How Grim Was My Valley
After the 1995 disappearance (and presumed death) of guitarist and primary lyricist Richey Edwards, the Manic Street Preachers reinvented themselves as a trio, releasing their biggest-selling album to date, the critically acclaimed Everything Must Go, in 1996. Although 1998’s This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours went multi-platinum, responses were mixed. Some bemoaned what they considered to be the Welsh band’s increasingly weak, conservative approach, one that paled in comparison with the raw, uncompromising power of earlier releases.
In a sense, then, Know Your Enemy could be seen as the proverbially tricky third album for the post-Richey incarnation of the Manic Street Preachers. And given that it’s been three years since the last album, the level of expectation for this one was particularly high. Does the group once famously dubbed the most important British band of the ‘90s have anything left for us to listen to in this new millennium?
The build-up to this release was only intensified by the Manics’ initial promotion of the album. They announced their return not with some high-profile UK gig, but with a highly publicized concert in February 2001 at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana—under the watchful eye of Fidel Castro, the man who made military fatigues hip at a time when Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were probably still wearing Clark’s Commandos and shorts.
Sadly, for all the (unconventional) hype, Know Your Enemy fails to convince. It simply confirms what the last two albums suggested: namely that the Manic Street Preachers are little more than a formulaic arena-sized rock band with admirable politics and dire powers of lyrical expression.
“Found That Soul” kicks the proceedings off reasonably well with its one-note glam piano charge and driving percussion, while the abrasive guitars and one-man-crowd vocals on tracks like “Intravenous Agnostic” and “Dead Martyrs” approximate the straight-ahead rush of tracks from earlier triumphs like Generation Terrorists. Even so, these songs really are nothing to write home about. One expects more than sub-Clash punk rockism from such an allegedly crucial band, particularly in the year 2001.
The more aggressive side of their music only begins to get really interesting on the album’s final track, “Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children.” Here, perhaps thanks in part to the (uncredited) contribution of genuine sonic terrorist Kevin Shields, the band’s rather one-dimensional sound acquires some real noise-texture. Despite its impressive title, this song is less a political statement than a laughably incoherent, often ad hominem attack on figures involved in the Tibetan Freedom movement in the United States, such as the Beastie Boys and Richard Gere.
Some of the highlights come in the form of the album’s lighter moments. “So Why So Sad” is a fantastic pop song complete with Beach Boys-style harmonies, and the acoustic strum-along of “Ocean Spray” is beautifully embellished with some well-placed trumpet (courtesy of Sean Moore) and a smoldering, occasionally searing, electric guitar.
The strange thing about “Ocean Spray” is that the song actually does appear to refer to the drink of the same name. The American corporation Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. must be positively beside itself with all the free publicity the Manics are going to give it with this one. But then it’s not the first time the band has had drink-related problems. Addressing the world’s press before their show in Cuba, the band emphasized that the Havana concert was intended as a statement against the Americanization of global culture. However, things went a bit pear-shaped when one cheeky journalist asked how—in view of the Manics’ anti-American posture—one should interpret the presence of Coke cans on the table in front of them. It’s not just a smart-alec question. Wheeling out the tiredest of all clichés on “Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children”, the Manics really do seem to reduce all variants of American imperialism to the evils of Coca-Cola—the song ends up dissing J. S. Pemberton, the inventor of the offending soft drink. Come on, haven’t we learned that it’s a bit more complicated than that by now?
As reviewers have long observed, naive and clumsy political rhetoric is a salient characteristic of the band’s lyrics. Normally, I see little point in discussing the meaning or strengths of lyrics. After all, this is rock music, not poetry, no matter what Dylanologists might say. There’s never a need to quote, say, Thom Yorke to clarify that he’s singing about a profound sense of alienation, or whatever else; it’s there in his voice. But James Dean Bradfield’s vocal style is so unremarkable and the lyrics so spectacularly bad (and so foregrounded) that they deserve a little more attention, if only for the comic value.
