PERMANENT RECORDS: NO VENDETTAS, JUST A CHERRY BLOSSOM TREE
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
23. MANIC STREET PREACHERS - THIS IS MY TRUTH TELL ME YOURS (1998)
Personnel: James Dean Bradfield, vocals & guitar; Nicky Wire, bass & lyrics; Sean Moore, drums
Producers: Dave Eringa/ Label: Virgin.
I find it interesting that This is My Truth Tell Me Yours is the Manic Street Preachers album that would end up being the one to bring me so much inspiration, because it's not my favorite by a long distance. It's better than any of the records that followed, but it's easily beaten by the four discs that preceded it. In fact, This is My Truth Tell Me Yours is the sound of a band at its plateau. After that initial rise from punk upstarts to accomplished musicians, this is where they became journeyman: dependable more than surprising.
My previous public statement on the album was one of unfettered enthusiasm. I reviewed the album for the Willamette Week back when it was released, and given the opportunity to couple it with Suede's Head Music, I was not going to drop the ball, I was going to kick it in the stratosphere. I don't think the review was dishonest, as I was pretty enthusiastic about both albums when I wrote it, but time and perspective now show me that these bands were continuing their parallel paths of triumphs and defeats. Both albums belonged together because the bands had recorded contents that were settling.
A statement that sounds harsher than it really is. Because there is still much to be gleaned from a life in stasis, and unlike Suede, the Manics had found a place that was comfortable. Their plateau was up high, and from it they could survey much. Suede's was in a lower, darker place, a triumph of squalor...but that's another review entirely.
Or, at least, this is the conventional wisdom on the record, the easy and accepted line on Manic Street Preachers Album #4. It's a bit ironic, however, when you really sit down and listen to This is My Truth Tell Me Yours. While the instrumentation relays the sound of a band treading water, of riding the muscular shoulders of previous accomplishments--look at them there on the cover, in a desert dressed in white, all surface and no feeling--at the nitty gritty of it, when you listen to the words straight up, there is no contentment at all. Take the song "My Little Empire." It arrives in the sixth slot, after the four singles are out of the way, coming in quietly on a soft guitar riff, midtempo drums, a distant cello. The opening lines: "My little empire has risen and it's set/ My little empire is as good as it can get." If this is a record by a band who has built their kingdom, they are not actually happy with what they survey, whether they are looking down from a plateau or a castle tower. They have been set adrift, disconnected from all sensation. "I'm sick of being sick...I'm tired of being tired...I'm bored of being bored...I'm happy being sad."
Whatever you might say about the band post-fame, post-Richey's disappearance, post-"A Design for Life" going mega, I don't think you can say they accepted it easily. Consider this: the Manics were a band at their best when they had something to fight against. On Generation Terrorists, it was the current state of music; on Gold Against the Soul, the expectation of what they had created; The Holy Bible, Richey's body and the demons inside; Everything Must Go, Richey's disappearance and the insistence that the Manics were over.
In each case, the group had won the fight, and now here they were, the conquerors, their original muse gone, no longer poking them with his problems and the betrayal long since forgiven. If This is My Truth Tell Me Yours opens with a cannon blast, with all the hits, it's a brave face. There is an impish grin behind placing "Ready for Drowning" in amongst them, and then following it up with "Tsunami" and its happy melody distracting from the desperation of the lyrics. Is either song a capitulation, an acceptance of the deluge? All that's left is ennui, and maybe the trio is going to just let themselves go to it.
Or is maybe "My Little Empire" a clarion call to what's really going on? Maybe all that's left for the Manics to fight against is themselves. They see what they've become--and on their first single after the album, the millennial one-off of "The Masses Against the Classes," singer James Dean Bradfield unleashes a wail of Camus, "The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown"--and they aren't ready to let the trappings of fame suffocate them. Arguably, This is My Truth Tell Me Yours isn't the sound of treading water, but of being under it, trapped in a bag, and thrashing to get out. From "My Little Empire" on, lyricist Nicky Wire is identifying his problems in order to muster the strength to deal with them. Look at the cluster of songs that come immediately afterwards. "I'm Not Working" is an expression of despair over oneself breaking down, whereas "You're Tender and You're Tired" is an argument with that self, trying to see where the pieces are disconnected and rejoin the parts. "But it's too late to be real," Wire writes, perhaps alluding to the famous "4 Real" incident, where his lost comrade carved those words in his arm with broken glass (was it that? or a knife?) in order to declare his sincerity. That's a youthful need, this insistence of one's own authenticity. If you have to tell people you're real, you're clearly not. That's what Richey would ultimately learn, and what Nicky would try to rectify. "Never say goodbye drift away and die" could easily be a coda about his missing friend, his new declaration being, "Yes, you can build yourself." He's telling himself as much as he's telling the listener and the ghost of Richey James. He doesn't have to succumb to another invented disease.
