At approximately seven o’clock on the morning of Wednesday 1 February 1995 twenty-seven-year-old Richard James Edwards quietly walked from his room at the Embassy Hotel in West London and drove a hundred and thirty miles to his home in Cardiff where he left his passport and antidepressant medication before vanishing without a trace. Twenty-four hours later he was reported missing and with a history of self-abuse and emotional instability a nationwide appeal was launched to plead for his safe return. In the days that followed it was revealed that he had withdrawn savings from his bank account to the sum of £2,000 but when his car was later discovered close to a notorious suicide hotspot his family and friends feared the worst. The fate of Richey Edwards would become the thing of rock ‘n’ roll folklore and continued to haunt the Manic Street Preachers for years to come.
And yet in 2008, almost fourteen years after his disappearance, his former bandmates would make a decision that would shock their devoted fan base…they would return to material they had abandoned in the wake of their loss and create a new album based on the surviving lyrics left by their missing comrade. When this was first revealed to the public many hoped that it would see the Manics return to the nihilism of their 1994 masterpiece The Holy Bible, far-removed from the radio friendly offerings that had since launched them into the mainstream. At this point in their career some could have considered it commercial suicide, with the group having recently enjoyed one of their most successful records to date and yet all involved felt that the time had finally come to revisit the past and lay their ghosts to rest. And on 18 May 2009 they did just that when they unleashed Journal for Plague Lovers upon the world.
While the actions of Edwards would leave the British music scene in mourning it had become all too clear for some time that the guitarist and lyricist had begun to struggle with life in the spotlight while an increasing dependency on alcohol and mutilation had resulted in his hospitalisation the previous summer, forcing him to miss out on their scheduled appearance at Scotland’s T in the Park festival. ‘Richey’s always been self-abusive in terms of alcohol and stuff like that,’ frontman James Dean Bradfield told Kerrang! at the time. ‘We’ve always known about it but there’s no point saying to some people that you can’t do this or that ‘cause it just pushes them even further towards it. But with Richey it was obvious it had reached epidemic proportions. It just became a disease in the end and he began to realise it as well.’
During his few short years in the music industry Edwards had become something of an idol to youngsters struggling with their own depression and social anxiety and through such songs as La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh) and 4st 7lb he had expressed both his distress with the world around him and his own existential grief. By the time that The Holy Bible was released in August 1994 his own struggles had become a permanent fixture of the music press, with magazines regularly running such cheap headlines as ‘Manic Depression,’ but when the album saw the light of day it offered their fans something that Nirvana had provided the previous year with In Utero, pain and anguish that many listeners could relate to. Yet his emotional state had first become a cause for concern in May 1991 when after a show in Norwich he presented a razorblade during a frustrated debate with NME journalist Steve Lamacq and proceeded to carve the phrase ‘4 Real’ into his arm while maintaining eye contact with the critic he felt had failed to understand the ethos of the Manic Street Preachers.
One album and then we’re gonna self-immolate on Top of the Pops
Following his appearance in 1995 the three remaining members – Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore – were faced with the difficult decision of either continuing without Edwards and risk alienating their fans or calling it a day and announcing their retirement. This had been the course that many had expected them to take, especially as four years earlier they had boisterously declared that they would release one album that would sell sixteen million copies before self-destructing in spectacular fashion. And when this failed to happen they had opened themselves up to ridicule. ‘I remember when Nick and Richey said, ‘One album and then we’re gonna self-immolate on Top of the Pops.’ I was fine with that,’ recalled Bradfield to Q many years later. ‘’Everybody should kill themselves.’ I was fine with that. ‘One album and we’re splitting up.’ What? Fuck off, I wanna be in a band!’
In the months between his discharge from hospital and disappearance Edwards’ mood had appeared to improve and with him due to embark on a press tour of America to promote The Holy Bible alongside Bradfield his bandmates had no reason to suspect that he was keeping such a secret from them. Shortly after New Year he had presented his co-lyricist Wire with a folder containing poems, artwork and songs, with photocopies shared among the other members, all of which indicated that he was enjoying something of a prolific writing period. Yet following 1 February they would find it too painful to read through the work he had left behind and chose to bury it in order to focus on resurrecting the Manics. With their last album serving as something of an epitaph for Edwards and with the optimism of Britpop dominating the charts they looked to a future that would leave the negativity and sadness of The Holy Bible behind them.