The Manics seem to have two lyrical modes. When they’re not being political and preachy, they’re being introspective and earnest. As with their music and their Manichaean political sensibility, there’s no sophistication, no middle ground, no room for nuance.
On the preachy side, “Baby Elian” is a paradigmatic example of the way that the Manics seem to think jumbled sloganeering and name-checking pass for incisive political commentary. While its New Order-style melody is undeniably catchy, its lyrics suggest the rhetorical and political sophistication of a 12-year-old: “Kidnapped—to the promised land / The Bay of Pigs / Or baby Elian / Operation—Peter Pan / America / The devil’s playground”. The song goes on to declare “We follow a shining path”, an unfortunately awkward choice of metaphor insofar as it hints at an embarrassing mixing up of struggles and countries. Of course, we know that the Manics know their Sendero Luminoso from their barbudos, their Peru from their Cuba, but still . . . .
On the earnest side, with lines like “I can’t see my right from my wrong / I’ve loved so much that I can’t go on”, the track “His Last Painting” plummets to the level of hair-metal crypto-poetry. (Remember the commercial? “They taught us how to love”.) At best, this song suggests Axl Rose in a sensitive moment. And then there’s the teen angst of “My Guernica”: “I’m small and I am tired / I’m blurred to bits and wired / I’m nothing in this universe / Nothing but pieces of dust / Appearing in more repeats / The mirror man has seen defeat / Hide away be old and grey / Alfred J. Prufrock [sic] would be proud of me”. Yes, despite its Picasso/Spanish Civil War reference, this song is a rendering, at some level, of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Nevertheless, the gaffe with regard to Prufrock’s name suggests that maybe they meant Alfred E. Neuman, or perhaps J. Arthur Rank.
And if you haven’t had enough, then there’s the absolute twaddle of “Intravenous Agnostic”: “Dismayed—Dispossessed / Life becomes Calvanist [sic] / So sparkle and believe / Linguistics die easily”.
The music is never as bad as the lyrics, but it is frequently dull and derivative. “Miss Europa Disco Dancer” is a bizarre waste of energy that leaves you scratching your head. Sounding like a cross between late Gang of Four and China Crisis, or perhaps ABC, the Manics appear to be satirizing something. But since the music just sounds like bland ‘80s disco music, it all seems a bit misguided. It’s like trying to make a parodic porn movie—it ends up simply imitating the genre it’s supposedly critiquing. Still, the band does throw something in—almost as an afterthought—to emphasize the element of parody here: the repeated outro line “Brain-dead motherfuckers”, which contrasts with the bouncy, airy groove.
Another throwaway is the turgid “Wattsville Blues”. It’s not all for naught though. In keeping with the Manics’ MO, the song does have some political function since it challenges an ethnic stereotype: that all Welsh people share in a proud vocal tradition. Nicky Wire’s turn at the mic on this number is underwhelming to say the least.
“Let Robeson Sing” celebrates the resistant spirit of its subject, and for that the band is to be commended. But musically—particularly in terms of the vocals—it sounds as if Squeeze had crept into the studio and recorded this track while the Manics were at the library doing their research on Paul Robeson. Not that there’s anything wrong with Squeeze, but if you want to hear them, you’re better off with one of their recordings, not the Manics’ plodding approximation of their sound. (They also do a good R.E.M. on “The Year of Purification”.) Although it is a joy to hear Robeson’s sampled voice on this track, that’s all there really is to recommend it. In addition to sounding horribly clichéd and adolescent, the lyrics suggest that the band didn’t do enough homework on the man in question to get their facts completely right.
During “Let Robeson Sing”, James Dean Bradfield asks “Can anyone write a protest song?” The answer is no, not just anyone, least of all the Manic Street Preachers, and especially if Know Your Enemy is anything to go by. But it’s not just their puerile grasp of ideology and lyric-writing that undermines them. Barring a couple of notable exceptions, their songs are dumbed-down rock that’s musically as interesting as watching paint dry. And although, in my view, their political hearts are in the right place, I can’t resist asking: Call yourselves socialists? Can’t even spell “hammer & sickle” correctly in the lyric sheet!
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.