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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Manic Street Preachers - This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours (1998)

In my last few years of secondary school I became obsessed with the Manic Street Preachers. They were a band that encouraged an awareness of politics and history. Their songs made me want to learn more about their subject matter and spend time in libraries trying to understand the meanings. This was in the days before Wikipediaphiles existed so it encouraged me to read up on a whole range of subjects that wouldn’t have been the usual reading matter for most 15 year-olds and I think it fostered a love of history that I have never managed to shake.

I first saw the Manics live at Trentham Gardens in Stoke-on-Trent in September ’98; it was on the same week that the band had achieved their first UK number one with ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’. I wasn’t meant to go to this show, and only found out about it an hour before my friend’s dad picked me up. One of my best friends in the year above had become Head Boy – I had moved on to college at this point, and so could not routinely take this piss out of him for being bestowed with such a title, and all of the obvious sexual innuendo that such a title could provoke were unutilised. My friend had some Head Boy duties to perform that evening (see, it’s just ripe for piss-taking), and so offered the tickets to me.

Their set blew me away, as it was heavy with tracks from the Holy Bible: an intense rendition of ‘Faster’, a furious version of ‘Yes’, and a heartbreaking acoustic version of ‘This is Yesterday’. They even played songs to appease the hardcore fans such as ‘You Love Us’ with the Iggy Pop outro, as well as ‘Motown Junk’ which predated Generation Terrorists. This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours had only been out a week when I saw them, and the new stuff sounded quite dour in comparison to the rest of the set. It’s an album that I never really got into, and one that caused my interest in the band to wane. Hopefully, as over a decade has passed since I’ve listened to the album, I will be able to give it the fair assessment it deserves.

This is My Truth Tell Me Yours opens with the surprising drum machine beats and falsetto vocals of ‘The Everlasting’. As with many of the Manics’ songs of this period, it is difficult not to see the shadow of the band’s missing guitarist and former lyricist in the words of the songs:

So don't forget or don't pretend It's all the same now in the end It was said in a different life Destroys my days and haunts my nights? In the beginning when we were winning when our smiles were genuine

Of course, these references to Richie have been drawn out by me as a listener, and actually don’t relate to the rest of the song which seems to be more about an inter-generational class struggle than anything else. I’d forgotten just how strange James Dean Bradfield’s pronunciation of the word “genuine” as “gen-oo-in” is, missing out the expected “y” sound that follows the “n”. The music itself is actually pretty unremarkable: the slow methodical drumbeat sounds tired, the vocals sound forced and the instrumentation feels as if more time had been spent on finding studio effects than crafting a decent piece of music.

‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ opens with effect-laden guitars that seem to pulsate and expand with every chord change being allowed to ring out over a tight bass-line and finger-picked acoustic guitar. The song inspired me to read up about the Spanish Civil War. I was struck by the way that everyday citizens from across Europe would leave their homes and volunteer to fight against fascism. Contrast this with many people today who can’t even be arsed to walk down to their local primary school and draw an “x” in a box to keep the BNP out of the European parliament – if that’s not a depressing indictment, I don’t know what is.

‘You Stole the Sun From My Heart’ opens with another naff sounding drum machine. This has one of the cheeriest guitar riffs in the Manics’ back-catalogue, but is also one of the cheesiest. The chorus is huge and anthemic, but is again let down by being over-produced. The fuzz-laden guitars and echo-dripping vocals sound cluttered against the backdrop of twinkling pianos and rumbling drum beats. It shouldn’t be possible, but literally everything in the mix sounds far too loud.

‘Ready for Drowning’ is incredibly mediocre. It’s not that the song is bad, it just doesn’t grab my attention in any immediate or subtle way. The pace is plodding, the chord changes are uninspiring, and the music just sounds like a band going through the motions.

‘Tsunami’ is horrible. The sitar effect on the main guitar riff couldn’t sound worse if it tried. Again, I find myself listening to the production and shuddering: the bass sound in this one is particularly horrible, and at points it almost overtakes the rest of the mix. This being said, the chorus is incredibly catchy, and for that reason was adopted by Newcastle United as a terrace chant, only replacing the word “tsunami” with “Toon Army”.