While some of the material left by Edwards would serve as the basis for almost half of their next album, particularly the harrowing ballad Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky, the overall tone of 1996’s Everything Must Go was one of rebirth and following the Top Ten success of its lead single A Design for Life the Manic Street Preachers had finally broken into the mainstream. Even more surprising would be two number one singles, 1998’s If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next and 2000’s The Masses Against the Classes, but arguably their greatest triumph would come on New Year’s Eve 1999 when they performance at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to over sixty thousand fans, a show that would later be released on home video as Leaving the 20th Century. During their rendition of Small Black Flowers, in which the audience accompanied Bradfield in singing the words of Richey Edwards, they felt the true power of his poetry. ‘It was just bouncing off the stadium wall,’ Wire explained to the Guardian. ‘You can see me onstage thinking, ‘Fuck, that is subversion, he must be having a smile somewhere about that.’’
While the Manic Street Preachers had failed to achieve platinum status since 1998 they had continued to enjoy commercial success in the singles charts but following their own personal disappointment with their first two albums of the twenty-first century they would enjoy something of a comeback in 2007 with the focused and commercial Send Away the Tigers. Its success had taken all by surprise and soon they began to feel the pressure of delivering a worthy follow-up. The following year the Manics would receive a certain amount of closure when at the request of his family the police would declare Richey Edwards presumed dead. It had been over a decade since his disappearance and while they had continued to pay royalties into his account, with each passing year it seemed less and less likely that he would ever return.
Around the same time that this was announced Bradfield had found himself returning to the material that Edwards had left behind. Collected together in a binder that boasted a picture of Bugs Bunny on the front and the word ‘opulence’ scribbled across the cover he would find an array of complete lyrics, song titles and artwork that would reveal the creative energy that Edwards had been enjoying shortly before he vanished. On one page Bradfield would find the phrase Journal for Plague Lovers and the concept for their next album began to form in his mind. With the prospect of having to rival the success of Send Away the Tigers too daunting to process he instead began to read through the lyrics that Edwards had left behind and imagined them to melodies. While writing music around the words of Edwards had never been an easy task Bradfield now felt that he was ready to attempt the unthinkable and for the first time in their career Wire would focus on developing the music instead of writing the lyrics.
‘He left a big binder about three or four weeks before he disappeared,’ said Wire to Reverb. ‘He left me a big binder and did a photocopy for Sean and James as well. The binder’s just been in the cupboard in my bedroom ever since. There’s lots of artwork, there’s lots of collages, there’s lots of paintings and ideas for lyrics as well. They’ve always been there, the last time they surfaced were the tracks Kevin Carter, Elvis Impersonator and Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky.’ In an interview with the Quietus Bradfield would add, ‘After that there were periods where I would get mine out of the drawer, about once or twice a year and read them. But I’d always return them neatly to the drawer because it just didn’t feel like the time was right to tackle them. I just didn’t want to do them the disservice of not paying them the right amount of attention. Over the years I got to read them more and more; I got more familiar with the titles and the lyrics themselves and then I got my copy out two years ago and for some reason I just couldn’t stop turning pages.’
Over the years there had been several songs that Bradfield had struggled to sing due to the amount of syllables that Edwards would condense into each line. This had been most evident during the chorus of both their breakthrough single Motown Junk in 1990 and You Love Us, initially released the following year, yet since the late nineties Wire had been the primary lyricist which had allowed the singer to focus more on melody. But when it came to creating new songs for Journal for Plague Lovers the biggest challenge that they now faced was in understanding the meaning and intent of the lyrics and thus composing music that would best represent the tone of each song. And with the material having been written by a twenty-seven-year-old over a decade earlier, they would also have to return to that mind-set of post-Holy Bible if they were to do the writings of Edwards justice.
I like the lyrics that inspire you to make songs
Much had happened to the Manic Street Preachers since that fateful day in 1995 and now with the band having reached middle-age they would not necessarily be the people they had been when they were friends with Edwards. With family life and professional responsibilities having replaced youthful angst it would have been understandable if the themes explored within the binder now seemed almost alien. ‘The process of making songs is almost always the same,’ claimed Bradfield to Barks. ‘I am in a unique position like a singer but usually I sing a lyric written by someone. So always feel the same sense of responsibility to write songs after understanding the lyrics properly. It is not a lyric that I wrote. It always takes a long time to look through the lyrics and try to understand myself. I do not know if it is a high level or a low level. Then, when I understand the lyrics I start writing songs. In other words, I like the lyrics that inspire you to make songs.’
