Archive for the ‘2004 – Lifeblood’ Category

Empty Souls

God knows what makes the comparison

When Empty Souls was first previewed on the 2003 Isle of Wight festival, it was a fast and powerful rocker. Its album version disappointed some as the speed was slowed down. But the album version has something the live version lacked completely: the gorgeous studio space.

It’s all in the atmosphere. I’m a sucker for atmosphere and Empty Souls reigns supreme in that respect. The spacey echoes create a dark stadium feel, accentuated by the ringing, ice-cold piano (reminiscent of U2’s New Years Day but Empty Souls is actually great as a whole). Then there’s the e-bowed guitar. I love the e-bow, it’s immense. Empty Souls is one of James’ very, very few e-bow moments and good god the constant guitar line throughout the song is so gorgeous and haunting.

I’ve also got nothing bad to say about the lyrics, outside the fact that they’ve got that lazy repetation going on that was happening during the Lifeblood era. I actually don’t mind the “collapsing like the twin towers” line at all – I don’t see anything controversial in it, it’s a historic event and that’s it. It’s a fitting comparison for something immensely large emotionally (and physically). Fits great with the rest of the lyrics about the eternally sorrowful titular ’empty souls’ facing something of immense and undescribed emotional effect. Not to mention the single edit, replacing the line with “collapsing like dying flowers”, just doesn’t have the same effect. Not to mention how the backing vocals still sing the original line.

But jesusfuckchrist the video. It’s easily one of the worst Manics videos. For all the gorgeous things you could get from the song and turn into a video format, we see the band being bored as fuck in a hotel and occasional clips of the band playing in what looks like a school gym, coupled with Wire’s clumsy movement and the sheer ugliness of James’ Flying V. At least Sean looks awesome as always during the era.

Empty Souls has about a billion single sleeve quotes. Okay, four: one for each format and one for the collectible slipcase to store them all. These are:

“The ceaseless labour of your life is to build the house of death”
-Michel de Montaigne
“After the first death there is not other”
-Dylan Thomas
“By the light of our insistent truths we wander into death”
-Edmond Jab├ęs
“Death came and he looked like a rat with claws – I made him go into the wall”
-Jenny Holzer

Morbid. Guess we can safely assume it’s a song about death, among other things. Incidentally, if you arrange the three single sleeves into order you get another one of those “naked woman covered in blood” shots Lifeblood’s artwork consists of.

The official video’s not on Youtube. Guess we’re lucky in a way. Have a random live clip.


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Yeah, they all betrayed you

The Love of Richard Nixon was a rather huge surprise to everyone. Yes, There By the Grace of God might have already hinted on a morenixon electronic direction but no one was expecting something that was practically a synth pop song. Why do Sean’s drums sound so artificial? What’s with this weird James-multitracking? And speaking of James, where’s his guitar!?

I loved Nixon from ever since the first listen. I still love it. It’s sexy and seductive despite being cold and political. It’s dancey but not in an obvious way. Those chorus synths are amazing. And speaking of politics, it’s one of Wire’s best set of political lyrics. “A soundtrack to disillusion, hatred, love and never giving up” – death without assassination, Nixon’s entire legacy (including the few good things he did) wiped out and tarnished by the Watergate scandal.

But as much as I love the song, it’s quite easily the worst choice of a single in the Manics history. I don’t mean that it should have never been a single – it’s actually quite an obvious one. But a lead single? Never. It sure does showcase the new sound of Lifeblood but it showcases the extreme of the said sound instead of what the rest of the album represents. Add the fact that with 1985 you have the best comeback song ever made, a song loved even by the Lifeblood haters (I know, I can’t understand it either but there are such downright creepy people), born to be a lead single and uh, it’s not. Not even a single. The band’s later admitted that TLORN’s release was entirely the record label’s decision that they had nothing to say in. Or they couldn’t be arsed to say anything about it, rather.

And such is the bittersweet legacy of The Love of Richard Nixon. Amazing song but a constant reminder how fucked the promotion of Lifeblood was from the start.

The sleeve quotes for all the three formats were various Nixon campaign slogans: “Nixon’s the one!”, “Our nation needs Nixon!”. The video is a pretty intriguing one and actually quite cool. There’s something very creepy in those Nixon masks.

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Always getting something wrong

Once you get over the fact that this is a Manics track with slap bass (a rather awesome slap bass at that) and your mind allows you to focus on the other parts of the music, you’ll realise that Always/Never is a much, much more complex song than you could hear on the first round, composed of countless tiny details that do a lot while being very little.

My absolute favourite is the electric guitar that’s constantly in the background though you wouldn’t hear it at all during the first few listens. In the verse it’s doing its little wah-wah-ish action, before leading the melody into the chorus in unison with the electric piano. In the chorus itself you’ve got that subtle high-pitched keyboard melody that adds a great deal to the high-rising atmosphere of the chorus. And finally on the second verse you’ve got the small but highly important keyboard melody that transforms the nature of the verse entirely.

The big details are amazing too though. The amazing synth wave constantly creating atmosphere throughout the track, the crystal clear acoustic guitar shining in the chorus, the rhythmic piano punctuations, the final guitar ‘solo’, James’ layered vocals, and so forth.

Also, bloody love the lyrics. The power of oblique, seemingly completely abstract lyrics which start to make sense when you start paying attention to them: self-defeat and self-loathing in a poetic, eternally contradicting form. Always/Never is lyrically experimental in the way that it’s the only Manics track where the music came first – from a random jam session – and lyrics were written for the track rather than music being fit to pre-existing lyrics like with all other Manics songs.

I love this one so much.

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When did time start accelerating?

