Without Arriving There
75 · 4 July 96
Manic Street Preachers: Everything Must Go
It seems to me, both in theory and from observation, that a diligent public examination of the world's evil tends to have, for the author, one of two outcomes. If you ever recant, and come to terms with your hateful surroundings in some way, then you have betrayed your original principles, and the accumulated mob of everybody you ever convinced with your earlier arguments will mercilessly pelt you with a mixture of real and metaphorical jagged rocks (and it's not clear which of these, in the long run, do more damage) until you expire. Sometimes people don't even wait until you recant, pelting you preemptively just to emphasize how important it is to them that you never change your mind. On the other hand, if you don't recant, the aggregate weight of your own disillusionment is likely to slowly crush you until "If you hate it here so much, why don't you kill yourself?" ceases to be a rhetorical question.
Kurt Cobain and Richey James offer us two object lessons in this dilemma. Kurt's version, in characteristic American style, involves very little subtlety: he was miserable, wealth and celebrity didn't change that, and so he killed himself. It is possible to flesh this story out with footnotes and commentary until it makes an imposing book, but the core narrative, especially as rendered in Kurt's own lyric- and song-writing, is disturbingly void of dialectic. By the end Kurt was hopelessly depressed and seemingly only able to simulate levity or indifference under the influence of chemical distractions, but frankly that's how he seemed at the beginning, too. In Utero is a bleaker record than Bleach, but in terms of musical development the later album just seems more aware of its audience, and in terms of lyrics about the biggest change is that sometime in the intervening years Cobain obviously read Perfume (which, though it involves abundant world-revulsion and an essentially voluntary death, is not the same story, a contention you may debate as homework if you wish). You may hear people say, theatrically, that Kurt spoke to us, but actually what he did was speak for us (for some values of "us"), and if you study his lyrics you will discover that, predictably enough, we weren't very coherent. His suicide makes his story affecting, but as anybody with a machete, a box full of cute puppies and a video camera could prove, an affecting story isn't necessarily meaningful.
In Richey James' case, the parts of his story he wrote himself carry a much larger part of the burden of significance. Richey was, in case there is anybody who doesn't know but is still reading this review, the Manic Street Preachers' rhythm guitarist, and co-writer, with bassist Nicky Wire, of all their lyrics. The band's 1992 debut album, Generation Terrorists, is a snarling arena-punk epic that could have been the Sex Pistols' if they'd had better study habits, the Alarm's if they'd concentrated more on the substance of their defiances than their vehemence, or Bon Jovi's if New Jersey had the philosophical character of Paris. It was a big deal in the UK, but in the US, despite Columbia removing five songs and all the literary quotations from the liner notes, it never really went anywhere, and these days you can find it in the cutout bins.
The 1993 follow-up, Gold Against the Soul, evinces a remarkably quick maturation. Where the eighteen thrashing sprints on the first album subsist on fury and bitterness, and lash out lyrically in virtually all directions, the ten expansive rock songs on the second are much more patient, discriminating, introspective and accomplished. Where the first album raged against the British banking establishment, corporate/consumerist imperialism, history, the objectification of women, England, America, Christianity and anybody else who got in the way, the second one turns James and Wire's searing gaze inward, and produces despair that could easily be mistaken for melancholy, defiance that sounds like resignation, and hopeless condemnation that has the vocal cadences of triumph. I liked this album even better than their first, but it didn't do as well at home, and here in the US it vanished into obscurity with the same muffled glug of expressionless swamp that accompanied the touchdown of their debut. Sometime in its wake, Richey was hospitalized with acute anorexia. Perhaps this was his trial separation with the world.
