This is an astonishing album. Astonishing not only because the music is excellent, whilst the lyrics are varied and exactly rendered, but because it was produced by the most trying of circumstances. It seems impossible to discuss Everything Must Go outside of the context of Richey Edwards’s disappearance. A year before the album was released, the band’s lyricist and icon went missing, never to be heard from again. He disappeared the night before he and frontman James Dean Bradfield were due to fly to the USA for a round of interviews promoting the group’s third album, The Holy Bible. The Holy Bible: a caustic, nihilistic, erudite, perverse, self-righteous and unceasingly powerful record. 27 years of intellectual horror at human political history condensed into less than an hour. In short: a seminal work of art that the band would have struggled to replicate, even if they had wished to do so. Of course, in the wake of Edwards’s disappearance an even more radical departure was required.
The album’s title is a direct confrontation of this reality. The cover has empty parentheses hanging below the title, tacitly acknowledging that something is missing. Yet to see the title solely as a comment on the group’s history and future direction is also to limit it. ‘Everything Must Go’ is a consumerist slogan, the antithesis of the band’s Socialism, which by adopting they acknowledge a kind of failure, accepting that the transformation of British society under (by then) 17 years of Conservative rule would not simply be reversed. This is the first of their albums to feature the band’s portraits on the front, but rather than showing the glam-punks of their previous incarnation, it features three young men in smart, anonymous shirts. They could be almost any band in the country at the height of Britpop. They are beginning to reconcile themselves to the political and cultural mainstream.
Yet ‘Everything Must Go’ is also hyperbole. The band radically altered their sound, their appearance and their subject matter on this album, but they retained the essentials. Songs with lyrical contributions from Edwards were developed rather than jettisoned and politics still permeates the album, most notably in ‘A Design For Life’. The liner notes credit ‘Inspiration’ to ‘Tower Colliery, Cyon [sic] Valley, South Wales’, a colliery that was bought by miners with their redundancy packages after it was closed by the Tories and then run successfully as a co-operative. It is easy to see that, for this band, here was a potent symbol of change as defiance, of acceptance as a subtle reassertion of one’s core identity and beliefs. Before even listening to a note of the music, the album has already made a statement. Had it retained its working title (the rather bland ‘Sounds in the Grass’) it would not have had such an impact.
Most of the songs on the album can be placed into one of two broad categories. There are those with lyrics written by Edwards, and those by Nicky Wire about, or in response to, Edwards’s disappearance. It is the combination of, and contrast between, these two sets of songs that give the album its character and power. Edwards’s lyrics are nihilistic, damaged and cutting, while Wire’s, in their own way just as bleak, retain a spark of hope. The one line that holds the album’s sentiment in microcosm is in ‘Enola/Alone’ when Wire, through the mouth of Bradfield, declares ‘All I want to do is live / No matter how miserable it is’. Not the most ringing endorsement of existence, perhaps, but still a vibrant manifesto when compared to vanishing without notice.
Everything Must Go begins very differently, though. The sound of lapping waves and something high pitched and distorted, a backwards played tape recording, before some gentle plucking on a harp. Finally, 30 seconds in, the forceful strumming of an acoustic guitar arrives and Bradfield begins singing about Elvis impersonators in Blackpool. The lyrics are hard to parse. Wire, who completed Edwards’s draft, once suggested that the song is about a kind of cultural vagrancy, ‘kids wearing American basketball tops and stuff’. Viewed another way, the setting of the song ‘20 ft high on Blackpool promenade’ and the description of a titular character as ‘overweight and out of date’, who resolves that ‘The future’s dead / Burn the memory’, could suggest a protagonist contemplating suicide.
The verse is built around a sequence of 10 chords, repeated once. The progression begins in G, but as it proceeds it lacks an obvious tonic and is unresolved, conveying this sense of dislocation. The second time around, the harp is reintroduced, plucking arpeggios that add a whimsical edge pushing against the narrative of the acoustic guitar. And then, as Bradfield bellows ‘All American trilogy’, bass, drums and an overdriven guitar, playing power chords, enter, as a key change places the song comfortably in A major. Seemingly, an uncomplicated rock song explodes, leaving behind the ambiguity. Yet at the climax of the song, just after Bradfield snarls that ‘It’s so fucking funny’, the guitars rest and the harp is heard swooping over feedback, leaving a moment of hazy uncertainty before the guitars crash back in.
