This year sees the 20th anniversary of Manic Street Preachers’ Everything Must Go, Getintothis’ David Hall revisits a moving record born of turmoil.
The years surrounding Everything Must Go’s release were tumultuous to say the least. Off the back of the Manic Street Preachers’ most critically-acclaimed work The Holy Bible, guitarist Richey Edwards, recognised equally for his brilliant and poetic lyrics as the severe depression he lived with, disappeared mysteriously at the age of twenty-seven.
Richey had spent the majority of his time in the band up until his 1995 departure – whether fans and outside observers knew it or not – unravelling in a horribly inevitable fashion in a grim downward spiral. Nearing the end of The Holy Bible’s touring cycle, something had to give. Edwards was institutionalised in an attempt at convalescence and negotiations progressed to bestow upon him a Brian Wilson-style non-touring writing role. Tours were cancelled; Edwards spent a great deal of time drinking and edged towards the brink of total collapse.
When that something did indeed give at the end of The Holy Bible tour, it did so in a far more disturbing way than anybody could possibly have foreseen. Edwards didn’t just kill himself, or even vanish, so much as fade gradually from reality. He was seen and spoken to in the weeks that followed his initial exit from a London hotel, until a trail that few were following gradually, agonisingly went cold. He has since been declared ‘missing presumed dead’ in 2008.
Bearing all this in mind, the backstory of Everything Must Go must surely stem from one of the most emotionally exhausting periods it’s possible to imagine a group of friends experiencing, never mind a band. The fact that Manic Street Preachers didn’t dissolve, or that the three remaining members – guitarist/vocalist James Dean Bradfield, drummer/songwriter Sean Moore and bassist/lyricist Nicky Wire – didn’t break down emotionally themselves following Edwards’ disappearance was incredible. That they were able to produce not only a work of creativity, but an artistic and career highpoint so disparate to what they had previously done is just as remarkable.
The psychological torture Bradfield, Moore and Wire must have gone through during this turmoil (not to mention Edwards’ family of course) is unimaginably immense. They had also spent the previous few years treading on eggshells while Edwards teetered on the emotional edge; dip into literally any Manics biography and you’ll be as shocked at the near-daily scares revolving around Edwards as you’ll be impressed by his bandmates’ courage amidst his fragility.
During this period, the Manics were a band ever weighted down as if wearing cement shoes, constantly swimming against a self-imposed current. Whether it was ill-advised media antagonisation, a broad self-aggrandising streak (they promised to sell 16 million copies of their exhaustive debut then disband, but shifted barely 250,000 worldwide), or the unavoidable but nevertheless distractory disintegrating mental health of Edwards, their music never seemed centre of attention.
So when they did return with Everything Must Go in 1996, it felt very much like the reins were taken off and they were able to spread their wings, free from – with all due respect – Edwards’ baggage weighing them down. The album’s release followed Edwards’ disappearance by just over a year, Everything Must Go was populated by his lyrics on five tracks. Listening now, it’s almost as if the record itself provided a closure for the band members that Edwards’ disappearance did not. Arguably life itself is a narrative which can never be concluded and completed as satisfactorily as art or fiction, and so we must use these endings as proxies to our own. Everything Must Go is a case in point.
The differences in sound between Everything Must Go and The Holy Bible are so broad that they barely need stating. The Holy Bible’s abrasive, heavily flanged guitars, death rattle riffs and dolorous atmosphere are all gone. Replaced by a naturalistic, organic sound, acoustic guitars, keyboards, string sections; an incredibly broad palette. It’s all a far cry from the celebrated but terse post-punk kraut-rock of the third Manics record. Everything Must Go’s secret weapon therefore is really so blindingly obvious as to be no secret at all; there are so many strings to its bow that its sheer eclecticism is its winning suit.
James Dean Bradfield’s fearless vocal certainly didn’t do any harm to the band’s chart credentials, and neither did his and Moore’s hookish, economical songwriting. Most tracks are so famous that they barely need description, whether Kevin Carter’s arch guitar work and offbeat drums, or A Design for Life’s keening chord progression and sweeping strings.
More conceptually, it’s the break from The Holy Bible’s all-consuming monomania that is so impressive about Everything Must Go. Serial killers, the Holocaust and prostitution are all themes tackled by The Holy Bible, which finds worse still when it looks inside itself; anorexia, aging and ultimately nihilism. The Manics’ previous record almost revelled in its own horror, looking at the world and seeing only, to appropriate JG Ballard and Joy Division, an atrocity exhibition.
Compare this to Everything Must Go, where there are moments of sheer, breakneck catharsis. This is most pointedly evident on Australia, a galloping, poppy, melody-soaked waterfall beneath which band and listener are drenched together. The band run amok, adding layer after layer; with every drum fill, every new chord progression, every barely-protruding melody line, the song seems to just want to multiply exponentially. The sharp, monosyllabic chorus “I want to fly and run ‘til it hurts, sleep for a while and speak no words” and drawn-out vocal note over the main riff acting as payoff late in the song would never have made it past Edwards’ scrutiny, one feels. Australia casts itself literally half a world away from all of the troubles and afflictions of life.