One aspect of the Manics that had appealed to their devoted following ever since they first emerged in 1989 was the harsh beauty of the lyrics that both Edwards and Wire would create, which was then brought to life through the music of Bradfield and Moore. The writings that Edwards left behind would be as uncompromising as anything that he had subjected his audience to with The Holy Bible and even the opening passages from what would prove to be the album’s first song he would continue in this trend, with Edwards describing the ‘bruise of my hand from digging my nails out.’ This would fit into the recurring theme of self-abuse and self-mutilation that Edwards had previously explored, with The Holy Bible’s opening song Yes stating, ‘I hurt myself to get pain out.’ Yet while their earlier album had ostensibly documented a man approaching a mental breakdown, the lyrics left in the binder would often express a certain amount of peace and acceptance, perhaps serving as an epilogue to the horror of The Holy Bible.
In keeping with his past work, the material that Edwards had left behind was often cryptic and its motives unclear. What was the narrator trying to tell the listener? What kind of message was he hoping to convey through these verses? ‘I’ve got to be honest, some of it I just don’t understand. I won’t pretend I do as obviously the boy’s not around to explain himself,’ admitted Wire during the promotion of the album. ‘In some ways it’s less painful than The Holy Bible as he seems a lot more resigned in himself to situations. It is really hard to explain; I’m scared of putting meaning into something I don’t know. There are some lyrics where you can see the kernel of truth. Songs like Peeled Apples is just about giving up hope that you can find belief or find an entity or find any kind of ideology you can believe in. I think Peeled Apples is a song about what we’re left with.’
Ever since the Manics had been forced to reinvent themselves Wire has acted as the primary lyricist and unlike his earlier collaborator his songs would focus less on suffering and self-doubt and more on politics and history, giving the band a style as intelligent as their formative years but perhaps somewhat less disturbing. It is impossible to presume what kind of music Edwards had envisioned his material to be performed to but as his tastes during that time had reportedly moved towards the industrial metal of Nine Inch Nails, who in 1994 had release their own harrowing epic The Downward Spiral, it could be possible that he imagined the next album of the Manic Street Preachers to be of a similar vein. Yet by 2009 industrial metal had lost its commercial appeal and so it made sense for the band to attempt to recapture the sound of their most revered record.
It would seem somewhat ironic that many fans and critics hold up the Manics‘ early work as their classic era when at the time they were often the target of the press, usually as a result of their outspoken opinions, while their hope of selling millions of copies of their albums would at best only reach a few thousand. While the Manic Street Preachers could talk the talk there were many that felt they were all mouth. ‘The first three albums were about the learning process,’ Moore told Filter when looking back at their early years. ‘We were very young and very naïve, we didn’t understand the business. After The Holy Bible there was a steep learning curve in terms of survival as a band. Since there was not much commercial success for The Holy Bible we were looking at the end of our career. If the same thing happened today we would have been dropped after our second album.’
While Everything Must Go had been an attempt to rescue their career after The Holy Bible had failed to meet commercial expectations, the Manics found themselves in the opposite situation with Journal for Plague Lovers in that they were following a phenomenal success with a more introspective and minimal album. Send Away the Tigers had benefitted from a polished production but this approach they decided would not suit their next project and so opted to return to the raw sound of their third record. Gone were the elaborate arrangements and in its place was a back to basics mentality that had served them so well during their first three albums. Whereas 2001’s Know Your Enemy had been a misguided attempt at broadening their horizons and its successor Lifeblood had left the band feeling uninspired, with the lyrics of Richey Edwards in hand they had the potential to make their most important album in fifteen years.
The location is just over the road from Soundspace where we recorded The Holy Bible
In the winter of 2008 Bradfield, Wire and Moore gathered together in a small building close to Cardiff Central Station formerly known as Stir Studios where they began to work on a series of demos with their in-house engineer Loz Williams. Having recently obtained the premises from its former owner Paul Durrant, the band had rechristened their haven Faster Studios in honour of their 1994 classic and over the last eight years had regularly worked within its four small walls. ‘We liked to demo in Cardiff,’ Bradfield would tell Wales Online in 2016 as they reluctantly parted ways with the studio. ‘We didn’t like to go away to demo. By then Nick had started his family, Sean had his family and I was down here to see my dad a lot and was living between Cardiff and London. The studio was perfect and the leylines felt good. The location is just over the road from Soundspace where we recorded The Holy Bible with Alex Silva and it’s a brilliant studio.’