Another chorus follow and a guitar solo follow, before the outro finally rests on a minor 7th chord and the waves are heard again, along with a distorted recording of Bradfield singing ‘Oh I wish I was in Dixie, away, away / In Dixieland I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie’, from Elvis’s ‘American Trilogy’. The singer has become the impersonator and the meaning of the song, along with the identification it seeks with American versus British culture, is further obscured.
The song is 3 ½ minutes long, but feels less. It is a strange way to begin an album and something of a false start. However, with the ringing arpeggios of ‘A Design for Life’, the album proper is underway.
A riposte to the patronising class tourism of Blur and their ilk, as exemplified by the hideous faux-rave of ‘Girls and Boys’, ‘A Design for Life’ is a song of self-affirmation. The oft misunderstood couplet ‘We don’t talk about love / We only want to get drunk’ is neither endorsement nor ‘ironic’ appropriation (Blur’s schtick). Nicky Wire was not attacking the uncomplicated hedonism represented by Oasis (a band the Manics would go on to support on a US tour and at Oasis’s gig at Knebworth), but emphasising that such behaviour is not the only marker of working class identity. Yet the song is also an elegy. ‘Libraries gave us power’ may celebrate the band’s place in the tradition of the intellectual working class, but it is immediately followed by ‘Then work came and made us free’, a recognition of the manual working class’s decline, along with much of the Welfare State’s support system. These have been replaced by the fetishisation of avarice, as the Capitalist system continues to reserve culture for those with the money and leisure time to consume it. It is a situation echoed by the bridge, exclaiming, ‘We are not allowed to spend / As we are told that this is the end’; consumer power is similarly reserved for the elite. The working class intellectuals and artists are silently ignored as a contradiction in terms within this paradigm. Hence the desire for ‘a bottle / Right here in my dirty face / To wear the scars / To show from where I came’, so that an appropriate signifier of class is possessed by the estranged intellectual. The chorus, a simple repetition of the title simultaneously attacks this social and cultural stratification, whilst presenting themselves as the alternative.
The video for this, the lead single, is one of the best of Manic Street Preachers’ career and emphasises this dichotomy. In a warehouse, the band play the song in their new shirts (though Wire’s ochre one, in sporting a red star, is vintage Manics fashion). Behind them a screen displays footage representing the class war (the last night of the Proms contrasted with drunken working class people jumping about on a beach) and slogans. These begin with some that are aesthetic: ‘USEFUL IS BEAUTIFUL’, and ‘UGLINESS CORRUPTS THE HEART AND MIND’. When the more explicitly political ones then appear, specifically the (mis)quotation from Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘HOPE LIES IN THE PROLES’, it ties the realisation of a better political future in with the development of valuable working class artistic culture. Even more challenging are those that follow, their scope and inspiration familiar to old fans, but more shocking to new listeners: ‘WHEN FREEDOM EXISTS THERE WILL BE NO STATE’ (Lenin) and ‘VIOLENCE FOR EQUALITY’. The band thus advance their own political agenda, a traditional working class Socialism as a ‘design for life’, but still feel compelled to ask ‘HEROES OR VILLAINS?’ In the class war, one must pick sides.
‘Design For Life’ and the following three tracks form the core of the album, which includes 3 singles, one of them the title track. These are short rock songs (the longest track on the album is 4 minutes 17 seconds long), based around full bodied, distorted guitars, melodic pop hooks, high production values and completed by a string section. It sounds Britpop and yet it is not. The song writing of Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore usually avoids the obvious chord progressions beloved of their contemporaries and they have not taken the punk ethos as far as avoiding musicianship.
‘A Design for Life’ begins on C major 7th, at once assertive and melancholic. The verse studiously avoids any classic triad chords, but instead builds around arpeggiated, extended chords, the colour tones of which give the song its sound of luxuriant sadness. The chorus may be based around more standard triads and power chords, but Bradfield adds detail with his guitar fills. These play off against the chords of the string section to provide a second melody when he is not singing. It is an altogether more nuanced and melodic approach than the classic rhythm and lead division beloved of so many other bands.
