Manic Street Preachers - Everything Must Go

IMAGINE ONLY good things. Imagine that after checking out of the Embassy Hotel in London on February 1, 1995, Richey James drove to his flat in Cardiff. There he deposited his passport and Prozac before driving to Auste Service Station, near the Severn Bridge, parking his car and bedding down. Anonymous and alone, he'd be free to think here.

Now, for a man tormented by almost every facet of life (a man who sees mortality as the ultimate hideous curse), yet is fascinated by all iconic imagery, the choices are stark.

He could leap from the Severn Bridge and finally flick the switch on the pain inside. But Richey's immense distress always manifested itself publicly: the self-mutilation which he allowed to be photographed for magazines; the anorexia which he highlighted by wearing the snuggest of clothing and by wolfing down chocolate in front of his bandmates on his last tour with them; and his deeply disturbing, if poignant, lyrics for the last Manics album, 'The Holy Bible'. And we're imagining only good things here, so...

What better way out for someone obsessed by others' opinion of himself than to watch the reaction to his disappearance from afar? After all, when we read that Elvis is working in a burger bar in Hammersmith we can be fairly sure of the story's inaccuracy, but a sighting of Richey can never be fully discounted.

So, substitute Ian Curtis or Kurt Cobain as role models for Richey James with the name of Reggie Perrin, the tragic hero of the '70s sitcom The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin. Reggie ran from the drudgery of middle-class, nowhere man, suburban life and re-invented himself as a farmer. Let us, for now, quash all our worst instincts about Richey's disappearance and imagine that he did a Reggie Perrin. Let's assume that he's holed up working in a chip shop in small-town Wales and that, like the rest of us, he's looking forward to hearing what his friends and former bandmates have done without him.

Will they use any of the large pile of lyrics he left behind, or will they choose to press forward with a new ideal? Will they persist with the powerful, mangled claustrophobia of 'The Holy Bible', or will they broaden their sound to incorporate a lusher vision? Will there be songs about Richey or will the issue be skirted? For those who never fell prey to the Manics' charms, the idea that Richey's input wouldn't even be missed is understandable. He was derided as the guitarist who didn't play on the records and who used his instrument onstage merely as a visual prop. But fans know that his ideology, sleeve design and lyrics were the driving force behind the band. How can they carry on without him?

Well, whatever powers them forward now - and it can't be born of the same grim intensity as before - tragedy has not dimmed the Manics' creative glow. 'Everything Must Go' does not collapse under its own sheer significance in the way that New Order's first album did after Ian Curtis' suicide and Joy Division's subsequent split. It's a record that races with heavenly string arrangements and huge sweeps of emotive rock orchestration, one that bristles with a brittle urgency. It is not a wake, but the sound of a band in bloom.

The crucial pointer to this can be found in the realistic optimism of Nicky Wire's lyrics on the title track (the compulsion to pore over the words on the whole album is necessarily huge). "I just hope that you can forgive us," bellows James Dean Bradfield during the chorus, as strings and guitars clash tunefully around him, "but everything must go." How long must they have agonised over these sentiments among themselves, let alone publicly, before committing them to tape? Yet the result is gloriously cathartic.

Richey's lyrics account for five of the 12 songs - three written on his own, two finished in his absence by Nicky - but there are no motivational clues here, as he wrote them while working with the band. Still, the bleak intelligence of the man remains enthralling.

'Kevin Carter' is Richey's homage to the photographer who took his own life when the picture he took of a vulture watching a dying child in Rwanda gained him a Pulitzer prize and unwanted attention, and it's set in a stuttering, funky surround at odds with its subject (there's even a snatch of brass courtesy of Sean Moore). Indeed, this willingness to mismatch emotional and musical forces is one of 'Everything Must Go''s most endearing traits.

