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The Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Holy Bible’ Turns 25

This controversial album was released just as the Britpop phenomenon was breaking in 1994. Politically charged, heartbreakingly honest, and driven by the poetic lyrics of Richey Edwards, ‘The Holy Bible’ remains one of the most searing rock albums of the ’90s. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“We are as far away from anything in the ’80s as possible,” said Richey Edwards, the chief lyricist, rhythm guitarist, and in-house hype man for the Manic Street Preachers. This was in 1990. What he meant was that the future belonged to him and his band: In typically ambivalent fashion, he was wrong and right at the same time. For four glorious years after the release of their Heavenly Records debut, “Motown Junk”—an insolently riffy single that sampled Public Enemy’s “Countdown to Armageddon” for street cred and-one upped Morrissey’s regicidal fantasies by literally laughing off John Lennon’s assassination—they looked like the U.K. group most likely to move the needle, albeit in a different direction than Britpop’s chosen barnstormers.

While Blur and Oasis served up happy-hour sing-alongs and Pulp and Suede pantomimed angular indifference (and Radiohead tried their level best to sound like Nirvana), the Manics’ blistering mix of political agitprop and arena-rock spectacle—melding Stooges-style raw power and post-Bowie gender bending with enough literary references to shame the Smiths, and some Gang of Four sloganeering for good measure—was the sound of postmodern insurrection. The music was insular and allusive, but it filled stadiums all the same: Even if 1992’s Generation Terrorists didn’t outsell Appetite for Destruction, as bassist Nicky Wire predicted, the ambulance-chasing guitar tone of “Motorcycle Emptiness” matched Slash wail for wail.

On February 1, 1995, Edwards, whose well-publicized bouts with depression and self-harm earned him comparisons with Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain, vanished from his London hotel on the eve of a U.S. promotional tour, never to resurface despite a decade’s worth of intensive police and private investigations—a phantom haunting his band’s every move.

It’s reductive to simply separate the Manics’ output into pre- and post-Richey phases, but history isn’t fair, and staying on the right side of it is hard, especially for artists who wanted to be superstars and pariahs at the same time. 1996’s Everything Must Go and 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours were both huge-selling records, each featuring heartfelt tributes to Edwards while also edging into U2-ish grandiosity—an artistic move that didn’t sit well with the band’s true believers. Whereas on an early, triumphant song like 1992’s gratingly ingratiating “You Love Us” the Manics played wicked games with their image and ideology—the glammed-up Edwards as the ambisexual prankster-in-chief—chart-topping hits like “A Design for Life” and “If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next” hinted at an encroaching bloat.

Before his disappearance, Edwards had consolidated his own edgy, self-destructive iconoclasm by carving the words “4 Real” into his arm with a razor blade during an interview with NME about the “authenticity” of his public persona. By refusing to break up in his absence, the Manics attempted to honor his legacy, but as they kept churning out impressively accomplished, immaculately well-produced, increasingly mid-tempo records, the feeling was that they were diluting it: that a group who had started out by putting the establishment in the crosshairs (“I laughed when Lennon got shot / 21 years of living and nothing means anything to me”) had become the very thing they once hated.

The last Manics record to come out during Edwards’s lifetime (he was legally pronounced dead in 2008), and the one that has since taken on the aura of his last lyrical will and testament, is 1994’s The Holy Bible, recorded on the band’s home turf of Cardiff and under the influence of jaggedly catchy post-punk bands like Joy Division, Wire, and Gang of Four. The underwhelming reception for the group’s sophomore record, Gold Against the Soul—a slicker, comparatively depoliticized follow-up to Generation Terrorists—led to collective retrenchment of antiestablishment principles. With Edwards struggling emotionally and drinking heavily, his bandmates took it upon themselves to generate music that could do justice to their compatriot’s erratic writing. In the end, what they produced was not so much an album as an anthology, with each track taking the form of essay, channelling an argumentative, pitilessly eloquent intelligence.