‘My Little Empire’ opens with an excellent guitar riff that is dark and sombre and showcases Bradfield’s guitar playing at its best. The downbeat pace and the inclusion of a cello make this song sound incredible, and brings to mind Nirvana’s ‘Something in the Way’ in terms of its tone and atmosphere. Unlike ‘Something in the Way’, however, the lyrics to this one leave a lot to be desired:

My little empire I'm sick of being sick My little empire I'm tired of being tired My little empire I'm bored of being bored My little empire I'm happy being sad

Why not “It’s silly being silly” or “I’m shit at taking a shit”? Part of the Manics’ charm was their clumsy ideologically driven lyrics – something that ‘My Little Empire’ could have really benefitted from.

‘I’m Not Working’ is a very good song - the music is dark and atmospheric and the drums sound as if they could have been included in an 80s power-ballad. ‘You’re Tender When You’re Tired’ is another song let down by terrible production decisions. It was as if the producer sat there thinking “ooh, I’ll put a bit of echo on this piano; perhaps a different type of echo on the vocals; hmm, I think I’ll compress the sound and make everything sound too loud.” Saying this, I doubt if even the best production could salvage a good song from this one.

‘Born a Girl’ is musically very good, with its instrumentation stripped back to guitar strums with a hint of distortion and vintage reverb, echoic accordions and subtle vocals. Again we see the music let down by lyrics that seem to lack any interesting poetic or narrative features. The chorus, for example, contains the line “I wish that I had been a girl and not this mess of a man”. Compared to lyrics by acts like Antony and the Johnsons who deal with similar subject-matter, it is quite clear that Nicky Wire’s lyrics are deficient in anything resembling subtlety.

‘Be Natural’ sounds like the Manics trying to emulate Radiohead’s OK Computer, only with worse production and less subtlety. ‘Black Dog on My Shoulder’ marks quite a departure in sound from the rest of the album; there are points in this song where Bradfield’s vocals sound as if they were performed by George Michael. The song itself is fast-paced and jerky, and the chord progressions would be quite interesting were it not for the fact that the guitars keep getting washed away by layers of strings. ‘Nobody Loves You’ falls back into the uninspiring atmosphere of tracks like ‘The Everlasting’ and begin to make me feel itchy with boredom.

Album-closer ‘S.Y.M.M.’, which stands for South Yorkshire Mass Murder, is probably the most provocative piece of music on the album and seems to be the Manics’ attempt at their own version of The Smiths’ haunting ‘Suffer Little Children’. It’s a song about the tragedy at Hillsborough, and is incredibly moving, with the line “How can you sleep at night” seeming to echo Morrissey’s line “You might sleep / but you will never dream”. The music is dark, and at points verges on the discordant. Backwards-masked drums, and glittery glockenspiels rub up against each other during the chorus to create a sound that is really quite unnerving.

This is an album of poorly produced songs that sound lazy, tired, and lacking in subtlety. There are a couple of exceptions to this, but taken as a whole this an awful album that that needs to be culled. It’s not an album I’ll miss.

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Anonymous said...

I think you mean Stoke-on-Trent ;) I had a friend in high school who was obsessed with the manics - but it wasn't a band that I ever felt much for personally, although I did buy the single "if you tolerate this" which went to no.1 I think

JC said...

Yes I did! That's why I need an editor.

xxzzAndyzzxx said...

shit, just realised I spent most of the day reading through your blog. Good work!

lEIGh5 said...

I love your blog and a lot of the music you write about, but on this one I have to disagree. I can see some of your points, but overall TIMTTMY is a great record imo. It's disjointed - like most Manics albums - and slightly over-produced, but I think it is successful as a studio album - opposed to your more 'live sounding' earlier ones. I find songs like "Tsunami" very hard to fault at all, while "Your Tender and Your Tired" and "My Little Empire" were rather soggy, "Born A Girl", "Nobody Loved You" and "SYMM" are great tracks. I was slow to get into the Manics and this was one of the first albums by them I heard, so maybe I am biased, but still I was surprised to see such a strong criticism of what I always thought was among their better works. I do agree with everything you said about YSTSFMH though. Never been a fan of that song.

JC said...

I think a lot of probably has to with how much I loved the Holy Bible - this album pales in comparison.

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