The missing link musically between Everything and what had come before it proves to be the heavy closer All Surface No Feeling, which Edwards contributed guitar to its condensed, fuzzy outro. Although its distortion is more suggestive of the Manics’ earlier work, passages of near-silence in its verses – single strums of clean guitar chords that die away to near nothing over a motorik drum track – are nothing like The Holy Bible.
You can feel release and catharsis throughout the album, in the spacious arrangements exemplified by Australia or No Surface, no longer scrawled over with endless words and even instrumentation conveying vastly differing emotions to the Manics’ past work. Consider for example the solo section of The Holy Bible’s Archives of Pain, which writhes and winds up, pressurised into such a fervour that it feels almost more claustrophobic at its conclusion than even at the most verbose passages. Contrast this with Interiors (Song For Willem De Kooning), a bright and optimistic acceptance of such a shift, Bradfield’s voice reaching into a high register over a climbing chord sequence, and later features stabs of mid-tone guitar over a solo occupying far bassier scale sections, echoing the lacerations of colour that characterise De Kooning’s paintings.
Ever willing to experiment with unconventional guitar tones, Everything Must Go’s palette is often overlooked in this regard, from Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier’s trebly distortion to the clean, natural rumble of Removables.
Even The Girl Who Wanted To Be God (arguably the weakest track on offer) is kept anchored by its octave-scaling chorus amidst a string-laden storm, Mike Hedges’ wall-of-sound production job here and elsewhere an often-overlooked triumph of the album. Whereas Gold Against the Soul was ostentatiously polished and The Holy Bible hermetically sealed and sterilized, Everything Must Go is sublime and expansive. Check out the title track’s barrelling timpanis, its drum track sounding compressed as strings blare; Wire’s bass gallops while Bradfield’s slashed guitar chords streak the song through a confessional theme. As production decisions go, A Design For Life’s singular outro of unadorned drums is certainly a key one.
Lyrically, Everything Must Go occupies much less confessional turf than The Holy Bible; although the themes tackled here are just as difficult as previously confronted. Expressionist painter Willem De Kooning suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease later in his career, and would often create work he would almost immediately forget entirely. Photographic journalist Kevin Carter worked primarily in famine-hit areas of Africa, and struggled to reconcile the disparity between remaining impartial and stepping in to affect the often-horrifying scenes he captured on film; so much so that Carter took his own life. “The pain of life overrides joy to the point that joy no longer exists” he wrote in his suicide note with a morbid poeticism that clearly caught Richey Edwards’ eye. Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier explores the British obsession with American pop culture; The Girl Who Wanted to Be God is a phrase used by a seventeen-year-old Sylvia Plath in her diaries, symptomatic of a career-long struggle with identity:
“I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote. I want to be free […] I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself ‘The girl who wanted to be God’”
But none – or rather, very little of this – is directly explored in the lyrics. We are given far more enigmatic, expressionistic glimpses of the ideas explored rather than the explicit dissection that Edwards offered.
Have a band’s intentions for a song, an album, their continuation as an entity ever been so baldly stated as on Everything Must Go – both track and album? Even A Design For Life makes considerable headway into exploring what it means for the artists to continue their endeavours. The song celebrates and questions the conspicuous absence of the working class – which Bradfield, Moore and Wire identify heavily with given their upbringing – in British society, appearing to question whether they could actually make an indentation into music industry hierarchy. This is exemplified in the Design For Life video by a clip from The Last Night of the Proms, held up an example of upper class privilege; “We don’t talk about love” Bradfield sings in the chorus, calling into question the validity of popular music’s low art versus the high art of classical.
A Design For Life and Everything Must Go, although eventually both reaching the same conclusion, even seem at conceptual loggerheads with each other. Whereas Design For Life is obsessed with the past and with heritage (“To wear the scars/ To show from where I came”), Everything Must Go is appropriately titled, utterly rejecting what has come before, as it cites a need to “escape from our history”.
Does the past weigh us down or propel us to greater things? The answer seems somewhere in between; the Manics themselves would take several more records over further years to resolve this conflict, but for their fourth album, they determined that the past required quarantine. Losing Richey must have been a shock. The realisation that, at least in the short term, the band was able to function almost identically without him must have felt conflicted, which perhaps explains this decision.
Edwards’ shadow looms unavoidably and enormously over Everything Must Go’s entirety, from the sparse cover art onward. Segmented portraits of the band members with poignantly empty parentheses stretched below the title occupy a calm, otherworldly blue background, its triptych structure gently echoing Jenny Saville’s severe Holy Bible cover art.
There is a lingering sense of bereavement present at times, and never more prevalent than on the stark Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky, whose sentiments really stick in the throat, with the hindsight of subsequent events. To the Manics’ credit, there is never the sense that their bandmate is speaking from beyond the grave; they succeed in transcending their loss, and the record feels more of triumph than a séance.