Spotlight: Manic Street Preachers - 'Gold Against The Soul'
Go on. Impress us.
What was the UK’s best-selling album of 1993? It is a year often referenced as the starting point for Britpop and a time when grunge had asserted some influence over the bottom half of the charts. In the weeks around the release of the second album by the Manic Street Preachers in June of that year, the NME’s covers featured Teenage Fanclub, Suede, The Black Crowes, a re-formed Velvet Underground, the Stereo MCs and even U2. There was no particular scene exerting a gravitational pull on proceedings and the CD era had the catalogue artists riding high alongside the young upstarts once again.
And top of it all was ‘Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell’ by Meatloaf.
Into that environment returned a band who had, only 18 months previous, daubed themselves all over the music press with their nans’ clothes, lipstick slogans and shamelessly dismissive comments about their peers. They were knowingly preposterous, unshakeably arrogant and quotably nihilistic. Their over-produced, over-long, sort-of double album, ‘Generation Terrorists’ had failed to break the records they had hubristically claimed it would, largely as a result of being rather underwhelming.
A weary sense of perspective had come from the reality of that experience. As James Dean Bradfield put it at the time, it was “our fault. If you make an album as good as ‘Appetite For Destruction’ it sells. If you don’t, it doesn’t.”
Looking back at the coverage from the time, the band seemed to squander the good will of a music press still hoping they would go nuclear. It may have been that, when trimming for column inches, ill-advised comments on the travelling community got higher billing than any reflective analysis they might have offered of their new songs, but ‘Gold Against The Soul’ didn’t seem to be an album about which one of the most talkative bands of the Nineties had an awful lot to say.
So, why revisit it in 2020 for this deluxe reissue?
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Firstly, the good news is that they haven’t ditched ‘Yourself’ and inserted notorious B-side ‘Patrick Bateman’ because they fancied some mild revision, as on other recent trips into the archive. Beautiful accompanying photos make up a vibrant account of a curious period in the band’s history. Unable to escape the lazy punning of a music press on autopilot, but also trapped in the shadows of their own ludicrous proclamations, their headlines still came from provocative and often jarring statements.
It is, perhaps, harsh to argue that the pyrotechnic verbals were a convenient distraction from a musical identity crisis, but ‘Gold Against The Soul’ stands alone in their catalogue. There are those, most notably Bradfield, Sean Moore and Nicky Wire, who prefer to unfairly propel their opprobrium towards the synth-driven, immersive melancholia of 2004’s ‘Lifeblood’, but it’s nowhere close to the soft metal posturing found here.
Back in 1993, as bands are wont to do, Bradfield naturally, if not resoundingly, defended the band’s new direction in Melody Maker: "The first album was more statement than intent. This one is far more musical, more current. We were a little too scared to make a hash of things last time. But we don't like slagging off past records - it's like we're despising our fans for buying them."
However, speaking to the NME earlier this year about this reissue, Nicky offered some of the least emphatic sales patter the music industry has had in a while, saying “it’s kind of misunderstood and unloved by us. James, Sean and I aren’t the greatest fans of it, but our fans have a peculiar attachment to it.” And this is ultimately the point.
Whether coming to it off the rabid frenzy of the self-hyped debut and the majesty of ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ or casting around for similarly stadium-sized melody in their previous releases after falling in love with ‘Everything Must Go’ at that start of Manics Mk. 2, many fans will have been motivated to find much to love in its ten curious songs.
With its opening trio of ‘Sleepflower’, ‘From Despair To Where’ and ‘La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh)’, this was certainly an album suited to favourable first impressions. Five minutes in to ‘Generation Terrorists’ and it’s already time for ‘Natwest – Barclays – Midlands – Lloyds’ and, for all its indisputable brilliance as a record, it takes a little over a minute for ‘The Holy Bible’ to offer up “He’s a boy. You want a girl? Tear off his cock, tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want.”
