For Americans who haven’t been paying attention to the recent Welsh rock boomand that’s just about all of themlet’s start with this note: The English hate the Welsh.
Or at least they did a decade ago, when the Manic Street Preachersa messy, powerful, half-bluffing amalgam of the Clash and the New York Dollsveered out of Blackwood, South Wales, a town whose most euphonious neighbors are invoked in the miner’s lament “The Bells of Rhymney.” The band’s new album is called Know Your Enemy, but that could be the title of any of its six long-players. The Manics have always known their enemiesand their enemies have been quick to recognize them.
In the beginning, when the group attacked the very concept of catchy pop with the very catchy “Motown Junk,” the hostile response was largely ad hominem. Or rather, ad genum, since most of the letters that poured into New Musical Express attacked the Manics with such epithets as “sheep-shagging” and “lager louts.” (Comparably offensiveand antiquatedAmerican insults might involve cotton and watermelon.) On their debut, Generation Terrorists, the Manics attacked the queen, consumerism, and international capitalismand in return were told to bugger off because they’re Welsh.
And yet the trio (originally a quartet) isn’t all that Welsh. Unlike such Welsh-speaking groups as Catatonia, Super Furry Animals, and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, the Manics aren’t rooted in the principality’s ’80s Welsh-language punk scene. Bassist Nicky Wire’s historically conscious lyrics include some references to Welsh history, but the band’s stance owes less to Welsh nationalism than to the provincial British working-class experience that produced such diverse (but uniformly well-read) bands as the Smiths, Primal Scream, and the Mekons. Wire’s longstanding obsessions include the Spanish Civil War, and when the band decided to go populist, it dumped the Clash in favor of Guns N’ Roses. Remarkably, the resulting pomp rock turned everything around: The English came to love the Manics, who with 1996’s Everything Must Go became one of the U.K.’s biggest-selling acts.
Of course, there were a few changes along the way. The somewhat turgid sound of Albums 2 and 3, Gold Against the Soul and The Holy Bible, was streamlined on subsequent releases. And so was the band’s psychological profile: Second guitarist Richey James, who co-wrote the early albums’ self-loathing lyrics, disappeared in 1995, most likely by plunging into the River Severn. (Although James left his passport behind when he vanished, fans insist they’ve spotted him in various world capitals.)
As the Manics Americanized their sound, they also identified a new enemy: the United States of America. For musicians who take a leftist stancethe Manics would have been too hard-line for Billy Bragg’s pro-Labour Party “Red Wedge” campaignthis isn’t entirely unreasonable. Still, it’s easy to suppose that the Manics’ hostility toward the Great Satan has something to do with its indifference toward them. The band has been almost entirely ignored in the United States, in part because it’s never done a significant tour here. A 1995 jaunt was canceled when James disappeared; in 1999, an announced U.S. tour was repeatedly postponed and finally canceled after singer-guitarist James Dean Bradfield’s mother fell ill and then died.
Supposedly, the Manics will tour here to publicize Know Your Enemy. But they’ve already started their American campaign: The trio played its first show after releasing the album in Havana, with Fidel Castro in the audience. It wasn’t an entirely idle gesturethe disc’s “Baby Elian” rewrites the story of the Cuban youngster, who was “kidnapped to the promised land/America/The devil’s playground”but it was an infelicitous one, a bit like being the final Brit-commie band to play a command performance for Nicolae Ceausescu. African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson is a worthier and more appropriate role modelin his 1940 film The Proud Valley, Robeson even made common cause with Welsh minersbut songs such as the new “Let Robeson Sing” can’t help but make the Manics’ politics seem quaint.
Because Britain’s other world-beating rock band sweats to devise phrases such as “D’you know what I mean?” and “Roll with it,” Wire’s bookish, overearnest lyrics have some appeal. What makes Know Your Enemy the best Manics album since Generation Terrorists, however, is the music. Circling back on the band’s neo-punk origins, the disc is a baby Sandinista!, whose most galvanizing songs (“Found That Soul,” “Intravenous Agnostic,” “The Year of Purification”) begin at a Clashlike gallop. Most unexpectedly, Bradfield and co-composer Sean Moore (drums, programming, and trumpet) have rediscovered melody.