If there is ever a vote on rock’s greatest ventriloquists, James Dean Bradfield deserves consideration for the top spot. A charismatic performer and blisteringly skilled guitarist with a powerful tenor voice, his greatest achievement may nevertheless be his ability to plangently convey words written by somebody else. Edwards wasn’t much of a singer (nor, judging by the number of anecdotes and allusions to his guitar being left unplugged during gigs, a particularly sharp axman), but ideas and images poured out of him like a torrent. It was left to Bradfield to make these musings musical, which he did with a resourcefulness bordering on genius. One way to describe The Holy Bible is “John Doe’s diaries from Se7en with verses and choruses,” and yet, somehow, the combination not only works but cuts deep. The songs get under your skin; rarely has the notion of “hooks” taken on such a flesh-rendingly literal dimension.

The Holy Bible’s lead single was “Faster,” whose title and careening melody signified a wish to push the tempo after Gold Against the Soul’s torpor. But the signature track—the one where the Manics made it clear that they were not fucking around—was the opener. Powered by a chugging, Pixies-ish riff and Sean Moore’s skittering drum kit, “Yes” is a street-level, documentary-intense exploration of prostitution, filled with grotesque come-ons (“He’s a boy / You want a girl so tear off his cock”) and impressionistic throwaways (“an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff”).

Bereft of a single conventional, discernible rhyme—as stream-of-consciousness as rock gets—“Yes” is also beautifully built, with Bradfield’s gorgeous vocal melody swooping over and threading through the twisting razor wire of his guitar work. The song radiates with a furious anger at the indignities and inequalities inherent in its chosen milieu, finally adopting a first-person perspective to convey total abjection (“There’s no part of my body that has not been used”), even as Bradfield’s singing gains force. When he finally exclaims “Everyone I’ve loved or hated always seems to leave,” it’s the sound of despair metastasizing into triumph.

A slithering earworm of Cronenbergian dimensions, “Yes” is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. The Holy Bible revels in the possibilities of polarization, whether on the Reagan-baiting (and politically self-explanatory) “If White America Told the Truth for One Day Its World Would Fall Apart”; the catastrophic misanthropy of “Of Walking Abortion” (named for a line in Andy Warhol’s would-be-assassin Valerie Solanas’s infamous Scum Manifesto); or the truly unsettling “Archives of Pain,” an apparent pro-capital-punishment position paper name-checking worthy candidates for the electric chair (“Kill Yeltsin, who’s saying? Zhirinovsky, Le Pen … give them the respect they deserve”) that Nicky Wire described to Melody Maker as a statement “against this fascination with those who kill.” Like so many songs on The Holy Bible, “Archives of Pain” is structured lyrically and sonically like a vortex, pulling the listener under waves of pounding noise and rhetoric—it’s music to drown in.

The direct provocations of a song like “Archives of Pain” are disarmingly articulate without necessarily being intellectually cogent, which is why at times The Holy Bible could be mistaken for a kind of edgelord manifesto, with the extenuating circumstance of Edwards’s physical and emotional decline during its recording as just one more manipulative, sensationalist gimmick among many. The band’s tendency to quote or sample their artistic heroes suggested an anxiety of influence, as if they needed to prove themselves by inserting audio snippets from 1984 or the Nuremberg trials into songs, while the band’s record label was dreaming of placement on drive-time playlists. “I am stronger than Mensa, Miller, and Mailer,” bellows Bradfield on the chorus of “Faster,” leaving one to wonder whether he and Edwards are trying to convince us or themselves. It’s a fine line between between not giving a fuck and wanting everybody to know how few fucks you have to give, and a line like “self-disgust is self-obsession, honey, and I do as I please” cuts even closer to the bone than its writer may have intended.

