I Love You All the Same
197 · 5 November 98
Manic Street Preachers: This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours
Maybe this is a function of having read too much, and developed, in part intentionally, an increasingly obscure taste for perverse narrative structures, but the best place for a story to end, to me, to leave me contemplating possibilities in the most delirious transport, is a split second after it has established that happiness is conceivable, or even, less conclusively, a split second after tragedy stops being inevitable. I don't need "And they lived happily ever after", whether in paraphrase or detail, and in fact I don't want it. All I need is the villain's eyes widening as he recognizes the checkmate, or the heroine reaching for the doorknob, or a single choked laugh snapping a string of sobs. All I want is a tiny upward twist that my imagination can launch off, like a ski-jump in one-eighth gravity. It is at that moment that the enemy is defeated, and thus at that moment that the story of the war turns into the story of the rebuilding, which could be a good story, too, but is always a separate one, with its own enemies, and architecture, and cadences.
Of course, the empathetic viability of this philosophy of abrupt narrative expiration is based on the premise that the participants in the story are, at least from the reader's perspective, fictional. The reader shuts the book and leans back, dreamily, constructing the story's implied paradise, while the characters who survived the harrowing journey to reach it are thanked for their dedication, presented with cheap souvenir watches, and then led out behind the crew trailers and shot in the heads. Fictional people put up with this, or at least have so far failed to mount any organized protest. It doesn't work so well when the characters in the stories are real. Real lives don't lend themselves to freeze frames. Real ever-afters can't be reduced to a single wave-state, they drone on, one second per second, in exactly the same ring-modulated sine-wave of anxiety and disappointment that prevailed before the shining instant of hope. Much of the emotional power of perceived endings, I suspect, is a result of our ongoing frustration that we get to experience so few satisfying resolutions, ourselves.
Albums aren't always (or even often) narratives, but they do end, and the ends can implement any style of conclusion they wish. Careers are narratives more rarely, still, but the meta-stories formed by a set of albums can sometimes be more profound than any of their individual chapters. Career endings, however, are a serious problem. If your albums have traced a bleak descent into terror and hopelessness, from which you've laboriously extricated yourself, finally emerging into the first rays of a new dawn, you will probably be extremely, and understandably, reluctant to promptly retire, just to satisfy my desire for closure. If interrupted and interrogated on the brink of rapture, in fact, you'd probably be more willing to part with the painful, soul-revealing, truth-defining past, if it would get us to shut up and go away so you can collect your prize. When you are in the story, you never want to leave the happily-ever-after as an exercise for the reader. I understand that, so I can't in good conscience resent bands for carrying on past where their career stories seemed to me to conclude, but it does take a frighteningly concerted effort to reset my expectations and allow the album after what felt to me like the last one to become the beginning of something else, rather than a regrettable anticlimax. For years the definitive example of this syndrome, to me, was New Model Army, who began their career with three albums of merciless agit-punk, acquired enough human insight, perspective and synthesizer atmosphere to make their 1989 album Thunder and Consolation an exhilarating masterpiece of moral resolution in my book, and then, to my surprise, tempered their fury and righteous intolerance with just enough self-awareness and compassion for 1990's Impurity to start to distinguish between enemies of the state and internal demons, and propose tentative truces with both. For me, the story was complete, but the band, uncooperatively, declined to abandon music for data-mining or web-site maintenance. If I ever truly come to terms with the 1993 record The Love of Hopeless Causes, which for me was the unwelcome anticlimax, I think it will have to be a result of several more albums of context, constituting a second meta-story coherent enough to separate The Love of Hopeless Causes from its predecessors entirely.
The fable of Justin Sullivan discovering the seeds of the world's ignorance inside his own heart, however, is perfunctory and predictable compared to the four-album strafing run into hell performed by the Manic Street Preachers. Generation Terrorists, their incendiary debut, displaces spray-paint-wielding anarchists with tanks stuffed with sociology books, and makes the Sex Pistols look like petty vandals, and Gang of Four sound like earnest graduate students. Gold Against the Soul, the second album, which is now routinely disavowed but remains my personal favorite, sublimated the punk thrash of Generation Terrorists, at least musically, into an album of soaring rock songs. The Holy Bible, releasing all the bile that had to be swallowed in order to make Gold Against the Soul work, was a horrific monolith of condensed vitriol and self-loathing, an album that seemed, even before the disappearance of lyricist Richey James made this potentially literal, like an inverted suicide note, written on behalf of the whole hateful world, like the mortal universe is plunging into the inferno, and the author, stepping off a bridge, is the one escaping torment. Everything Must Go, then, the new trio's first album after Richey's departure, was left to unravel the impossible knot he tied, and find some way to simultaneously honor his memory and spirit, and yet also believe that it is sensible for life to continue. Arguably they couldn't untie the knot, either, and had to throw away the whole noose, but that counts, and as the album ended, I believed the band had found a way out, for themselves and so too for all of us.
