An album a week #3: Lifeblood by Manic Street Preachers.
So after an undoubtedly great band, and a band that’s an absolute favourite of mine but unlikely to be listed as great, we come to the Manics.
The Manics are a great band. Aren’t they? Maybe. NME called them ‘Godlike Geniuses‘ (but then they also gave that one to Coldplay and Suede, though apart from that it’s a pretty good list). For a moment in the mid-90s, in the UK at least, they were one of the biggest bands going around. By 2004, when Lifeblood came out, they were looking a bit confused. They had followed the commercial breakthrough stadium rock of Everything Must Go with the ‘I’m feeling serious and prematurely middle-aged’ waffle of This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, which is not a bad album but is about 50% too long. Then, as if in reaction to that they put out Know Your Enemy which is quite possibly 100% too long. It has its share of energetic numbers, riffs and tunes, but seems to go on forever. And it contains ‘Wattsville Blues’, which should not have been let out into the wild, at least nowhere but a B-side anyway…
And then came a greatest hits that they said they would never release followed by Lipstick Traces, a collection of rarities, covers and B-sides that seems to have pleased no-one, and perhaps simply demonstrated that the Manics made some great albums but did not leave a lot of great material on the cutting room floor.
So Lifeblood comes out. The band has dropped off the commercial peak, their last three major releases have been (a) reviled by critics and fans alike (Enemy), (b) a predictable singles collection, and (c) a mishmash of old stuff (Lipstick). They have been around for more than 10 years and look like they’ve lost their way. Enemy was seen as an attempt to return to the noisy, punky stuff of their earliest work but that seemed to fail to reconnect them wit their muse; so what comes next?
Lifeblood, apparently. This album was also unpopular with a lot of their fans, and despite a couple of high-charting singles (‘The Love of Richard Nixon’ and ‘Empty Souls’) it did not sell well at all. Less, apparently, than even Gold Against the Soul.
Since its release, the regard in which it is held seems to have been steadily climbing; and you can see why.
The album is basically electropop. From a band most famous for stadium rock (Everything) and a dark, metallic (not heavy metal) album about fear, psychosis and the seamy side of life — The Holy Bible. From a band that seems to have been unsure of itself for the last five years. They could have had another stab at giving the fans what they thought the fans wanted. Instead they did what the damned well pleased. So nobody got what they expected, hence the reception. But as time goes on and people listening to it stop evaluating it in terms of whether it made them feel 19 again (which is how most albums by well established acts seem to be evaluated) and start simply listening, its good qualities can be allowed to surface.
It is melodic. The lyrics are, as always, a bit dodgy but mostly acceptable and in a couple of places quite nifty. Keyboards abound. Drum machines tick. Apparently there are no guitars at all on ‘Nixon’. And speaking of Nixon, I think one of the great things about the Manics is the way they got songs into the charts with lyrics about consumer culture, Richard Nixon, class warfare, Kevin Carter, Paul Robeson and a whole bunch of other topics that you were unlikely to see from Oasis, Blur or pretty much anybody else.
This is the Manics turning the corner, I think; they’ve gone out on a limb. They’re going forward again. They might not be sure that it’s the right direction, but it is a direction, and that matters. It would be followed by the big hit of Send Away the Tigers, and heralded a second decade that few other acts can match. The relatively recent Futurology won rave reviews and strong sales, and they look like a band comfortable with their past but able to forget it when they hit the studio, or use it productively.
Lifeblood is cool, as in close to cold. It’s distant. It has no sharp edges. It is easy to mistake for dull, and veers too close to anodyne. But it is tuneful, thoughtful, elegiac in places. I would not want to be without ‘Glasnost’ (‘if we can still fall in love’), ‘Emily’ (‘it’s what you forget that kills you’), 1985 (‘Morrissey and Marr gave me choice. In 1985.’) and the coolly funky ‘The Love of Richard Nixon’ (‘People forget China and your war on cancer’). ‘Solitude Sometimes Is’ (‘Solitude sometimes is/The place that I would like to live’) and ‘I Live to Fall Asleep’ (‘when did you decide that sleep could save your life’) and the others — these are songs for grown-ups in a way that This is My Truth tried to reach for but, for me, did not do so in a sustained fashion.
If you want to rock and roll all night (and party everyday) this is not an album for you. If now and again you like to listen in a more contemplative mood, to music made by people who have allowed themselves to grow up but are not ready to repeat themselves, it might be worth a spin.
I know, it ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it.