Hence, aching harps and acoustic guitars usher in his most harrowing contribution, 'Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky'. Richey's empathising with the plight of animals in zoos, but how do you empathise with someone who feels others' pain this deeply: "They drag sticks along your walls/Harvest your ovaries, dead mother's crawl/Here comes warden, Christ, temple, elders/Environment not yours, you see through it all"? If he's drawing comparisons with his own caged existence, you wonder how he managed to stay in the Manics as long as he did. Did we just say that 'Small Black Flowers...' was the most harrowing of Richey's contributions? Ah, well... 'Removables' meets his most disturbing idiosyncrasy - cutting himself - head-on, and only the fact that it's clothed in a slightly clumsy low-watt Nirvana cloak stops it from throttling you on the spot. To whit: "Killer God blood soiled skin dead again, everywhere again/All removables, all transitory," runs the chorus, before the final verse yanks his door open as wide as he's ever allowed it. "Aimless rut of my own perception," yowls Bradfield (what must it do to Bradfield's head to sing his friend's full-frontal misery now?), "numbly waiting for voices to tell me/ Voices to tell me." For a moment, every other 'pop' song seems just a little glib.

How Nicky Wire deals with the pain of losing his friend is demonstrated on the album's brightest pop moment, and one of the Manics' best songs ever, 'Australia'. "I want to fly and run 'til it hurts/Sleep for a while and speak no words," declares Bradfield, " ...there must be someone to blame." The sentiments are sad and moving throughout, but the music sounds as if it's been written and performed by some fantastic Gallagher/Marr alliance: 'Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before' meets 'Some Might Say' meets... quite a lot of open grief.

And still, the album doesn't only revolve around Richey: the single 'A Design For Life' is, according to Nicky, a proletarian anthem, but with its lavish AOR swoon it's more likely to be an anthem for proletarian rock stars driving Mercs down Californian freeways; 'Enola/Alone' sounds suspiciously like a former roommate of 'From Despair To Where' and seems to be a love letter from Nicky to his missus, as is the stodgy 'Further Away'; 'The Girl Who Wanted To Be God', a Richey/Nicky collaboration about - "there are no sunsets, just silence" - oh, who knows, is also a descendant of former Manics glory. This time it's 'Motorcycle Emptiness', but with wings and a whacking great wind-machine blowing in its rock locks.

And then there's the jagged 'Interiors', a song that's so obviously actually about something - the artist Willem de Kooning - it almost seems abstract in these surroundings.

But it's the parenthesis at either end of the album, 'Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier' and 'No Surface, All Feeling', that convey the mood of 'Everything Must Go' best. The former, a barren but beautiful anti-American Nicky and Richey collaboration, opens with electronic lapping waves and a rugged acoustic guitar before blasting off in a blaze of swinging feedback as a high-pitched Bradfield yelps, "It's so f??ing funny, it's absurd" as the song drifts off into the Confederate anthem.

The closing 'No Surface, All Feeling' is the only song not recorded under Mike Hedges' expansive gaze (he was responsible for McAlmont & Butler's widescreen sound, and has turned a similar trick on 'Everything Must Go') and its rough mood of optimism - tinged, as ever, with regret - is the ticket you leave 'Everything Must Go' with. "What's the point in always looking back/When all you see is more and more junk?" sings Bradfield as a sharp and repetitive metallic riff grinds out the song's code. "It was no surface but all feeling/ Maybe at the time it felt like dreaming."

No other group makes music that sounds so much like one final, valedictory salute to everything, and much of 'Everything Must Go' sweeps as if it should accompany the closing MSP titles as our heroes ride off into the sunset.

But you leave the show feeling privileged to have experienced such a life-affirming and tuneful bout of self-counselling, and you feel it's done them good as well. 'Everything Must Go' punches at its own heavy emotional weight - of recent memory, only Radiohead's 'The Bends' can spar in the same ring ?but as the right hand pounds you with desolation, the left follows through with a tentative and gentle tickle of optimism. Maybe we're not alone in imagining only good things.

8/10

Ted Kessler