‘Kevin Carter’ works very differently. The verse is mainly F suspended chords, played staccato, introduced with a predatory bass fill. The sound is much more abrasive than elsewhere on the album, more akin to the post punk of The Holy Bible. But in contrast to, say, Elastica, a contemporary band influenced by post punk, the guitar sound is relatively clean and the cutting chords leave space. The chorus is much fuller, but with off beat chord changes, using G as a passing chord, a forceful guitar riff, and ending, harshly, on the mediant, the 3rd, minor, chord of the scale (when the ear naturally expects this then to be resolved on the fourth or fifth chord, instead), it strikes the ear all the more powerfully having followed such a stark beginning.
The song is Edwards’s portrait of the South African photojournalist who won the Pulitzer prize for a photograph of an emaciated Sudanese girl prone on the ground, just in front of a vulture staring intently at her. Carter later committed suicide. The song thus continues on from ‘Elvis Impersonator’: the suggestion that Carter ‘Wasted’ his ‘life / In black and white’ relates the same feeling of worthlessness as the impersonator’s self-image as ‘overweight and out of date’. In these songs one is tempted to speculate about Edwards’s own state of mind prior to his disappearance, given his lyrical preoccupation with suicide (‘The Girl Who Wanted to be God’ is a quotation from Sylvia Plath, who also killed herself, though the lyric was added to by Wire) and self-harm (‘Removables’ and the animals in ‘Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky’). Such thoughts lead to no conclusion, but do increase the sense of anguish being expressed.
Bradfield had played an acoustic version of ‘Kevin Carter’ to Edwards before he disappeared, but Edwards was disappointed by the musical direction it indicated. Bradfield later admitted to feeling uneasy about including it on the album.
The song begins:
Hi Time magazine hi Pulitzer Prize
Tribal scars in Technicolor
Bang Bang Club AK 47 hour
The verse makes oblique references to Carter’s experience, here rapidly listing his publisher and journalism award, describing the photograph itself in abstract terms and then mentioning the association of likeminded photojournalists to which he belonged. The AK 47, the famous assault rifle, is a reminder of the sound from which the Bang Bang Club derived their name. The ‘Click click click click click’ towards the song’s end is therefore not only that of the camera, but the assault weapon. The violence of the weapon is linked to that of the photographer, who as a non-interfering bystander (Carter allegedly did nothing to aid the girl in the photo) is complicit in the violence. This idea is made explicit in the video, where the flash of the camera is omnipresent and the band is often seen through the zoom lens. But rather than a button, the camera has a trigger, and when it is pulled, midway through the song, each band member in turn is thrown back, as if shot.
The shutter effect is even more pronounced in the final verse: ‘The elephant is so ugly / He sleeps his head /Machetes his bed’ sounds highly abstract. Even if one knows that Carter associated the elephant with the horrors he had seen, the words are hard to comprehend (did Carter destroy his own bed in a mania?), but instead they become imagistic fragments akin to the efforts of the photographer shooting with a rapid shutter, who only captures part of the story.
Towards the end, the line ‘Kevin Carter kaffir lover forever’, takes up the slurs of racists against Carter for his anti-Apartheid views, ‘Forever’ in echoing the end of ‘lover’ sustains the slur, making it inescapable. The sensation of being trapped by politics not of his own making, yet for which he seems to bear responsibility, is emphasised by the ‘k’ alliteration, which prefigures the clicking and thus links them. The final line, ‘Click himself under’ sustains this link into his eventual suicide, making it seem the logical response and natural consequence of his job and experience of violence.
‘Enola/Alone’ appears simpler structurally, with both verse and chorus each built on its own four chord sequence. However, the chord changes in the verse are all anacruces, which gives the song its momentum, and the 4th chord in the verse is a G minor, which provides disquieting dissonance, through the use of parallel harmony, in a D major piece. The chorus is straightforwardly in D, but it is enhanced by the counterpoint between voice and lead guitar.
