Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Holy Bible II: this time it's (even) more personal...

“Come and walk down memory lane...”
So cosily nostalgic an offer may sound inviting yet jarring enough to hear it from the Manic Street Preachers, let alone from their infamously forbidding The Holy Bible LP, let alone from a song about the Holocaust, let alone one named for good measure “Mausoleum”.
And yet, to adapt the chorus of a track two songs along said album: “I close my eyes - and this is yesterday...”
Ah, almost - or else, if only. The jagged and harrowing edge of the former, and deceptively gentle wistfulness of the latter, were among the many highlights of Monday evening’s first London leg of the band’s 20th anniversary Holy Bible tour.
The whole of that almost-literally-blistering LP is being played live in full each night this bleak midwinter, to rave reviews and ecstatic audiences that may have felt inconceivable when the album first landed amid Britpop’s first dawn 20 long summers ago. Let alone at a set-trashing Astoria performance in December 1994 which has gone down in Manic fans’ folklore, not least for it being Richey Edwards’ last live concert.
His “presence” here at the Roundhouse - video setting for “A Design For Life”, the group’s traumatised yet defiant comeback single as a threepiece in 1996 - amount to several awe-ful while knockabout namechecks and a spotlight empty space to singer James Dean Bradfield’s right. That is, when the frontman was not Tiggerishly bounding too far astray from his own centre-spot.
Bug-ridden James may have brought a certain hoarseness to the album’s existing, ominous sparseness, frequently apologising for his condition while lavishing the singalonga audience with praise and thanks.
Initially it seemed some of the lines he opted not to voice might have some inner significance - in eviscerating opener “Yes”, he managed “Can’t shout, can’t scream” but not “I hurt myself to get pain out”.
Similarly, perhaps intriguingly, he then followed up with “Just an ambulance, at the bottom” but left out the “of a cliff” - emotional resonance, considering speculation about what ultimately became of bandmate Richey? 
Then again, also missing was the album’s very last line, from crunchily powerpoppy “PCP”: “Pass the Prozac - designer amnesia-a-a-a-a-a-ac...”
Such sardonic comfort could suitably remain unspoken from the stage, mind - and not just because a raucous 3,300-strong audience was hollering along to every densely-crammed word anyway.
Much modern relevance still resounds - leaps out, even - from these 20-year-old tracks, whether the political correctness/corporate homegeneity exasperation of “PCP” or the racial tensions of “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruth..." (“vital stats, how white was his skin - unimportant, just another inner-city drive-by thing”) or just how lethally clay-footed world leaders/dictators remain while yet remaining blithely untouched (“Who’s responsible? You f***ing are...”)
Yet for its formidably ferocious reputation, the splintered edges, the splenetic calls to shredded arms and the unforgiving self-loathing/self-knowing, The Holy Bible is still such a bleakly beautiful - if beautifully bleak - work of art, work of wall-scrawling poetry and aggressively passive (im)passion.
Those tightly-packed lyrics do not only cast interminably-jaundiced eyes over but also confront, mourn and protest many of the 20th century’s most gruesome atrocities, whether committed by famous-name autocrats or infamous-name serial killer criminals.
Such un/healthy preoccupations with, say, concentration camps, gulags and by implication future inexorable nightmares never seem to cheapen the victims of all such allusions, while also defending against potential allegations of such self-indulgence elsewhere.
“Self-disgust is self-obsession, honey, and I do as I please,” James boasts Rotten-ly on “Faster” - “such beautiful dignity in self-abuse” his defiant anorexic narrator pleads in “4st 7lb”.
Such defiance in the embrace of defeat - and yet sardonic knowingness nudges in, as well, in that offhand (self-)laceration, of “Of Walking Abortion”, of: “Fucked-up, don’t know why - you poor little boy...”
The personal is political, the political is personal, and behind it all the personal is invariably, excruciatingly even more personal. Whoever that person is. However hail-worthy many of Richey’s heartfelt lyrics come across, there are some that hit their mark smudgingly - their specific references and meaning clearest only to him, in that moment, while powerful regardless.
