lightning” is the best song here for that reason. It’s one of the few here that actually has a chorus. The fact that it progresses and reaches a conclusion is just a bonus. It has a catchy melody that benefits from the sound. Turner drops words like ‘twisted and deranged’ which are perfect for this music.

Everything else, however, tries too hard to be ominious. The band is obsessed with beeing spooky. Turner stopped being a sex-mad smug asshole. Maybe it has something to do with erectile dysfunction. On “My Propeller”, he lets us know in the climatic bridge that he can’t get hard. Such issues affect a man, especially one who bragged about having sex with girls he doesn’t like.

That song sums up the album well. It has no chorus. The chorus has Turner whispering “have a spin of my propeller” not in a sexy manner. It’s as if he’s standing behind your back in a haunted house. It sounds pathetic because it’s such an obvious technique to make you look scary.

Or maybe it’s actually about drugs. That’s a better explanation of the rest of the songs. They sound druggy in a good way. The guitar licks and rolling drums in that sound like a calm before the storm. They can’t keep the atmosphere for long. It’s not even good enough for the song which saved by its catchy climax.

There are other tricks, many of them impressive and none of them are enough. “Pretty Visitors” has tempos shifts and thudding drums that are coming after you. The sound effects in “Secret Door” are supposed to fit the title, but too bad the melody is uninspired. Turner doesn’t even sound like he’s singing an actual melody but just mumbles things.

The sound fails mainly because it doesn’t serve the songs. The end of “My Propeller” and “Crying Lightning” would sound much worse in any other sound. Instead of sounding seductive, Turner sounds like a desperate and perhaps dangerous addict on the latter song.

On all the other songs, it just makes for a ‘huh, that’s cool’ reaction. They sound like demos, ideas that are worth attempting but are so new to the band that they’re only worthwhile for a B-Side compilation. The lack of confidence isn’t just because the band moved from the loud Dance-Punk. It’s because they have no idea what to do with the sound, even if it sounds cool.

Smack in the middle of this album you get the gorgeous “Cornerstone”. It’s a ballad that’s closer to “505”. The band has a fuzzy relationship with ballads. Turner is too arrogant to get them right but when they get it, they made brilliant ones. “Cornerstone” is one of those. It’s sad that this song got buried here. “Crying Lightning” at least makes everything around it worth attempting. “Cornerstone” should’ve been on the better next album.

It’s an interesting album and a stepping stone for the band. Their later albums proved they still got it in them and they were just confused. I’m sure this sounded worse when it came out. Albums like these are either a death sentence or a stepping stone to a new era. The Monkeys haven’t outdone their debut (and probably never will), but this sounds much better in retrospect, when you know they got over this confusion.

2.5 cornerstones out of 5