Manic Street Preachers: Lifeblood (20th Anniversary Edition) (Sony) - review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, May 21st, 2024  

Manic Street Preachers

Lifeblood (20th Anniversary Edition)

Sony

Apr 15, 2024 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Manic Street Preachers have often attempted to distance themselves from their stylized seventh album, Lifeblood. Haunted by a poor reaction from their followers and mainstream audiences, they hoped to seal it away and never speak of it again. But times have changed and now it has come to be regarded as a lost gem and a fan favorite. They now resurrect the record for its 20th anniversary with a gorgeous re-issue packed full of B-sides, rarities, and alternative versions of key tracks.

Lifeblood followed the Forever Delayed greatest hits tour and saw singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, drummer Sean Moore, and lyricist/bassist Nicky Wire choose to team up their regular collaborator Greg Haver with Tony Visconti, the fabled producer of choice of David Bowie in a rare stray away from their long-term collaborator Dave Eringa. It was a purposeful change in sound and image away from anything organic, forgoing anthemic rock for a far more stylised direction. This was a record derived from the sterile electronic pop and synth rock from the likes of New Order and Simple Minds that dominated indie circles and their adolescence in the ’80s.

Visconti had been instrumental in creating a strange sci-fi sound as heard on Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, which was another direct influence on Lifeblood. And though he was the perfect choice for the assignment, many listeners were quick to dismiss the new direction as too cold or purposefully alienating. The artwork, reminiscent of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition, also reinforced the alien aspects of the record.

However, as moods have changed and the band has continued to develop and experiment, Lifeblood has shed its stigma and undergone a renaissance to now be seen as a vital precursor to their current exciting era of art rock.

First released on November 1, 2004, Lifeblood was an album truly out of step with the musical landscape, even by the Manics terms. Nu-metal was still a mainstream movement whilst indie audiences had just become obsessed with the scuzzy garage rock as typified by The Strokes, The Libertines, and a thousand other generic Topshop adorned landfill indie “saviours of rock n’ roll” clogging up the airwaves. So, dropping a delicate and nuanced crystalline art pop album was always going to be a risk.

It wasn’t the first time the Manics had been willfully obstinate. The glam rock of Generation Terrorists was a snotty retaliation to the brain-dead hedonism of baggy Madchester and Gold Against the Soul ignored grunge in favor of metal. They would later release punk art statement album Know Your Enemy in retaliation to an era of melancholic-tinged anthemic indie they had inadvertently ushered in.

But whilst the previously mentioned LPs had been a rallying cry to their fans, Lifeblood came close to alienating large chunks of their own audience. This odd new direction was too soft for the old fans, who wanted a return to the firebrand sloganeering and furious guitar riffs, and too bizarre for the casual fans drawn to the radio-friendly anthems of Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. This time their focus was firmly on themselves, as made clear by the Descartes quote “Conquer yourself rather than the world” inscribed on the artwork.

Also, the lead single “The Love of Richard Nixon” seemed to eulogize who had till then been America’s most dubious president, at once a monster in the eyes of the left and a continuing embarrassment for the right in the U.S. It was a song inspired by spite as much as Oliver Stone’s acclaimed political thriller that found sympathy for the Watergate crook. The avowed socialists felt they had more common ground with the dogged determination of the so-called dodgy second-hand car salesman who was prepared to go to any lengths to get the job done rather than the painfully pious liberal middle class. It’s a scathing reaction to the likes of faux radical poster boys like Radiohead, so eager to be seen saying the right thing yet never get their hands dirty with realpolitik.

Chasing neither popular support nor playing to their fans resulted in relatively poor sales and Lifeblood peaked at No. 13 in the charts, their lowest-ever position matched only by their first LP, Generation Terrorists. But back in ’92, the skinny white jean-wearing back-combed Blackwood boys were just getting started and were ready for a challenge. Having enjoyed considerable mainstream success after being inadvertently swept up in the madness of Britpop, this felt like a significant defeat, and they would begin to reject the record even whilst touring it. And whilst both “The Love of Richard Nixon” and the second single “Empty Souls” reached No. 2 in the charts, the record was quickly shelved and filed away as a mistake by both the band and fanbase alike.

That is until recent years when “Solitude Sometimes Is” crept back into the live rotation to my tremendous joy as it’s one of my all-time favourite Manics songs. It’s the perfect summarisation of that limbo of depression, how life lacks any epic story and that desire to either destroy everything or to somehow just get away from it all. The gentle build towards a huge chorus married with honest lyrics best typifies the written-off record, which soothes rather than rages. By the time of its return, the musical landscape has shifted so significantly that it is now rare to hear an alternative song that doesn’t have a synth in there somewhere. The reintroduction of “Solitude Sometimes Is” promoted a renewed interest and revaluation with many in the fanbase beginning to admit to a fondness for the glacial album that had slowly moved into the right place over a long time. By the time the reissue was announced, the demand seemed higher than when it was first released.

