I’M NOT HERE to mythologise the life of Richey Edwards. We all know the score. What I am here to do is mythologise his last will and testament: The Manic Street Preachers’ third and greatest album, The Holy Bible. Every bit as monumental as its namesake, it’s an album that’s jubilant in its despondency, a work that sticks a cleaver into the heart of the 90s and tears it apart. The results are cryptic, scathing and alarming.
This isn’t so much staring into the abyss as it is summoning the abyss, looking it square in the eyes and kicking it in the bollocks. It’s challenging and difficult but not in the traditional avant-garde, loopy genre-melding Peter Grötzmann sense; it’s challenging because its lyrics are shocking and brutal, its music is viciously aggressive and it’s darker than the void itself.
Take ‘Yes’, the opening salvo. It’s a song about child prostitution that includes the lyrics: “He’s a boy / You wanna girl so tear off his cock / Tie his hair in bunches, fuck him / Call him Rita if you want.” This is pinned down by an insistent bendy riff from James Dean Bradfield, sturdy bass from Nicky Wire and reliably powerful drumming from Sean Moore. This pattern is followed for much of the album with occasional divergences.
What sets The Holy Bible apart from any regular rock album then? Sheer force of impact. A seething, guttural rage with more direction, maturity and menace than their frenzied Generation Terrorists debut. The key, however, is the sense that, at the conclusion (sometimes the middle) of each track, the album will collapse in on itself like a house of cards. When you’re exploring concepts as wide and as soul-destroying as the Holocaust (‘The Intense Humming of Evil’), right-wing totalitarianism (‘Of Walking Abortion’) and the sex lives of Communist leaders (‘Revol’), featuring dialogue samples from 1984, the Nuremberg trials and Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and their Johns, I suppose it’s only fair really.
Bradfield embodies this decay perfectly. His guitar tone is diseased, not distorted. Every note wrung from his strangled instrument sounds like it will be his last, and every screamed line sounds like the words are about to die in his throat. There’s a moment during the capitulation of ‘4st 7lbs’, a frank, searing (self-)examination of anorexia by Edwards, when Bradfield lets out a feeble cough before continuing: “…Too weak to fuss, too weak to laugh / Choice is skeletal in everybody’s life.” Another such moment occurs during standout lead single ‘Faster’ – a wild, breakneck blast of “I am stronger than Mensa” ferocity – when Bradfield’s straining voice cracks very briefly.
It’s moments like these – moments of vulnerability as candid as Edwards’ lyrics – that re-establish just how close to the edge the Manics were, fighting and screaming for life. They’re simple moments of raw humanity in an album overflowing with them. For all its savage darkness, The Holy Bible is more life-affirming than anything I’ve ever heard. It’s not the comfy sort of life-affirming as, say, Pet Sounds – it’s a straight-up challenge, a demand to live. I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t been changed by listening to it.
For all the dark, beautiful, twisted brilliant of Edwards’ (and Wire’s) lyrics, this is just as much Bradfield (and Moore’s) album. Bradfield is not only one of the finest voices of his generation, he’s also one of its finest guitarists; this is as evident in the visceral soloing pyrotechnics of ‘Archives of Pain’ as it is in the more restrained ‘She is Suffering’.
I mean, how the fuck do you compose music to (e.g.) ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart’ (all one word, with offending apostrophe) with lines like: “Images of perfection, suntan, napalm / Grenada, Haiti, Poland, Nicaragua / Who shall we choose for our morality / I’m thinking right now of Hollywood tragedy.” Moreover, how the fuck does that wall of verbiage sound so natural, as if it was always meant to come out of his mouth in that exact arrangement? When both ends of the songwriting spectrum are geared toward total synchronicity it’s only apt that genius should entail.
And The Holy Bible is genius, through and through, whether it’s the laconic nostalgia-killer of Wire’s ‘This is Yesterday’, the frenzied sprint of ‘P.C.P.’, the leprous fury of ‘Mausoleum’ or the tongue-in-cheek lash of ‘Revol’. It’s the fulfilment of the promise laid out in Generation Terrorists and an impossible act to follow. As good as the Manics have been in the last two decades, they’ve been unable to recapture The Holy Bible’s raw vitality, urgency, or, ultimately, its sheer quality – a lot of that has to be down to Edwards’ tragic absence.
At the time, it reached No.6 in the album chart and lasted only four weeks. In the 20 years since, it’s managed to amass a legacy that fits its lofty title. After all, it’s the album that killed Britpop before OK Computer had the pleasure three years later. It’s 20 years old this week, it’s a bona fide masterpiece and every bit as important as it was in 1994. Richey would be proud.