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, the album after the end, is therefore doomed from conception. Of course I'm thrilled that the band has survived, but no specific episode from that survival can possibly compete with the gleaming probability-wave of their future that pulsed in my mind before they collapsed it. The deeply confounding personal paradox, however, is that the part of me that ignores the meta-story of their career up to this point, and just concentrates on my fierce attachment to so many of their individual pieces of music, had gone so far as to propose that the Manic Street Preachers were close to qualifying as the sixth member of what would be the pantheon of my, then, six favorite artists. This fifth album, precisely because it would have to exist outside of the single story formed by the first four, was in a position to confirm my fascination. If it could enthrall me for another forty minutes, without the benefit of a larger narration to color my experience of individual songs, I would know my love is true. How the former fear bordering on denial coexisted with the latter breathless anticipation for the better part of the last year, I cannot explain.
And fittingly, my reaction to the album is a complete mess. Part of the reason The Love of Hopeless Causes bothered me so much is that parts of it sounded like New Model Army starting back at their beginnings, like the significance of years of their own work and thought was lost on them, and I couldn't stand that idea; This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, conversely, bears virtually no resemblance to Generation Terrorists. Frankly, the album bears very little spiritual resemblance, in my experience of it, to anything else the band has done, not even the superficially similar parts of Everything Must Go. I don't feel the anticlimax I dreaded, because it seems so patently obvious, as I listen, that this album is not part of the old story. These don't even seem like the same characters and settings. The corollary, though, is that this album can't be the one that elevates the band, for me, either. Whether I love it or hate it, it's a separate body of work, and I can't add the two together simply because they share a band name. This may sound pathological, but now I need a bridge, after all, something to connect this to the very past I demanded it break from.
Not that I can make up my mind what I think of this album in isolation, anyway. To get the band into my favorites list it didn't have to supplant any of their other albums or songs, it just had to confirm my suspicions, or put the other way, not produce any new doubts. Boys for Pele, the album that got Tori Amos into the list, might be my least favorite of her records, but it demonstrated how strongly her music affects me, even when the effect is at its weakest. (So: The crucial measurement of a love is its lower bound, not its upper?) This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, however, has more than one stretch through which I can't keep up the mantra that the Manic Street Preachers can do no subjective wrong. I love the brittle drum-machine loop that ushers in "The Everlasting", and the way James Dean Bradfield leaves the "y" sound out of "genuine", but the psychedelic guitar warbles that form the core of the music do nothing for me, the nuance-less string section seems like a failure of imagination, and the monotonous chorus rhyme ("In the beginning, / When we were winning") makes me squirm. I like the low growl that runs under "I'm Not Working", but the song over it seems becalmed, to me, the clanging piano and wiry sitar inadequate substitutes for senses of drama or urgency. The wistful, swirling power-ballad "You're Tender and You're Tired" lacks the incongruity of sentiment that made the aching "Motorcycle Emptiness" so arresting on Generation Terrorists. The drifting, weary gender-lament "Born a Girl" sounds like an unfinished sketch, to me, and I keep waiting for the trenchant litany of the narrator's incompatibilities with his assigned body, but the repeated chorus never gives way to it. "Be Natural" and "Black Dog on My Shoulder" are both elegant and expansive, but they leave me feeling like the band could be anybody while they're playing them, which is the opposite of the unmistakable vice-grip their older songs invariably held me in. "Nobody Loved You" sinks into lowest-common-denominator post-Britpop bluster. And "S.Y.M.M.", which ought to be the album's lyrical highlight, as the initials stand for "South Yorkshire Mass Murderer", and are a reference to the Hillsborough stadium disaster (although I would have missed this if I hadn't read it somewhere), turns out to be perplexingly gutless; almost all the lyrics are weirdly defensive and self-referential, peevish meta-complaints which are rendered largely moot by the fact that the song never gets around to saying anything about its nominal subject other than the titular epithet. The band has written songs far more venomous than this in the past, without apology ("Repeat after me: Fuck Queen and country", went their clarification of the Sex Pistols' sarcasm), and while many of them have been cryptic, they've never been evasive or complacent. Here it seems like the band is more afraid of the subject than the people they're supposed to be vilifying. And although my knowledge of the undeniably tragic event is based on reading only a handful of accounts of it (two in soccer-fandom contexts, two in studies of structural collapses), it's certainly a sizable leap from my limited understanding of what happened to the implication of deliberate lethal malice in "mass murderer", big enough that leveling the accusation without any supporting arguments feels like preaching to some convenient choir, rather than anybody whose mind still needs to be swayed.