The song is about the loss of loved ones, specifically the disappearance of Richey Edwards the year previously and the death, from cancer, of Philip Hall, the band’s manager, in 1993. Wire’s description of himself as ‘From my birth a rellik a killer’ is a word game that encapsulates the experience of survivor’s guilt, the conviction that one’s existence is somehow responsible for the tragic fate of another (and also links back to Kevin Carter’s position as a bystander to violence). However, the following line, ‘But all I want to do is live’, drives that despondency away. The misery remains, but is joined by a kind of defiance. Wire’s resolution is to ‘take a picture of you / To remember how good you looked’. The primary meaning of ‘take’ would be ‘capture’, suggesting the taking of a photograph, but with those who are dead or missing that is impossible, so ‘take’ can only mean carry, meaning the protagonist is bringing with him merely the emblem of something irrecoverable, as the next lines make clear: ‘Like memory it has disappeared / Naked and lonely within my fears’. Yet this is also a song that describes experiencing ‘some peace at last’. There is an ability to relish one’s pain, because it defines who you are, and reminds you of earlier joys. The contradiction between these two states, serenity and desolation, is the major theme of this song and one of the central concerns of the album.
The obsession with bearing memory in ‘Enola/Alone’ may seem the antithesis to ‘Everything Must Go’s year zero approach, but the reality is more complex. In the title track, the lines, ‘Shed some skin for the fear within / Is starting to hurt me with everything’ picks up from ‘Enola/Alone’ with a verbal echo. Consequently, the irrecoverability of the past is again discussed, as the band is ‘Freed from the memory / Escape from our history’, seemingly casting off the painful recollections borne so proudly in the previous lyric. Yet in the next verse, the resolution has changed to ‘Freed from the century / With nothing but memory, memory’, lines which explain that to be free of the past is not to be separated from it, but merely to acknowledge that it is irretrievable. It is in accepting this that salvation becomes possible. When Bradfield sings, at the climax of the song, ‘Freed us eventually / Just need to be happy, happy’, the last word is screamed and heavily accented. The present pain is voiced all too clearly, but there remains some hope as well.
The video (which adds the backwards playing tape from ‘Elvis Impersonator’ as an introduction) features the band playing amongst some bystanders. The symbolism is none too subtle, as a woman smashes a clock with a bass guitar and Bradfield kneels before a cherry blossom tree (in Japan, a symbol for the ephemeral nature of life), which rapidly sheds its blossoms. The video is visually arresting. The use of creams and pinks in the band’s clothing links them to their surroundings and the imagery suggests a beauty somewhat faded and marked by loss.
‘Everything Must Go’ is in E major, but the song makes extensive use of A minor chords, a borrowed chord from the parallel key of E minor, in order to bring tension to the piece. The verse is structured around two chords: an inverted A minor (sometimes known as C6) and E major 7th. The verse is therefore a continual move from the tension of the parallel key to the release of the tonic chord. However, the release is only partial, because Bradfield adds a major 7th (here d#) to the E major triad, which is a more mournful sounding chord. In the pre-chorus section (‘Freed from …’), the song moves to a C# minor 7th chord. As the relative minor of the E major scale, this provides an obvious path towards harmonic resolution. However, this is complicated by the fact that the dominant 7th (b), gives the chord a plaintive edge. Moreover, rather than moving to the 5th, 4th or tonic (one of the major chords), this section finishes again on an A minor, raising the level of anxiety further, which places greater demands on the chorus for harmonic resolution.
Finally then, the E major chord arrives. However, almost immediately the A minor returns. The use of the parallel key is rare at the beginning of a measure and here, it is used as the basis for the guitar riff and string section, thereby sustaining the uncertainty. It is only when the E returns with ‘Go’ that the feeling of escape from the past is realised. This achieved by moving first to D major, also a dissonant chord, but thereby utilising the mixolydian mode, which, as it is anchored on the dominant 5th, is the basis of much rock guitar soloing and thus moves the song into reassuringly conventional territory.
After this four song core, ‘Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky’ closes the first half beautifully. A comment on the anguish of animals kept in zoos, the song can also be seen as a metaphor Edwards’s own mental suffering. The comparison is achieved largely through a subtle anthropomorphisation, rendered by the continuous use of the second person to address the animals. The opening line, ‘You have your very own number’ evokes the tattooing of death camp inmates’ wrists. The lyric suggests a similarity of the attitude towards animals and those somehow considered ‘sub-human’, whether Jewish, mentally ill (Edwards had had a recent spell of treatment at the Priory) or disabled.