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The opening of ‘Sleepflower’ has entered into Manics folklore, a cat and mouse tease between Bradfield’s tendency to pick out its initial notes on stage and the adoring crowds daring him to keep going. For a song so rooted in contemplation of insomnia - “I feel like I’m missing pieces of sleep, a memory fades to a pale landscape” – it’s a stadium rock opener and, however embarrassed by it they are now, one which has always been received in raptures on those occasions Clash has witnessed them giving it an airing.
‘From Despair To Where’, the first single to be released from the album, is beautiful. The sense of alienation that appealed to the hardcore fans in those early interviews far more than the pot shots at sacred cows is foregrounded, with a masterful vocal performance and gloriously aching string section. “There’s nothing nice in my head; the adult world took it all away” is a much more fitting Manic manifesto than hubristic twaddle about 16 million album sales. It is a template to which they have adhered many times since and one of several undeniable classics on this curious record.
An early tracklist for the album is included amongst the pictures of original lyric sheets at the back of the beguiling A4 hardback and reveals the mercifully abandoned act of self-sabotage that would have seen ‘Drug Drug Druggy’ positioned as the record’s second track. Its opening is so early Nineties rock that you might actually catch a nasty case of Red Hot Chilli Peppers from its virulent early bassline, before it transitions into a hoarse chug that would have got a two minute video slot on Top Of The Pops while everyone went to make a cup of tea or put another jumper on. It is fucking awful and hasn’t been played live for twenty-six years, despite its desperately keen-to-be-liked chorus. It’s also absolutely hilarious - “Drug drug druggy, need sensation like my baby; snort your lines you’re so aware” - and curiously forgivable, if you’re on their side.
Listen to ‘La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh)’ and, most notably, ‘Roses In The Hospital’ and Wire’s recent comment that “James was a slave to melody at the time. He was going through a Queen phase” makes plenty of sense, even if such behaviour is not to be encouraged. The former highlights one of the band’s finest contradictions, pursuing a baggy beat despite vehemently railing against that particular scene for several years prior to it. Like the figure whose prejudice melts in the company of an individual from a people they claim to despise, baggy was apparently shit but suddenly the Happy Mondays were in the spirit of punk and a cover of ‘Wrote For Luck’ turned up as a B-side on the single release of ‘Roses In The Hospital’. That track is at its best in its full-length album form, the chorus of “We don’t want your fucking love” wisely excised for its chart battle with Meatloaf.
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As has become the norm for all of their album releases of the past decade, an alternative version of the record is assembled almost entirely out of demos on the second disc. On this occasion, there are only a few noteworthy inconsistencies aside from the welcome absence of some of the excessive polish applied to Sean Moore’s kit on the studio recordings. Rumour has it that twenty-five separate microphones were used for the drums alone on the final version of ‘Life Becoming A Landslide’.
Early, alternative lyrics to that track can be found in its demo form, somewhat muddling its opening with blunt imagery: “Babies in line, bodies in mortuary, bodies on auction, cattle in abattoir,“ while a lean and angular initial reading of the title track hints at where they would go next. At around the three minute mark it offers a clearer line to ‘The Holy Bible’ than even the much-vaunted b-side ‘Comfort Comes’, also included here.
Curiously, the aforementioned lack of much to say about ‘Gold Against The Soul’ continues to this day, with Wire’s annotations for long-time band photographer Mitch Ikeda’s numerous and striking images consistently brief and only fleetingly illuminating. There’s no new essay, no accompanying documentary DVD and no particularly revelatory historical recordings.
The remastering is, to be frank, pretty horrific, cranking the levels to a point where most of the pleasing dynamic range of the original has gone; the loudest points sound crunchy and fatiguing. It is far harsher than the treatment meted out to the rest of their catalogue reissues and inexplicable. Nobody’s opinion of these songs is going to be improved by an unrelenting onslaught. And, as Wire himself acknowledged, plenty of fans don’t need convincing.
The beautiful book and wonderfully diverse B-sides make this a satisfying edition nevertheless, but it is probably apt that even this deluxe edition is frustrating, curiously lacking and unwisely overblown. As fitting a tribute as ever there might be to this endearing, necessary misstep.
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'Gold Against The Soul' will be re-issued on June 12th.
Words: Gareth James
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