But while This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours misses a chance to enshrine the Manic Street Preachers, for me, it doesn't disqualify them, either. "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next", the sweeping lead single, infuses its bleak chorus with so much cathartic musical ardor that I think it is now my first choice for music to be played at my hypothetical wedding, although it's quite possible that only a single person would seriously contemplate a wedding theme with the line "If I can't shoot rabbits then I can't shoot fascists" (the booklet claims the "can't"s are "can"s, but that neither sounds right nor makes any sense to me), and whose intended significance (a less-resigned variation on Billy Bragg's "Marriage is when we admit / Our parents were right") they'd have to explain. "You Stole the Sun From My Heart", despite its similarly depressing choice of phrase with which to express helpless love, bounces electrifyingly from jittery, muted drum-machine and picked-guitar verses to concussive, howling choruses, capturing on album some of the experimental edge that has before mostly been restricted to the band's b-sides. The halting "Ready for Drowning" seems like an attempt to write a song of the band's own with some of the swarming, glam-rock verve of Suede's "The Drowners", which they've covered. The kaleidoscopic "Tsunami" is as brash and dramatic as anything they've done, and not many lyricists would risk an opening verse with the line "disco dancing with the rapists". And the sinister, humming "My Little Empire" sounds to me like Difford and Tilbrook singing harmony over a cello-heavy remake of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt". These songs aren't quite enough to make me forget the ones I don't care for as much, the way I tend to forget about the two or three on Gold Against the Soul that thrill me less than the rest, so the album as a whole can't be all I hoped for, but neither is it what I feared, so salvaging some individual songs from it seems like a fair compromise. An album or two on, I think we will say that this one lacked a personality, or that it (or we) failed to recognize the outlines of a new personality that will show up clearly in hindsight. Maybe the Manic Street Preachers don't really know what they're going to be now, yet, or maybe they do but I'm still adjusting. I'm not sure which one of us I'm asking to have patience with which. But either way, I'm already looking forward to the next album, my heart poised, once again, for that to be the one that lifts them into it.
Puressence: Only Forever
It's a stark demonstration of what my expectations do to my experience of albums to play This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours back to back with the second Puressence album, Only Forever, which has practically identical Mike Hedges / Ian Grimble / Dave Eringa production credits. The first Puressence album, self-titled, consisted of a lot of noisy, textural music I happened to find pleasant, arrayed around one rock song ("Traffic Jam in Memory Lane") with sufficient timeless grace to reduce me to an ecstatic puddle. I hoped the second album would have two such songs, but that was the extent of my ambitions for it. And so while the Manic Street Preachers can make a record that I'm sure will end up on many best-of-the-year lists and it still disappoints me, Puressence make one that I expect will be resoundingly ignored, and I'm shocked and thrilled. The key to "Traffic Jam in Memory Lane", for me, was that it yoked erratic singer James Mudriczki, for once, to a melody simple and bold enough to carry the weight of the song's dense, cacophonous arrangement. Album two adopts this as a general policy. Thus the redemptive snap from acoustic sparkle to electric surge in "This Feeling" acts like a single leviathan chord-change under the song's slow, eloquent vocal. Thus "It Doesn't Matter Anymore", something like a less-stilted "Bitter Sweet Symphony" without the sneer and the copyright caveats, crescendos to an entranced chorus and then glides out the other side with an aplomb that makes me want to hear Rod Stewart or Patty Smyth cover it. "Street Lights" starts off like blue-eyed soul, but crashes into a chorus that could be what Echobelly would sound like if Sonya Aurora Madan's composure ever cracked. The lullaby melody of "All I Want" is buoyed on whirring strings and pounding orchestral timpani, like a bedtime song for hard-of-hearing giants. "Never Be the Same Again" channels both the hushed and stormy moods of the Chameleons, and ties them together with a double-time drum groove closer to the Housemartins. "Hey Hey I'm Down" is half sighing Radiohead diffidence, half churning Oasis swagger. "Past Believing" is like the verses of the Smiths' "Reel Around the Fountain" grafted onto the choruses of Whipping Boy's "When We Were Young". "Turn the Lights Out When I Die" reminds me of both My Bloody Valentine and Gardening by Moonlight (although GbM comparisons, by now, are as uselessly obscure as telling you that Mudriczki's detuned, just-swallowed-a-vibrator singing style sounds a lot like Dan Phillips', from A Drop in the Gray). If you miss the bathed-in-distortion blur of the first album, the majestic, jamming, seven-minute finale, "Gazing Down", should be partial recompense, but for me this album of luminous songs with a noisy coda is significantly more appealing than the first album of noisy atmosphere with a dizzy rock intermission. The spectral profiles of the two are not, in any scientific sense, very different, but neither are the ballistics of riding a roller-coaster and being thrown out a sixth-story window.