The meaning of the titular image is not obvious, but to me it has always suggested a visual hallucination caused by confinement. It is seemingly beautiful, but also indicative of fundamental damage.
The starkest imagery comes in the second verse:
They drag sticks along your walls
Harvest your ovaries dead mothers crawl
Here comes warden, Christ, temple, elders
Environment not yours you see through it all
The initial ‘they’, presumably, are children and other visitors who try to goad the animals into life, but the syntax of the verse conflates these visitors with the scientists who violate the animals’ bodies for reproductive purposes (an image which elicits the medical experimentation in the death camps). Once again, the bystander is also a predator. The line ‘Here comes warden, Christ, temple, elders’ appears to be a condensed reference to Matthew 21:23, where Jesus preaches in the Temple courts, only for the elders and priests to demand his authority for doing so. Here, then, Edwards is demanding to know from where the authority to imprison animals derives. He is fully aware that a Christian justification is to be found in God’s granting of ‘dominion’ over the world to man in Genesis 1:26. The lines thus attack the hypocrisy of a Religion that speaks of peace, but enables such cruelty.
The final line’s reference to an alien environment links to the ‘sensaround’ (sic) of the chorus. The sensurround was the installation used in cinemas of the 1970s to mimic the action on screen, in other words, a simulated environment. The animals’ desire to escape and the fact ‘you see through it all’ is a depiction of animals as conscious beings rather than senseless brutes, thereby inverting hegemonic narratives which characterise the oppressed as immune to their sufferings due to a lack of sensitivity.
The song effects the simplest of key changes, from C to G, but almost unnoticeably. The verse is in C, but the key chord never makes an appearance. Instead the gentle picking of an acoustic guitar begins with a D minor with an added 9th. The ninth in question is an e, which, being the major third of C, indicates the major tonality of the piece, but as we never hear a C Major in the song, this tone is an indication of absence, something missing. The D minor add9 is alternated with a G chord that indicates the destination of the song, tonically. The chorus completes the change. It begins with a D added 11, thus holding with same root note at the verse, but bringing in the one note (f# – the 11th note of the scale) that is the difference between the two keys, C and G. This note also provides a colour tone to the piece, which retains the sense of loss. What follows is a C suspended 2nd, hinting at the harmonic resolution commonly found in both C and G major pieces, only to deny it again. The chorus then ends on a B♭6. The B♭ is from G minor, but the 6, being a g, gives the chord some connection with the key, when the chord as a whole is dissonant. Even at the end of the song, Bradfield refuses to provide closure. The outro of the song repeats the verse, but rather than ending on G major, as would be natural and easy, given this is the chord underlying the final vocals, Bradfield brings the third down to a second, suspending the chord for the song’s conclusion.
The standout track of the second half is ‘Removables’. The song commences with a fuzzy acoustic guitar, playing power chords. The debt to Nirvana is obvious, but it provides a different timbre to the rest of the album and thus a welcome contrast. It also means this is the song with the most continuity from The Holy Bible, perhaps naturally given that this was a song they had been working on since before the completion of that album. Lyrically, it seems to follow on from ‘Die in the Summertime’, a Bible track which begins ‘Scratch my leg with a rusty nail / sadly it heals’. ‘Removables’, with its chorus lamenting ‘all removables, passing always’ seems then to be another examination of self-harm.
From the opening line ‘Conscience binds you in chains’, Edwards preoccupation with the limitations of his own individual awareness is made clear. Between that line and the second bridge’s ‘Aimless rut of my own perception’, a self-flagellating statement of obsession, are two minutes of self-recrimination. The line ‘Misery mourns to be devoured’ recognises the futility of despondency, as it is unable to forestall death. The alliteration, though, suggests such negative reactions as ritualistic, almost inevitable: self-destruction feeds on itself. Even more disturbed are the lines just prior to the first chorus: ‘Killed God blood soiled unclean again / Killed God blood soiled skin dead again’. This fragmentary presentation defies logical understanding, but instead suggests the guilt of an obsessive compulsive character, simultaneously fixated and disgusted by organic processes of death and healing.
The chorus of the song deftly shifts the key from A major to C major, but with A minor foregrounded, so as to pull the ear towards the relative minor of C, instead. The change consequently sounds like the freezing out of life. The lead guitar which comes in begins with a series of A minor arpeggios. Bradfield shifts the root of the arpeggio, from A in the first bar, to C by the beginning of the second. This offers the possibility of moving easily into the safety of the relative major, but instead of the guitar holding on g, the dominant of C, it moves up one tone to a, the root of the minor chord. The shifting roots give the guitar its gloomy feel, and when the C major does turn up after 8 bars, the prominence of A minor in the section is too clearly established for it to offer any real positivity.
‘Australia’ begins with a declaration: ‘I don’t know if I’m tired / And I don’t know if I’m ill, / My cheeks are turning yellow / I think I’ll take another pill’. The ‘pill’ then emerges as a neat solution, given that it rhymes with ‘ill’. However, as depression and hyperchondria have merged into one, the proposed remedy is too neat, and instead provides further fuel for anxiety. The anxiety is voiced in the verse, which is based around an uncomfortable change from C# minor, the relative minor of E, to C major. Although C is a borrowed chord from the parallel minor, the movement down just a semi-tone is somewhat disconcerting. The continual switching between the two creates tonal uncertainty. What links the two chords is the e tone, the shared 3rd, and the tonic of the song, so the ear strains for it to be brought out. This is partially fulfilled by the end of the verse which moves to the other major chords in the key, B and A, but, in moving downwards through the scale, it still has an element of anti-climax, particularly the first time, when the song then segues immediately into another tense verse.
The chorus offers a release that incarnates the song’s theme of escaping to the other side of the world by bringing the desired E chord in. Yet Bradfield maintains the tension by staying on the same chord for 4 bars, while he sings about wanting to ‘fly and run ’till it hurts’, maintaining the lead part around the top of the E Major scale. When the song finally moves through A to B Major (giving us the joy of ascent by reversing the descent at the end of the verse), it brings a blessed feeling of relief, especially as the resolution is not completed until the last syllable of ‘Australia’, and is accompanied by descending arpeggios on the lead guitar part, which then anchors the song in the dominant chord.
The album is closed powerfully by ‘No Surface All Feeling’. This extended plea for reconciliation, predating Edwards’s disappearance, takes on new meaning in its aftermath, becoming Wire’s ‘tribute’ to his best friend and collaborator. The song contrasts truth, which is made synonymous with ‘surface’, and the indulgence of anger during an argument, which are afterwards recognised as ‘lies’. The first chorus is introduced with the question ‘What’s the point in always looking back / When all you see is more and more junk?’ This literal trashing of the past is not a renunciation of the memories that have earlier informed the record, but merely an appeal to move on from its mistakes, rather than obsessively repeating them by rehashing old arguments. With the second chorus beginning ‘Feel the guilt of a sinner’, Wire assumes responsibility for his failings as a friend.
A high pitched single note major scale guitar riff introduces the song. On the original demo someone says ‘Hello, my name is Billy Coogan’, clearly a nod to Billy Corgan, frontman and songwriter of the Smashing Pumpkins, whose riff opening the song ‘Today’ is the model for ‘No Surface’. The arpeggiated riff rises to a series of declining peaks, with each highest note lower than the previous, lending the song a wistful pathos in this descent. Then the riff re-ascends to just a semi-tone below its previous highest note, but only to repeat the descent even more quickly and thus entrench the feeling of a come down. The verse is subdued, and initially sparse as each chord is held for a bar, before proceeding to playing roots and 5ths, sometimes as double stops, as the guitar duplicates the function of a bass, building momentum.
