Following the disappearance of lyricist/rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards on 1 February 1995, Manic Street Preachers‘ destiny was altered forever. The still-unexplained vanishing left the remaining three members (lead vocalist/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist/backing vocalist Nicky Wire, and drummer Sean Moore) with a dilemma: should they call time on the band due to the loss of their lifelong friend, or attempt to forge a new identity in his absence?
The trio held talks with Edwards’ family, and it was quickly agreed upon that they should continue, partly in the hopes that the release of a new record could flush Edwards out of wherever he might be hiding. Following a September 1995 recording session for War Child’s The Help Album—which saw the Manics covering Burt Bacharach’s bright and breezy “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”—the trio relocated to the Château de la Rouge Motte in Normandy, France, to start work on a new LP.
Sessions at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in England had proved to be a dead-end, with the group finding the modern pop-industry studio sterile and unconducive. One track from that period (the resplendent “The Girl Who Wanted to Be God”) made it onto what would eventually become Everything Must Go. However, the bulk of the record was recorded with producer Mike Hedges in the 17th-century château.
Hedges had previously worked with the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the La’s. Unsurprisingly, he’d gained a reputation for his lush orchestral production style. This sonic palette stood in stark contrast to the Manics’ previous full-length, 1994s The Holy Bible, which was notable for its taut, pressure-cooked production, as well as its oppressively dark lyrics. Today, the album still holds up as a timeless work of nihilistic literary fury (greatly influenced by the self-destructively pained headspace of Edwards).
Its follow-up, Everything Must Go, was the polar opposite in almost every respect: the instruments sound like they’ve been tracked in the Grand Canyon, while the lyrics speak of a poetic urge to “escape from our history” and “fly and run until it hurts” (as they sing on the title track and “Australia”, respectively). Even the band’s image had changed, with the confrontational military regalia of the Holy Bible era being swapped for pared-down, branded sportswear. It was clear—even to the casual observer—that the Manics were doing everything in their power to escape the darkness of their past.
Everything Must Go released on 20 May 1996, preceded by an immortal lead single, “A Design For Life”. A gorgeous, poetic tribute to working-class existence (the Manics hail from the valleys of South Wales, a blue-collar region of the country famous for its now-closed coal mines), it peaked at number two in the UK charts and silenced all doubts regarding whether or not they could continue without Edwards. The band seemed not only reborn but re-energized, fuelled by the same melancholy that had long been present in their work; however, this time, they channeled it into a dazzling, crowd-pleasing instant classic.
1996 was the height of “Cool Britannia”, with Trainspotting becoming the most talked-about film of the year, Tony Blair and New Labour surging in the polls, and the 1996 Brit Awards (the UK’s equivalent of the Grammys) being dominated by Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and the like. Everything Must Go released too late in the year to be nominated, but it won Best British Album at the next year’s ceremony. The Manics of previous days, with their peroxide punk aesthetic and situationist rhetoric, seemed to belong to a wholly different era.
What’s most effortlessly brilliant about Everything Must Go is how it places the Manics’ politics and moral drive into a fresh context. The LP is as socially conscious as their previous work, yet it mostly shies away from making grand provocative statements in favour of more nuanced, heartfelt, and more personal observations. Specifically, “A Design For Life” is the most overtly politically-minded, using lyrical and deceptively simple observations to highlight pride and solidarity amongst the people of their homeland.
Everything Must Go’s primary thematic concern, though, is the delicate contradictions of human relationships. It’s as though the Manics’ focus shifted from Politics with a large ‘P’ to politics with a small ‘p’. Firstly, there’s an intriguing layer of metatextual commentary on the band’s relationship to their fans. The dramatic title track’s chorus—“I just hope that you can forgive us / But everything must go”—solemnly announced to the famously die-hard Manics fans that a new era for the band had begun. The title also contains another layer of meta-referencing in that it was taken from a then-unperformed play written by Patrick Jones, the brother of Manics bassist Nicky Wire.
Then there’s the focus on the relationship of the band to their troubled recent history. Opener “Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier” begins with the sound of waves breaking on the shore, which, given the prominent theory that Richey Edwards jumped off the Wales-to-England Severn Bridge, is an incredibly eerie aesthetic adornment. There’s also the “I want to fly and run until it hurts” line from the enormous “Australia”, one of the most brilliant musical escape fantasies ever written. The Smashing Pumpkins-esque closer, “No Surface, All Feeling”, similarly seeks to flee from a tarnished history, asking, “What’s the point in looking back when all you see is more and more junk?”
Finally, there’s the achingly-sincere lyrical focus on the Manics’ relationship to life itself. Album highlight “Enola/Alone” is a wonder of a track: it’s an enormous, driving rock anthem full of poetic imagery and poignant insights. Plus, it features the key Everything Must Go lyric: “All I want to do is live / No matter how miserable it is”. Later, “Further Away” earns a distinction as the first Manics love song (which is particularly noteworthy since it’s the kind of track that the younger and angrier band swore they’d never write). Its unassuming yet moving lyrics about love and homesickness are immensely sweet, remaining on just the right side of triteness. Then, there’s the monolithic “No Surface All Feeling”, which carefully juggles mixed emotions and perfectly expresses the complicated feelings that come with growing apart from someone.
There’s actually a fourth category that could be added to the album’s thematic bedrock, as it sees the Manics holding a penchant for historical figures, too (a trend that really took off on Everything Must Go). The underrated “Interiors (Song For Willem De Kooning)” was inspired by a documentary Nicky Wire watched on the titular artist, while “Kevin Carter” is an abstract, angular portrayal of the South African photographer. Marrying a choppy guitar line and trumpet solo alongside some macabre imagery (“The elephant is so ugly / He sleeps his head, machetes his bed”), “Kevin Carter” is an idiosyncratic choice for a single that nonetheless made it to number nine in the UK charts.
It’s also one of several tracks on Everything Must Go that features lyrics authored by Edwards before his disappearance. There’s also “Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier” and “The Girl Who Wanted to Be God”, both of which are collaborations with Wire. Elsewhere, there’s the heartbreaking and masterful “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky” and the strange oddity “Removables”. The latter contains the album’s most strange and uncharacteristic sentiments (lines such as “killed god unsoiled skin dead again” feel especially dark and cold compared to the rest of Everything Must Go). Nevertheless, they serve as an interesting suggestion of the direction the Manics might have gone in had Edwards remained a member.
Everything Must Go is a haunted album, yet its greatest accomplishment is that it never feels oppressive or weighty. Rather, it’s the sound of a band fleeing from their history so that they can be reborn anew and take full control of their destiny. It catapulted them to mainstream success and secured their reputation as one of Wales’ finest modern cultural exports. Their career-long determination to remain true to their working-class roots whilst also exploring poetry, philosophy, and politics is on full, vibrant display here, making Everything Must Go a truly glorious thing to witness.