Most of the songs on Everything Must Go and its successor, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, were stately dirges whose hooks were more likely to be found in the arrangements than the choruses. Know Your Enemy, by contrast, is so sure of its hummability that it even includes a Merseybeat-style pop rocker (“So Why So Sad”). Not one of the 16 tracks is as melodically dull as such U.K. Manics hits as “A Design for Life” or “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.” But that doesn’t mean that some of the songs aren’t clunkers; Bradfield’s first-ever lyric, “Ocean Spray,” is awkwardalthough because it’s about his mother it seems heartless to notice. The Manics also lack the bravura (and perhaps the genius) for full Sandinista!-style eclecticism; such prim genre exercises as “Miss Europa Disco Dancer” and “Wattsville Blues” sound exactly the way you’d expect them to.
In addition to the stalwart miners and farmers who went to fight Franco, Wire and his cohorts admire modernist painters, especially abstract expressionists. This album’s tunes include “His Last Painting” and “My Guernica,” and previous discs have paid homage to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Yet the Manics have been coloring within the lines ever since abandoning their spray-paint- and mascara-smudged early style. They may want a revolution, but musically they’re just not meant for insurrection. Know Your Enemy is well-crafted, professional rock music, with a mere chaser of anarchy. Maybe that’s why the Manics are so attracted to yesterday’s ideological struggles: They want to storm the barricades, but first they’d like to know how everything’s going to turn out.
One function served by the Welsh pop-music sceneas by other regional uprisings semidistant from trendy Londonis to restore rock’s traditional verities. Bands from Cardiff, Glasgow, or Manchester can get away with writing songs, playing guitars, and other reactionary (but curiously effective) gambits. They can even have distinctive singersa very suspicious attribute indeed in the age of rapping, looping, and sampling. It’s no accident that two of the most popular old-style voices to beguile Britain in the late ’90s came from Wales: belter Cerys Matthews, of Catatonia, and growler Kelly Jones, of Stereophonics.
On the latter trio’s 1997 debut, Word Gets Around, Jones sounded like a folk-rock Rod Stewart, offering gravel-voiced, precisely observed vignettes of life in his native Cwmaman (another town in “The Bells of Rhymney” zone). The minimalist sound didn’t hold Jones’ attention for long, however. Stereophonics’ second album, Performance and Cocktails, pumped up the hard-rock bombastand became a massive British hit. (Although the Anglophone Stereophonics caused a brief furor in the London-based music press by leading cheers for the Welsh rugby team, the English chauvinism that originally greeted the Manics had withered by the time the later band came along.) Jones followed the second disc’s success with two acoustic toursneither featuring both of the band’s other membersthat suggested the songwriter was interested in returning to a simpler style.
Just Enough Education to Perform demonstrates otherwise. The album is more diverse and less blustering than its predecessor, but even fussier. Although only a few supplementary players are listed, none of these 11 tracks resemble the work of the spare trio that made Word Gets Around. The opening “Vegas Two Times,” with its arena-rock guitar and gospel choir, sets the overweening tone. If Jones’ lyrics are no longer so sharp or connected as they once were, at their best they still have the simplicity and directness of sketches. The album’s arrangements, however, are too plush for his songs’ simple lines. Only “Have a Nice Day,” buoyed by Just Enough’s merriest melody, doesn’t get swamped.
The sound is not the album’s only encumbrance. Like most songwriters who spend too much time away from their original inspirations, Jones has taken to writing songs about life on the road. Although he still prefers observing others to revealing his own thoughts, he now renders portraits of beggars, journalists, cabdrivers, vacationers, and other people he’s encountered only in passing. The resulting verses often seem superficial and sometimes even condescending. Just Enough Education to Perform finds Jones’ skills undiminished, but his vision clouded. CP