The third album, 1994's The Holy Bible, combined Generation Terrorists' musical explosiveness and lyrical bile with Gold Against the Soul's seething concentration and self-loathing to produce a synthesis with the approximate charm of a gas chamber in a bad neighborhood, and all the refreshing atmosphere of carbon monoxide mixed liberally with that glowing green stuff from The Rock. If there is a less uplifting album in the world, I haven't heard it and don't want to. Bradfield and Moore demonstrate their talent for anthems by writing thirteen songs that defy you to mindlessly raise your fist (or lift yourself out of bed, for that matter), and James and Wire grind misanthropy and self-doubt into a broken-glass pesto that will probably appear on page four of the nihilist version of The New Basics Cookbook. "If I made an album like this,", I commented in my review last year, "and the world heard it and didn't immediately unravel as a result, jumping off a bridge would be high on my list of appropriate responses". This would have been a frighteningly prophetic comment on my part, if it weren't for the fact that I wrote it months after Richey James opted out of this world. Sometime in February 1995, in the vicinity of a high and suggestive bridge over the Severn river, between England and Wales, he disappeared. Neither he nor his body have turned up since, so it's possible that he's not dead, and it's even possible that he'll reemerge at some point, and add another chapter to this story, but the safest assumption is that we've heard the last of him, and can, as the Phner would, now appreciate the artwork of his life as complete. Though "appreciate" may be the wrong word for a body of work that seems to have led its author to suicide, and which it's pretty difficult to derive any substantially more positive conclusion from.
But if you don't want to kill yourself, or haven't the courage, history continues, and all of us have to find some way of amusing ourselves until it ceases to. And included in that "all of us" are Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore, the remaining personnel of the Manic Street Preachers. They could have quit music, they could have stayed in music individually but split up, they could have stayed together but called themselves something else, but instead, and I prefer to think that an awareness of the dangerous state in which The Holy Bible and Richey's departure left their band-narrative played a large part in this decision, they opted to make Everything Must Go, the fourth Manic Street Preachers album.
The fact that they are able to do this is another detail of this story that I'd compliment its author on, if we shared a writing seminar. Nirvana's narrative left no possibility of continuance, because too little of Nirvana was left without Kurt. Foo Fighters is not part of the same story, any more than For the Love of Benji is the redemption of Old Yeller, and while I would love to hear Krist Novoselic make more music, if he did it would tell his story, not extend the band's. In the Manic Street Preachers' case, though, Richey was only half of the lyric-writing team, and his musical involvement, by the end, had become largely token. On Generation Terrorists he's credited with rhythm guitar and backing vocals, but by The Holy Bible Bradfield is listed as lead and rhythm guitars, and Richey's line just reads "design, guitar". Logistically, then, the band could go on; the larger task was finding a psychologically and philosophically viable way of doing so, and their cover of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head", from the 1995 Bosnia benefit Help, leaves too many questions unasked to qualify as anything but a delaying tactic. Not all the questions get answered on Everything Must Go, and some new ones get asked, but the band extricates themselves from what appeared to be a nearly impossible situation with such aplomb, resilience and forthrightness that were I not constitutionally immune to the state, I would probably be left speechless.
The most obvious question, given Richey's absence, is whether Nicky is up to handling the lyrics on his own. In part they appear to dodge this question by including three of Richey's texts, and two that he and Nicky co-wrote. But each song is attributed individually, so with the liner in hand you can make up your own mind easily enough. Richey's three are not as harrowingly dense as the songs on The Holy Bible, but they echo that album's mood. "Kevin Carter" is an ambivalent threnody to the South African photojournalist (who won a Pulitzer Prize for a photograph you've probably seen of a vulture passively waiting out an emaciated Somalian child, and who later killed himself), whose ambivalence is particularly appropriate given James' similar fate: is Richey empathizing with Carter, and expressing the inevitability of suicide for the informed observer, or is he condemning him for the personal weakness that failed him in the face of so much photographed pain? (Flip empathy and condemnation and the question still makes sense.) "Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky" is nominally about the plight of animals in bad zoos (sort of the anti-Creature Comforts), but the metaphoric potential is obvious. And "Removables" could easily be James' farewell, a simultaneous admission of his own culpability in his plight ("No-one made the holes but me", "Aimless rut of my own perception"), and a belief in universal transience that, in the context of his death spiral, is what passes for hope. Of the two collaborations, "The Girl Who Wanted to Be God" is uncharacteristically vague, but "Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier" has the sort of semantic bouillon effect that James and Wire were the consummate masters of, taking thoughts the length of Nabokov novellas and condensing them into fewer words than a prose version would have pages.