The solution seems to follow on the next two songs, "Born a Girl" and "Be Natural." They are about recognizing how he's allowed himself to stray from who he is at his core, whether it be through the imagery of gender politics or by allowing himself to become this martyr to the media. "Be natural for once in my life," Wire tells himself, "Know that I should never give advice." He ponders whether he is "grown up or backwards born," is he finally coming into himself or has he had the process backwards, he has started at one place, lost it, and is now struggling back. It's a Romantic ideal, one my hero Lance Scott could get behind in The Everlasting--but more on that in a bit.
It's not all inner turmoil either. There are outside forces. Even though they could be interpreted as metaphorical other selves, there seems to be threats beyond Nicky Wire's control on the melodramatic strum of "Black Dog On My Shoulder" (the lyric "Guess my life is a compromise" hearkening back to Mansun's "Life is a compromise anyway") and the poison pen relationship of "Nobody Loved You." The search takes on urgency even as he once again almost gives up. "Am I coming home to you again/ Or am I stupid just by design?/ Does it matter if you really ever know?"--as if by no longer asking, you'll end the need. The feeling that there is some void that needs to be closed is a recurrent one on the album, the word itself showing up in "The Everlasting," "My Little Empire," and "You're Tender and You're Tired." The second half of This is My Truth Tell Me Yours is the sound of that void. It's slow and it's turgid at times, because it's trapped in the swirl.
Thus, it's fitting that the guitars that ring through the first half return on "Nobody Loved You." Once again, this is a song striking out against either someone you love or yourself, perhaps both, they are one in the same--either way, the amps being kicked on are the warning that the Manics are bouncing back. "S.Y.M.M."--despite its compromise in the title, going with the abbreviation rather than the full "South Yorkshire Mass Murder"--is the band bringing it full circle, standing their ground again. The lyrics explain themselves: "But it's really not the sort of thing/That people want to hear us sing." The new Manics fans have gotten used to a more personal lyrical approach, not the political Manics. It's safer. They want more "A Design for Life," anthems they can sing while drunk and miss the meaning of. Sure, they made This is My Truth's debut single "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" a top hit even though it was about the Spanish Civil War, but it was a subversive message. If the band didn't tell everyone it was about the Spanish Civil War, most of the radio listeners would have never known. But "S.Y.M.M" puts it all right back up front, puts it in your face so you can't hide from it, the sort of overt effort to make the listener queasy that scared people about The Holy Bible. Sure, the promise would not be fulfilled until the sharp electric stab of "The Masses Against the Classes" over a year later, and then it would pretty much disappear on the next couple of records, but as This is My Truth Tell Me Yours winds down, the Manics do make you believe the return to form is coming.
So, yes, ironic that this is considered the album where Manic Street Preachers began to tread water. Even I had started to convince myself that it was the mark of a band who had become overly content. Look where I began this entry and now where I have ended up. Now I see it more as an album from a band trying to find contentment. It's that restlessness that curdles in the fuzzbox of second single and lead album track "The Everlasting," and what I picked up on when I named my second novel after it. Lance Scott is looking for some contentment, too, and he's fighting against his own wayward ideals, trying to find his way back. "In the beginning, when we were winning, when our smiles were genuine"--it seems so obvious now as being more than about a relationship, it could just as easily be a band looking back over their shoulders at an incendiary early career that has drifted into undreamed of success.
I stand by the original assessment that the Manic Street Preachers were a band at their plateau, but I'll change my belief that they were commenting on all they surveyed in favor of my new assertion: they were looking for a way to get down so that they might live up to the Alfred du Masset quote they put on the "Children" single: "Great artists have no country." I'm not sure if they've found it yet, but they keep trying, and they still have more good albums than mediocre, even if just barely. The drowning may still be coming, but at the same time, they have a chance to make it work. There's plenty to fight against these days, so maybe they'll pick up some new weapons for album #8.
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Current Soundtrack: Manics, "The Everlasting" CD1, "Tsunami" CD2, & the "God Save the Manics" EP
Current Mood: thoughtful
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich