When I was about 13 years old, my secondary school class was given a project. We had to research, make and submit an illustrated report on a subject of our choice. We were told to pick something that we were interested in, that we were passionate about.
I chose the mysterious disappearance of Richey Edwards, former guitarist and lyricist with Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers, who left his car at a motorway service station near Bristol in February 1995 and has not been seen since.
Being an enthusiastic, bookish, nerdy youngster (I am now an enthusiastic, bookish, nerdy adult), I plunged into the project with gusto. Unfortunately I neglected to listen to the actual instructions, and when I turned up a couple of weeks later with my detailed, word-processed, beautifully bound report I was the only one. The deadline was more than a month away.
The point of this rambling nostalgia is that Manic Street Preachers are set to release their ninth studio album next week, containing songs made up of lyrics left behind by Edwards before his disappearance.
The band, who were school friends from a young age and have been together for more than 20 years, formed a large part of my musical education in the mid 1990s.
From their ambitious, grungy, Guns ‘n Roses-influenced debut Generation Terrorists to the harrowing masterpiece The Holy Bible, the Manics were unashamedly intelligent, ridiculously pretentious and not everyone’s cup of tea. But to a pre-pubescent, Adrian Mole wannabe wandering the school corridors with just the words of Ian McEwan and Will Self for company, they were the perfect fit.
There are a number of lines from those early albums that sum up the Manics’ outlook, but ‘I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer, I spat out Plath and Pinter’, from Faster tells you all you need to know.
Richey Edwards was a highly intellectual, introverted, depressed individual who couldn’t play guitar very well but will surely be remembered as one of the greatest poets of his generation.
A glance back at some of his lyrics, now documented online by the huge number of fans the Manics still attract, reveal a hyperlink jungle, every stanza littered with obscure literary, historical and cultural references that would require a companion guide to fully comprehend.
Edwards wrote his lyrics entirely separately from the musical process, resulting in the unique style that singer James Dean Bradfield developed to get his tongue round some of the more syllable-heavy verses.
When Edwards disappeared, the day before the band was due to travel to America to promote The Holy Bible, the music world was stunned. As the years went by and any faint hope of his return grew more distant, Edwards was afforded cult status among fans of the band, becoming a tragic Kurt Cobain-like figure, taken before he could fully realise his potential.
Edwards was formally declared presumed dead in November last year, and the band began working on setting music to his final lyrics, resulting in Journal for Plague Lovers, released on May 18.
As a purist who has grown up with the band, I approached this record with some trepidation. Everything Must Go, the group’s first effort as a three-piece released in 1996, blew me away. It was totally different to the albums they had recorded with Edwards, with bassist Nicky Wire now taking on lyrical duties and an altogether softer, poppier musical approach.
I then went through a few years in the Manics wilderness. 1998’s This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours was middle-of-the-road rubbish; Know Your Enemy, 2001, was a bloated attempt by the band, now in their late 30s, to rediscover their youthful anger; and I steered away entirely from their latest efforts, 2004’s Lifeblood and 2007’s Send Away The Tigers.
Thankfully, Edwards’ posthumous revival seems to have sparked a return to form for the Manics. Journal for Plague Lovers is a terrific album, full of Edwards’ unmistakeable lyrical tics and idiosyncratic phrases, and serves as a fitting tribute and a timely reminder of just what a huge loss he was to this pompous, misunderstood but enduringly inspiring band.