There’s also a fine line between vulnerability and exhibitionism, and the record’s emotional affect is derived from how deeply Edwards was reaching into his own pain. At several points, he was hospitalized for anorexia, and on the devastating “4st 7lb,” the narrator—who seems to be a teenage girl, though her identity is left deliberately vague—recounts the brutal details of an eating disorder, guiding us through a thorny labyrinth of contemptuous self-loathing (“Mother tries to choke me with roast beef”), twisted narcissism (“I want to be so pretty that I rot from view”), and ghostly metaphor (“Choice is skeletal in everybody’s life”). It culminates in the most beautiful, horrifying, and prophetic line Edwards ever wrote: “I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint.”

1994 was the year of The Downward Spiral, Live Through This, and Ready to Die, so it’s not like Edwards’s melancholy was without competition—or context. For kids coming of age in the early ’90s, the alt-rock paradox was that bands were glomming onto a genre that couldn’t choose between catharsis and agony and decided to conflate them. The melodrama inherent in Eddie Vedder’s every yelp wasn’t just commodified—it was aspirational.

It’s worth noting that in a market saturated with potent bad-mood enhancers, The Holy Bible’s methodology was one of stringent deglamorization; where the Manics had previously positioned themselves as sardonically heroic figures, here they worked with self-effacement to put the songs and their sentiments first. The one pop-flavored track, “This Is Yesterday,” has the buoyancy of early-’90s alt-rock (like something off of Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream), capturing, for three elusive and ecstatic minutes, a sensation of idealized nostalgia before the harsh, descending chords of “Die in the Summertime.” It’s gruesome, but also human-scaled: In a decade where R-rated Alice Cooper disciples like Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson gleefully flashed their parental advisory stickers and successfully carnivalized and commodified darkness, Edwards’s songwriting opted for wrenching cinema verité over cartoonish horror show.

From its King James–baiting title on down, through its confrontational cover art (a triptych of a scantily clad obese woman) and meticuloysly designed liner notes (which included photos of abandoned concentration camps in sync with Holocaust-themed album tracks “Mausoleum” and “The Intense Humming of Evil”), The Holy Bible was a scandal waiting to happen. The Manics did their best to play the part of provocateurs, with Bradfield performing “Faster” on Top of the Pops clad in a paramilitary-style balaclava. It was album promotion as a form of guerrilla warfare. (The BBC got over 25,000 complaints via telephone.)

Critics raved the record to the skies, while consumers were more ambivalent: It reached no. 6 in the U.K. charts and claimed instant cult status. Two years later, the Manics would break through comercially with Everything Must Go, yoked to the stomping, magisterial “A Design for Life”—a song whose skyscraping chorus would make even Noel Gallagher grit his teeth with envy. During their brief but spectacular commercial peak, the Manics-minus-Richey would tap a rich vein of populist emotion; The Holy Bible was more like a bundle of raw, exposed nerves.

In 2009, the Manics released Journal for Plague Lovers, an album whose selling point was that its songs were all written using posthumously published lyrics by Richey Edwards. Unsurprisingly, it remains their strongest 21st-century recording, purposefully evoking its predecessor without resorting to mere grave-robbing. After spending years mourning, quoting, excoriating, and exorcising their friend—with highly varied results—the Manics let him do the talking. “Once we actually got into the studio … it almost felt as if we were a full band,” Bradfield said in 2009. “It [was] as close to him being in the room again as possible.”

Masterpieces don’t need sequels—spiritual or otherwise—but Journal for Plague Lovers honored its heritage and reenergized a group who’d been verging on self-parody.

“I think that if a Holy Bible is true, it should be about the way the world is,” Edwards told a Swedish television station in 1994. “That’s what I think my lyrics are about … [the album] doesn’t pretend things don’t exist.” It’s that simultaneously abrasive and fragile quality—an escape from escapism, a denial of denial—that still rings out on every track. In a moment when the vast majority of rock music has deliberately evacuated any pretense of seriousness or larger meaning, The Holy Bible seems like an ancient relic: a towering monument to displeasure. It is hard to say, exactly, who an album like this for. But it is undoubtedly, for real.