In keeping with the minimal tone that they had employed in 1994 the demos cut at Faster would be mostly acoustic-based and lacking any kind of arrangement beyond the general verse-chorus format that had become the standard in pop music. With a host of raw, guitar-driven songs and with little thought to such garnish as synthesisers the trio began to develop the bare bone tracks that were to form Journal for Plague Lovers. But with professional studio sessions imminent they had already reached out to their producer-of-choice, one who had been responsible for two of Edwards’ favourite albums. Steve Albini had not only released Nirvana from the shackles of commercialism with their third and final album In Utero but he had also been the one to help define the pure chaotic sound of the Pixies some five years earlier, a band that would prove to be a major influence on the nineties alternative rock scene.
‘I remember when we first arrived in the studio there was a weird moment,’ recalled Bradfield to the NME. ‘I got out of the car and I walked into the studio, I didn’t see Steve Albini in the control room, so I walked through to the live room, where they did Bohemian Rhapsody and stuff like that. He was stood there and he had his overalls on and had his round glasses on and it was a really strange moment for me. Like, ‘Fuck me, he actually got on the plane!’’ In an interview with PSN almost a decade later Albini said, ‘The band said they wanted to make a record of some found lyrics from their old lyricist who disappeared. They were total pros, well-rehearsed and the record was done in relatively short order. I had a lot on my mind at the time. We’d gone to Wales to make it at Rockfield and while I was away my wife had a health scare, so I was slightly distracted the whole time. I tried not to let it affect my work on the record but I was probably emotionally more distant than I would have been normally.’
Built in the mid-sixties on the grounds of an old farm, Rockfield Studios is located approximately fifty miles outside of Cardiff and in the decades since its doors first opened it had housed such bestselling artists as Queen, Iggy Pop and Bauhaus. It would be during the recording of the Manic Street Preachers’ fifth album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours that they would first use the facility, before later returning to its grounds to record Know Your Enemy three years later. Journal for Plague Lovers would mark their first album in eight years to be created at the studio, during which time the likes of Kasabian and George Michael had also cut albums there. Following their time developing material at Faster Studios they would enter Rockfied with a clear vision of the kind of album that they wanted to create.
‘You can’t just go into the studio and fucking jam with him,’ explained Bradfield on the no-nonsense approach that Albini would take. ‘It’s really, really muso shit like if the drummer doesn’t know how to tune his kit and he doesn’t know how he wants his kit to sound then it will sound shit. But if he is optimised as a musician in his own sensibilities then it will sound great…Sean loved it because of the drum thing. He was done in a week. And I loved it because I’ve never come across anyone before with as much hatred and spite towards other musicians. At the end of the day me and him would sit down and watch the music channels and take the piss out of every band that came on until we could find one that we could agree on. I really connected with him in that sense. And that includes the bands he’s worked with.’
Albini would prove to be the perfect collaborator on an album such as Journal for Plague Lovers due to the producer’s penchant for favouring old school recording methods and avoiding modern digital trickery. With the assistance of long-time Manics collaborator Dave Eringa, who handled the production of their sophomore album Gold Against the Soul, Albini intended to capture an almost live sound by avoiding too many takes, instead relying on the band to arrive at the studio fully prepared. The aggressive unpolished beauty of both the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and Nirvana’s In Utero would be echoed through such songs as Peeled Apples and its title track and with the band expressing no interest in releasing singles to promote the record this would allow them to take the sound as far as they needed to in order to service the lyrics of Edwards.
Despite being distracted by the well-being of his wife, Albini would still provide the band with the support and encouragement that they would require while also allowing for experimentation. ‘There’s one slightly nostalgic moment on the record,’ he would later say. ‘I forget which song, where James wanted a particularly fried guitar sound. The studio had a cassette recorder that was the same as one I had in college. I didn’t have an amp, so I’d plug my guitar into the cassette player, wear headphones and overdrive the cassette player. It had a particular raspy distortion that I became quite fond of. On a lark, I told him I used that exact cassette player as a fuzz pedal, so we did that with his guitar. It was nice to see this make-do solution applied in a fancy recording studio. It was a great opportunity to take something I’d learned by being broke and making it a feature of a major record.’