And yet this vast crowd - some in 1994-vintage camouflage costumes, or sailor suits, or leopard-print tops, or glittery tiaras, others merely in jeans and paisley shirts, office M&S or weather-related Christmas jumpers - deliriously croons to some of the unlikeliest community chorales.
“Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals” - “Wherever you go I will be carcass, whatever you see will be rotting flesh” - “Six million screaming souls - maybe misery, maybe nothing at all...”
Party. On.
Well, this is after all a band who - a few years on from their biblical epic - would somehow take to number one in the singles chart a song daring to be about the Spanish Civil War and bearing the name of “If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next”. And this in summer (1998), an’ all, succeeding the Spice Girls and Boyzone at the summit.
Acknowledging the, er, difficult of some of this evening’s refrains, Nicky Wire made the most of his non-singalongable microphone to introduce “Mausoleum” as “the singalong song of the winter” - before ostentatiously counting in, “1-2-3-4”, each under-lifting chorus of: “No birds, no birds - the sky is swollen black - no birds, no birds - holy mass of dead insects...”
The Manics do have a sense of humour, after all, it seems - why, many of Nicky’s most contentious remarks in the past seem borne more from mischief than bad taste for bad taste’s sake. And this mind dimly recalls first becoming more aware of them through a feature in a video games magazine, touting their second album while rhapsodising about the Sega Master System.
Another misconception back then, if not necessarily since, is that they could barely play their instruments - even slightly harsh on the Stuart Sutcliffe-ish Richey, but now demolished every time James breaks out another effortless arpeggio or discordant yet crystalline lick, Sean Moore boulders between militaristic pounding and ironic chugalug, Nicky gracefully yet propulsively as his 6ft 7in frame sends another McCartney-ish creative bassline juddering from stomach towards larynx.
At times at the Roundhouse the overall sound might have missed a certain something of the original LP’s caustic claustrophobia, an arena echo kicking in instead and even his cold not entirely explaining while the older-now James can’t always shriek the highest notes quite like way back when.
Yet the pathos passing much understanding endures - and envelops. Some of the bitterest lyrics ever committed to record by a major-league band get raucously called back and beyond by an army of thousands. While the inkling of a feeling hits that for many here such wound-stretchingly honest words not only connect to, say, student or teenage memories of admiring an album but feeling a connection and emotions too often felt unexpressed elsewhere, instead merely left festering within.
The insightful anorexic of “4st 7in”, the provocatively petulant “architect”/”butcher” of “Faster”, the sarcastic self-loather of “Of Walking Abortion” or the sickly failed lover/political student of “Revol” - all might find even the vaguest, while fulfilling, fellow-feeler.
Recent sad(sack) sentiments may have placed this listener among those to whom tears already spring a little too readily from crinkling, sprinkling eyes, while catching half-breaths and wondering just why, yet simultaneously finding fingers curling instinctively around long-fading yet remaining scarred arms.
One lesson from the Manics’ The Holy Bible, at least, is however not necessarily to celebrate yet at least recognise what depth of human emotions can and do flood both conscious and subconscious, well, living. Of sorts.
Between fleeting megalomania and floundering misery, many drab and dramatic moments come and go - whatever the surface, all feeling. And for all the pity or pain, the intensity remains something to cherish - on record, on stage or in life.
Some 20 sad and strange and sadder years on from such a notoriously cold and forbidding and personal LP, The Holy Bible on nights such as this reveals itself to have somehow become more or less warm and enduring and communal to an audience as well.
Every crowd, united in the occasion, comprising a multitude of potentially lonely souls, trying to stay a fixed ideal. And hopefully finding at least one of Richey’s lyrics does not quite ring true.
“Nothing turns out like you want it to”?
Yes. Definitely maybe, to quote an LP jarringly released the very same day.
Except, briefly, on an otherwise-bleak midwinter London evening two short decades along.