This 20th anniversary edition of Lifeblood comes as either a standard or red double-vinyl, including a remastered version of the album overseen by James Dean Bradfield. For those wanting to go on a deep dive, there is a three-CD deluxe edition presented in a beautiful book once again, which always looks lovely but sticks out awkwardly from the rest of your record collection. Plus, a standard CD version of the album too.

There have been no changes to the order of tracks like the slight rejigging of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours or the drastic reworking of Know Your Enemy, which was finally released according to its original vision. But this is still a magnificent opportunity to revisit this oft-maligned record now it’s been tweaked and remastered. The aforementioned “Empty Souls” has beefed up the drums and just begs to be brought back into the live fold, “To Repel Ghost” ironically feels way more substantial with the bass turned up, and “Cardiff Afterlife” has been cleaned up and Bradfield’s multi-tracked vocals sound divine.

Listening 20 years on takes me back to my graduation year as a politics student at Leeds University. The themes of coming of age and the uncertainty that follows the evaporating youthful confidence resonate as much now as they did then. Rather than taking on the world, Wire revealed he and the band were constantly looking for distractions, small comforts, or a means to escape in “A Song for Departure” and “I Live to Fall Asleep.” The brittle beauty of being worn thin with worry is so apparent on “Always/Never,” “To Repel Ghosts,” and “Fragments,” yet somehow the trio seem to smile through the pain and transform it into something magnificent.

But if there is an air of defeat in the tone of Lifeblood, Wire also shares his hope in such intellectual heroes as Emily Pankhurst, George Orwell. and Friedrick Nietzsche plus comfort he gains from popstars Johnny Marr, Stephen Morrissey, and even their own Richey Edwards. And “Glasnost,” directed to their devotees, is the closest the Manics will ever come to writing a straight-up love song.

The second CD compiles all the brilliant B-sides and it’s great for both avid collectors to revisit and a chance for newer fans to discover such great songs as “Askew Road,” which references their early days staying at former manager Martin’s Hall’s house and wouldn’t sound amiss on a Stanley Kubrick film. Also, check out the menacing dub of “Everything Will Be” and “All Alone Here,” which could easily have been an album track. Make sure you check out Wire’s spoken word track “Failure Bound,” which was released back when hearing Wire’s voice on tape was still a bit of a novelty and the sinister “Everyone Knows/Nobody Cares.”

It also gives fans like me the chance to finally hear “Antarctic,” which seemingly informed their later song “Golden Platitudes” as heard on Postcards From A Young Man and “The Soulmates,” which is heavily inspired by their favorite band Mcarthy. “Antarctic” and “The Soulmates” were tagged onto the Japanese version as bonus tracks. Plus, art-rock songwriter Steven Wilson and electropop sensation Gwenno provide their unique takes on “1985” too, which are such radical interpretations veering wildly and wonderfully from the original material.

But for the truly devoted, the real pleasure with these anniversary editions is the third CD packed full of demos and alternative versions giving the hardcore fans a peek behind the curtain of the creative process and breathing new life into familiar songs. We now get to see “1985” change from its piano-based genesis into a primitive version of the space age song. “The Love of Richard Nixon” grows from a slow drum machine demo to a more familiar live rehearsal and it’s fascinating to hear the carefully made decisions, painstaking perfections, and incremental changes before taking their final form. It’s especially endearing hearing Bradfield singing all the guitar parts he’ll be adding later to tracks like “I Live to Fall Asleep” and “Cardiff Afterlife.”

Plus there are a few Visconti versions of tracks giving a wider perspective of what could have been and a live gig at the hallowed Maida Vale studios chucked in for good measure. You certainly can’t say the Manics haven’t gone all out with the three-CD deluxe edition and their hardcore fans are certainly in for a treat.

I’ve always maintained that the Manics are at their best when they strike out on their own. Previous attempts to forge their own path had been met with immediate success, whether it was creating a devoted fanbase with the glam rock double debut LP Generation Terrorists, the widespread critical acclaim of the acerbic post-punk masterpiece The Holy Bible, or finally breaking into the mainstream consciousness with Everything Must Go.

Lifeblood was another example of the bloody-minded band taking a path less trodden, and their obsession with commercial success and cultivating obsessive fan adoration left them snow-blind to a true creative high. Having been largely hidden for two decades has certainly added to its mystique and allure, but it’s more than just aged well. It can now be seen as an early precursor to their current era of art-pop as heard on their two most recent records, Resistance If Futile and The Ultra Vivid Lament, the latter of which topped the British charts in 2021. It may have had a frosty reception initially, but their cold, crystalline record now receives a warm welcome back. (www.manicstreetpreachers.com)

Author rating: 9/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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