If these dozen songs were all in the vein of those five, this would be a disheartening sequel to an album that left precious little heart undis-ened. The seven Wire songs that surround them, though, turn them into participants in their own memorial. Or, actually, four of them do. "Everything Must Go", itself, is most blatantly a song to Richey. It is the title track, I think, because it is the necessary explanation without which no fourth MSP album could exist. "Freed from the memory, / Escape from our history, / And I just hope that you can forgive us, / But everything must go". The path of their history led only to death, so to live they had to abandon it. In fact, by living, whether they made more music or not, they had already abandoned it. The forgiveness they ask for is as much for their not accompanying Richey, for their staying behind as part of the world he quit, as it is for the relatively minor additional affront of making another record. "Enola/Alone" continues the thought, confessing "All I want to do is live / No matter how miserable it is", and conflating a solitary Richey strangely with the A-bomb plane Enola Gay. "A Design for Life", the lead single (in the UK, I mean; I have no idea if this album or The Holy Bible will ever be released in the US), doesn't mention Richey, but it is his absence that lends the title its urgency. As awful as life is, it seems to me to say, how it is is how it will be, and finding a way to coexist with it is exactly the challenge it presents. And "Australia" I even take to be a fantasy of Richey's survival; rather than imagining his corpse wedged under some remote Welsh riverbank, let us picture him on a desolate faraway beach, still unwell but perhaps, with every moment he's not dead, a small step closer to inner peace.
The band's determination to persevere without James would be a little hollow, though, if the whole album was intent on his memory. To avoid this, they conclude it with three songs that do not look back. The first of these, marking the break by explicitly stating that it's about somebody else, is "Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning)". Nearly three decades after "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright", it's about time we got another song about art and architecture that I don't know enough about either to assess. (Although the question it asks, "Are we too tired to try and understand?", can be applied to other subjects.) And the last two songs, "Further Away" and "No Surface All Feeling", which for just about any other band would be depressing self/relationship studies, for the Manic Street Preachers are practically effervescent. They revisit the emotional setting of Gold Against the Soul, but subtract the pervasive feeling of the narrator's body and mind steadily devouring their own stomach linings, and in the implication that it is possible to look upon oneself without horror, without existential abhorrence, is the seed of the ability to also look on others, and not see Medusa.
This album is as much a resurrection musically as it is lyrically. Part of what made The Holy Bible so oppressive is that the music and lyrics on it were coupled so tightly, and the album was thus as much a stylistic dead-end as a psychological one. The trio could easily have returned to one of their earlier idioms, and made more "Slash and Burn"s, or more "Scream to a Sigh"s, but as much as I love those songs, I would have been disappointed by any retread. Instead, this album effectively uses The Holy Bible for an around-the-sun slingshot effect, and ends up out past Gold Against the Soul, perhaps farther than they could have gotten any other way. Acoustic guitars, strings, harp, piano and organ make frequent appearances, and together with the roaring guitars and pounding rhythm section, these elements help lend the album some of the values of classic standard-repertoire songwriting and symphonic magnificence without mannerisms or sentimentality swallowing the band up (like they did Mark Eitzel, for me, on his recent solo album). If you can imagine the Walker Brothers and Radiohead making a record together, have your lawyer play a tape of this for your evaluation board. I was known to opine, circa Gold Against the Soul, that this was the best flat-out rock band working, and while this album drags the definition of "flat-out rock" farther away from its food dish than it usually likes to venture, I'm not sure I'm ready to retract that endorsement. After a long day oscillating between resenting Soundgarden's aimlessness and loathing Oasis' flaunted cliches, this revelation that there's another way to do big, melodic rock songs makes me extremely happy. "Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier" segues