A frenzied drum roll and the lead guitar riff returns, with a melancholic chord progression which takes us from the tonic E chord, through F# minor and then, after the vocals, to A Minor, which is another use of parallel harmony. Over the chorus of this monstrous rock song, Bradfield’s legato vocals are poignant and resigned, combining with the sharpness of the guitar riff to provide a powerful counterpoint. With the chorus finishing on A minor, the song remains anguished. The situation is temporarily alleviated by the return of the verse, which reintroduces the key chord. However, the verse itself ends on an A suspended second, which resolves the disturbance created by the c, the minor third of A minor, but without providing the major third of c# needed for A Major, the dominant chord in E that the ear gravitates towards, as Bradfield and Moore give us one final, sonic sense of absence and loss. Eventually the song holds on to the key chord at the end of the final chorus, but then there is a fuzzy outro riff, the chord again and stuttering guitars, before a wash of feedback ends this extraordinary document.
The album is not perfect, though, as the second half contains weak tracks, as well. ‘The Girl Who Wanted to Be God’ is style over substance. The guitars, strings and annoying organ line fail to disguise that the attempted anthemic chorus is too rooted on G chords to have any interesting direction, and that the melody line is plodding. The lyrics are an Edwards production taken from a quotation by Sylvia Plath about herself, but otherwise opaque: they do not recommend the song either. ‘Interiors’ starts out sounding like ‘Kevin Carter’s baby brother (even beginning with the same staccato suspended chord, shifted to the offbeat), but resolves in a chorus consisting of just two power chords without any rhythmic variation and a pedestrian vocal asking ‘Are we too tired to try and understand?’ Amongst an album of songs dealing with loss, suicide, self-harm and class politics, a lyric about an impressionist painter becomes extraneous and inconsequential, as does that of ‘Further Away’. A love song from a band who had previously sworn never to write one (though admittedly they also reserved the right to contradict themselves), is a disappointment, particularly as the chorus chugs through a variation on the dreaded I-V-VI-IV progression, without any lead guitar work to provide interest.
The sequencing of the album is problematic as well. Most of the singles are crowded into a short space. Poor ‘Enola/Alone’ is often overlooked, squeezed between them. A more even distribution of the singles would mean the second half did not suffer so much by comparison to the first. ‘Elvis Impersonator’ would be intriguing as a middle of the album track, while ‘Everything Must Go’ could have been the most gloriously defiant statement of intent as the album opener.
These weaker tracks are also a missed opportunity, given that the period was one of the band’s strongest for b-sides. Either of ‘Sepia’ or ‘Dead Trees and Traffic Islands’, two similarly sounding, acoustic driven songs about paralysis, one of which is clearly about Edwards’s disappearance, the other of which seems so implicitly, despite originating as an idea for a script about a serial killer, would merit inclusion. So too would ‘Black Garden’, with its prominent bassline and dirty, scratchy, guitars. The darkest song of the period (surprisingly it is written by Wire, who instructs the listener to ‘remember the feeling of a frozen embryo’, a frightening image of vulnerability and alienation, which recalls the opening of the Cure song ‘Cold’, ‘Scarred, your back was turned / Curled like an embryo’), it also links with ‘Elvis Impersonator’ by beginning with a cover of another part of Elvis’s ‘American Trilogy’.
‘No-One Knows What it’s Like to Be Me’, a histrionic rocker, could also have been fun, though the most amusing inclusion would have been the aggressively leftist ‘First Republic’. This song hopes the Royal family will guillotine themselves, envisages playing ‘in burnt out palace ruins’ and suggests those who are pro-monarchy ‘fuck our dear princess’. To have been singing that on a multi-platinum album would have been their most subversive act yet.
Manic Street Preachers are unusual amongst pop songwriters in that not only are their lyrics written without reference to music, but the music itself is written directly in response to the words. Bradfield has explained that his part of the process usually requires that he understands the words and relates to them in some way, first (one reason it took the band 14 years to create another album from Edwards’s remaining lyrics was that Bradfield did not connect with them for a long time). The music then seems to be a consciously interpretive exercise. For example, when writing ‘Faster’ on The Holy Bible, Bradfield sought to replicate the ‘cold voice’ he detected in the lyrics. The success of this album is due to an aural translation of internal conflict; an ambivalence between anger and sorrow, defiance and regret, self-hatred, guilt, desperation and, ultimately, a kind of elation. Everything Must Go is a masterclass in the use of dissonance, as Edwards’s depression and detachment, along with Wire’s grief and escapism, are sonically realised. It is at once triumphant and elegiac, macabre and glorious.