Arguably the greatest challenge that the band faced during the making of the album was in developing what was intended to be the closing track, William’s Last Words, an epic creation from the mind of Richey Edwards. ‘You spend an entire record sometimes listening to Richey speaking in tongue and on this lyric you get a genuine traditional warmth,’ said Bradfield on the one song that he was unable to crack. ‘Rich, there were two pages of prose for this. It was meant to be a lyric because it was amongst all to other fully-formed lyrics. I tried to edit it and I couldn’t get to the kernel of how to approach it musically and Nick finally did it. And I was just openly jealous when he finally turned it into a song. Because it was obviously going to be the last track.’
You’re the best friends I ever had
While many of the lyrics that Edwards had left behind would focus on pain, whether it was from other people or self-inflicted, with William’s Last Words there would be a certain amount of optimism and even peace. Wire would condense down the writing to the bare essentials but with passages like ‘You’re the best friends I ever had,’ one can’t help but wonder if this song was intended as his own farewell to those people in his life that he was the closest to, whether it be his family or bandmates. Despite having rarely displayed his singing talents in the past, Wire would decide to reward his own hard work by singing one final tribute to Edwards, accompanied by violins and a harp. Andy Walters, the man who would handle the string arrangements, had previously worked with the band two years earlier on Send Away the Tigers and would resume his duties on their next two albums, Postcards from a Young Man and Rewind the Film.
‘The songs came out very naturally,’ claimed Bradfield when discussing the album with Hot Press. ‘We wanted the sounds to be right and we didn’t want much interference. I mean, I’m not saying it’s the most fiercely searing bare bones album, it’s not. I know that, but we just wanted what came out to be untouched, really. We wanted to feel as if we had the same deck of cards as Richey; he couldn’t do anything to the lyrics and how they were represented by us, once the tune was written we didn’t want to have any recourse to make things sound more produced or better or more convincing, we wanted to see what would happen if we gave ourselves the restraint of just writing a song and recording it and not working on it.’ Regarding Albini’s influence he would add, ‘He said to us at the start, ‘Y’know, I know you guys love In Utero but that’s the way they sounded and this is how you sound.’ I suppose the closest it comes to that is Peeled Apples, just a cavernous drum sound, but the rest is…he has integrity.’
For Albini, who would work with Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker on his second album Further Complications soon afterwards, working with the Manic Street Preachers was a positive experience. ‘They were kind of a cult band here among Anglophiles, so I wasn’t at all familiar with their music,’ he would later state. ‘But I did do some homework. They were terrific people to hang around with. Very straightforward, very open. Hanging out with them was as regular and normal as hanging out with your average band in the pub. I have a lot of respect for them and their work ethic. We share a lot of political and social viewpoints, so I feel akin to them as people.’ For Wire the respect was mutual. ‘It’s a tribute to Richey, it’s also a tribute to the idea of an album,’ he told the NME. ‘And Steve reflects a lot of those principals and a lot of those ethics as well. He does records like he does because a lot of his favourite records were made this way. That’s his thing. He hates the digital drama of modern music.’
Fifteen years after the world was subjected to The Holy Bible, the Manic Street Preachers finally returned to the fragile-yet-beautiful mind of Richard James Edwards to deliver an album that would revisit many of the themes that they had explored with their original masterpiece. And while Everything Must Go is hailed as their triumphant return and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours would become their multi-platinum selling success, for many critics and fans it would be The Holy Bible that would truly become their testament. In turn harrowing and hypnotic, it was an uncompromising statement that few ever expected the Manics to ever return to and yet with Journal for Plague Lovers they would do just that.
‘I think it’s a more natural conclusion,’ insisted Wire on how the two albums would relate to one another in terms of themes and intent. ‘It does seem like a natural step as you grow but there’s a couple of years between the lyrics and obviously we’re different as musicians. The fact that we’re writing the words of a twenty-seven-year-old definitely energised us. They’re not the lyrics of a young man, there’s a man that’s at the peak of his intellect and powers. But they did give me the opportunity to feel. Songs like Marlon JD. or Me and Stephen Hawking are probably our fastest played songs in a long time so it’s like going back to that time capsule of 1994.’