from its acoustic-guitar intro to hissing electricity in a psychedelic wash of harp. The strings on "A Design for Life" spin through their half-hidden choreography like a ballet about ninjas sneaking up on your campsite. Bradfield's guitar on "Enola/Alone" sounds like it could power the plane. "Everything Must Go" sounds like Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smashing Pumpkins and the London Philharmonic all locked into an abandoned shuttle hangar. "The Girl Who Wanted to Be God" sounds like the cast of Guns 'n' Roses' "November Rain" video covering the Cardigans, and "Australia" somehow shoehorns Velvet Crush harmony, Radiohead catharsis and a Hoodoo Gurus guitar sound into the same track. The slighest wash of organ augments the power-trio simplicity of "Further Away", and the sledgehammer chorus guitar riffs of "No Surface All Feeling" are especially breathtaking after the setup of the song's muted verses. And for breaks from the enormity of these songs, there's the "PCP"-like angularity of "Kevin Carter", the dark harp-and-picked-acoustic-guitar distractedness of "Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky", the low-fi buzz of "Removables", and the choppy verses of "Interiors", which remind me, non sequiturishly, of the verses to Rush's "Red Lenses".
Richey's disappearance made less of an emotional impact on my life than Kurt's suicide, but I think that had more to do with the continent I live on than the content of the gesture. Cobain's death was an American media event, which meant that for weeks I was immersed in it, inclined to see the rest of the world, to some degree, in its light, and not alone in doing so. I suspect that there are millions of us for whom that picture of Kurt's body, taken through the doorway so that you only really see his legs, has been emblazoned in our memories the way our parents relive the footage of JFK's motorcade. Yes, I know, I know, Kennedy was a world leader who galvanized an entire nation and changed the course of history, while Kurt Cobain was just a left-handed guitar player whose incoherence happened to reach us at a moment when it seemed to capture exactly how we felt. But the blades that pulp public meaning are sharper these days than they were on that Dallas afternoon, and so while Kennedy left our parents an ersatz royal family, my generation has to be content with that moment when, after reading most of Kurt's farewell message to a Seattle arena full of dazed Nirvana fans, Courtney Love says "I have to go now", and for just a second she doesn't seem like a complete wreck of a person.
Richey James' disappearance, on the other hand, happened an ocean away in every sense, and aside from scanning the Stories section of Q each month to see if he'd turned up yet, there wasn't much I could do to feel involved. This imbalance of exposure notwithstanding, though, Richey's case is significant to me personally in a way that Kurt's never will be. I wasn't abused or neglected as a child, my stomach is fine, and nobody is going to recite my record reviews while assaulting random teenage girls. Like Richey, though, I do spend an alarming amount of my time cataloging evils I don't expect to ever be able to undo. If Richey's exit was intended to say that the world is too hideous and hopeless a place to live in, I think it's hard to mount a convincing argument to the contrary, and if I share his conclusions, how will I not share his fate? And yet, no matter how much I agree with him in principle, the idea of killing myself is so foreign to me that I have trouble understanding a worldview in which it's even an option. The path from disgust with the world to suicide is lined with so many enticing anomalies that to traverse it you'd have to wear blinders so restrictive that it's a wonder you can walk. The mass of evil in the world doesn't cancel out the good. Maybe there are ten evil things for every good one, but the ratio isn't important. Yes, the world is too hideous a place to live in, but nobody lives in the whole world at once. We build walls towards the monsters, and we gather up whatever good we can find and shelter it as best we know how. Universal entropy and local order are not contradictory, they're integral parts of the same system. One friend can make a city of ten million strangers a welcoming place. One song can salvage a day of noise. One album can change a life, or save it. It's a painful irony that sometimes the authors of music with this power can't feel it, that sometimes, even as they cast a spell of destruction, they are unable to detach themselves from its origin long enough to run around to the other side and hear the hope that inheres in the very sound of it.