Some musical works go well beyond their context as an album, they influence and draw influences from social issues, literature, film and art. The Manic Street Preacher's Holy Bible is one such album. From the Jenny Saville triptych on the cover - things only get darker.
Manics songwriter Richey James Edwards was an iconoclast. Every so often amongst the barrage of 'tortured soul' artists comes along someone that truly embodies that ethos and enters the rareified stratosphere of greatness. This album, released in 1994, was his last. He went missing early the next year and was officially presumed dead in 2008. What Richey left behind was a smouldering legacy of demanding lyrics that plunge to the immense depths of the human psyche - the Holy Bible is his his lyrical magnum opus.
In a case of life imitates art, Richey carved the word '4 REAL' into his forearm with a razorblade during an interview with Steve Lamacq for NME - but he was a gentle fellow that showed great modesty. The image he garnered wasn't one he constructed himself, rather he was an open soul, happy enough to allow others to get close to him and see the cracks in the symbol. After the album, Richey went into rehab and missed some of the tour of the album - working on it seemed to have taken a lot out of him.
Of all the 'Great British' albums - from Oasis' Definitely Maybe to Pulp's Different Class, theirs stands out entirely. The common denominator is that they interpret society in a unique way. Oasis soundtrack the drinking sessions of British men and women, Pulp are a little more for the arty crowd - both observe life as it goes on around them. The Holy Bible talked about life - but not as much dousing yourself in cigarettes and alcohol and middle-class love affairs, as it's about self-harm and hatred, eating disorders and the eternal suffering that life enacts. It was a dark masterpiece and so very catchy.
The profound strength of the album is that it managed to talk about these things without masking them in metaphor and allusion. The songs were still something you could chant out aloud with your mates. They even managed to perform on Top of The Pops, although this was a far-cry from the usual performances the show hosts. Lead singer James Dead Bradfield turned up wearing a military-style balaclava, similar to those that had become infamously worn by the IRA. The rest of the band joined in too - Richey had 'the slough of despond' (a fictional bog that sucks people up for their sins) on the back of his top. It got over 25,000 complaints - a record at the time.
The lyrics took on influences from sources as far-reaching as writers like Norman Mailer and Harold Pinter to poets like Richey's favourite - the eternally young Arthur Rimbaud. The album's peculiar cadence, punctuated by audio recordings makes it feel unpredictable. In one of the album's most affecting tracks '4st 7lb' we hear about anorexia and self-abuse. The song almost plays out in two parts with a vastly different sonic dynamic. James Dean Bradfield's guitar paces the song, becoming the protagonists life as it staggers to a halt centred around the lines:
"I want to be so skinny that I rot from view,
I want to walk in the snow,And not leave a footprint,
I want to walk in the snow
And not soil its purity"
The song is spoken first-person, introduced at the beginning by an audio clip of a young girl talking about the illness. It follows her descent as she continues to lose weight until she reaches the point that death is unavoidable. It's frankly addressing the lyricist's own health problem, yet it still manages to act as an allegory for his depression and self-harm - two manifestations of nihilistic destruction.
The swaggering inferno of Britpop - pints, football and fighting, meant that the other and more difficult points of blossoming adulthood were overlooked. It's rare that these themes make it into music that's as popular as the Manics were, earning them a loyal fanbase with cult tendencies. They were, in many ways, an answer to Nirvana - they provided a place for people lacking direction to scream how they feel at the top of their lungs. Richey's lyrics became slogans that encapsulated the feelings of the youth.
Last year Triptych was released, a book examining the socio-cultural-political dimensions of the album. For an album to be able to withstand the examination of a critical book-length work speaks volumes of its power. The book is also split into three writers. Rhian E. Jones, Daniel Lukes and Larissa Wodtke tackling the personal and political aspects of the album as well as its literary influences and relationship to memory.
It's an album without any need for post-rationalisation. What meaning we can derive was intentional in both the way it was so thoroughly thought through and in the way that the personal life and feelings of the band members seeped into the sounds, words and look of the album. Holding it in your hand is like holding wisdom that's equally capable of setting you free of delusion or trapping you in a net of misery. It's powerful. It feels heavy. The title is perfect.
The album, although being accepted as a classic, has been largely forgotten as one of the best rock albums of all time. It has all the ingredients - powerful lyrics, meaningful imagery and iconic sounds. Books like Triptych remind us how important a piece of art it is over many disciplines.
Holy Bible was what Richey left for us. The image of him, as a handsome young chap surrounded by a juxtaposition of innocence and frailty, stands side-by-side with the album - each boosting the other up.
The album was the band's attempt to return to their essence that they felt they had lost on their previous album. They felt that Gold Against The Soul was a bit pop-y and empty of meaning. With Holy Bible, they produced one of the most dense pieces of music ever recorded - a soundtrack to teens and young adults that will stick with them.
The product was epic, biblical. For many it was also a saviour. Their search to be authentic might have taken Richey too close to the sun. A young icarus saw his wings melt, yet no one saw him land.
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