I find Lifeblood to be an all-around perfect album but its lyrics contain a flew clunkers (although it’s much thanks to Wire’s writer’s block that was pouting a bit during the time), and one of those clunkers is found in Glasnost. The title, in fact: I just can’t get over the “glasnost” bit. The song’s got fantastic lyrics otherwise, a wonderful lament to lost years and ode for breaking personal barriers and finally being able to talk about one’s feelings: the whole ‘if we can still fall in love’ part probably referencing the band’s early “we’ll never write a love song” statements. Then the chorus clumsies up with the “make your own glasnost” bit. It doesn’t sound right. It sounds like using a fancy foreign word for the sake of it. I know what glasnost means and indeed, it works perfectly within the context of the song but still…

Musically it’s pretty much perfect though. Out of the three Lifeblood pre-release radio play tracks I had before getting the actual album, Glasnost impressed me the least but it was due to the shoddy radio quality. Like much of Lifeblood, sonical elements are a major part of the song and the shining production emphasises the divinely gorgeous melodies the song offers. That lead guitar line rings as beautifully as countless summer days. The sudden switch of pace in the chorus feels somewhat abrupt initially in the sense that it seems like a build-up without the climax, but it doesn’t need a climax. It’s a moment of clarity, the moment to stop for a while and just enjoy life. While the album’s usual melancholy is still present in the sense of observing time fleeting by, Glasnost sounds more calm contemplation rather than sadness. I suppose you could call it continuation of the theme from This Is Yesterday – moving from looking nostalgically back at youth to wondering about the passing of time itself.

That’s Glasnost in a nutshell. A song for life, in uphills and downhills. Time goes on but it’s never too late to change your ways.

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Your memory is still mine

In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with Manics is the ever-present ghost of Richey hanging over the band. His disappearance is the only thing that non-fans remember from the band, the cult-deification the buggering off did to his legacy has caused him to remembered as a godlike genius that some equal to be the only source of inspiration in the band, the reviews on more recent Manics albums like to focus more on him than the actual music present, and so forth. This includes the band – sometimes you get the feeling the band keeps being overshadowed by the man’s ghost.

Lifeblood is one of the band’s most personal albums, musically the most independent and free from any sort of external pressure. It’s one of the few moments in their history where they were free of any non-musical chains that haunt them. Yet the final moment of the album is a song about Richey, the one big chain.

Cardiff Afterlife is a special kind of Richey song. It’s a goodbye, a farewell, or at least was meant to be so when it was recorded. It’s very open about its source of inspiration and it’s very direct, and at the same time it’s aimed as a farewell to the ghost from the afterlife that’s continued to be present – a step towards being free from it. The abrupt ending signals this the most – the song ends like on a brickwall. Full stop. Case dismissed and over with. Everyone’s free to go on.

I’m not basing this on mad guesswork by the way, the band’s actually talked about this in interviews during the Lifeblood era.

Musically it’s sweet and soft. A very warm song driven by acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and violin. There’s a certain fragility to it. It’s never tearjerking or trying to tug one’s heartstrings – it’s simply a sweet pop song with an aching, bittersweet feel to it. The chorus sounds rather off tangent at first but as you get used to it, it’s abrupt swift in style sounds appropriate. And if you listen carefully in it, you can hear Sean doing backing vocals.

I’m not much too keen on the band constantly writing songs about Richey but for some reason they (nearly) always manage to make the music in them sound brilliant. Cardiff Afterlife isn’t an exception.

A random anecdote related to Cardiff Afterlife: it’s the only survivor from the otherwise abandoned “city album” project. Before Lifeblood existed as it is, the band had an idea of building a concept album inspired by cities (“Stockholm Alone” et cetera). All the other tracks got scrapped except this one.

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This is a song to break your heart to

Most of Lifeblood was first-listen-hits for me but A Song for Departure was one of the largest hits. I love thick basslines and tight drum beats, and Departure offers both (apparently both Sean and Nicky were instructed by James to play their instruments like in Michael Jackson’s Beat It). It’s one of the punchiest songs on Lifeblood sound-wise despite being a highly melodic, sky-soaring anthem of loss. It’s also one of the few moments on the album with some guitar soloing – two times in fact. Both fabulous solos by the way and I’m not usually one to raise those things so high as to mention them.

As the song was never a single of any sort it doesn’t have an official video, but it was one of the Lifeblood songs that got a Patrick Jones video and it was the only one to actually get an official release on the band’s website. It’s nothing fancy or anything, but does have a few nifty shots of the band playing to the track.

The lyrics, that pretty much nutshell themselves perfectly with the name of the song, are inspired by the similarly titled poem by Elizabeth Jennings, readable from here.

One of the should-have-been singles on an album with massive singles problems.

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It’s what you forget that kills you

Out of all the subtlety in Lifeblood, I’d vote Emily as the most subtle of all the tracks. I base this on the fact that it took the longest to grow on me. And by grow I mean it became from a good track to a brilliant track.

Such a suave song full of fantastic vocal melodies, curious musical changes, some wonderful drumming from Sean and Nicky’s great set of lyrics. Instrumentally this song is just blissful – outside Sean’s great drumming you’ve got that groovy bass line, the wonderful ethereal high-pitched keyboard lines, the cool and collected guitar lines and the disappearing and re-appearing piano tingles. Then the chorus transforms into a wonderfully understated yet celebratory (nicely contrastic to the lyrics about unanswered questions) flight with dovetailing guitarlines. Oooh man, James’ guitar lines in this song are pure bliss. There’s so much delicious material going on in the song and so many obvious hooks, but it’s all played almost unnoticably; very subtly. Which is why it takes time to grow.

And thus Emily turned from just a good song to an understated and brilliant, important piece of Lifeblood.

Emily was a seemingly big track during the creation of Lifeblood, it was one of the songs Nicky kept constantly mentioning during the interviews before and after the album. It never got a live airing, naturally. For all the hoo-hah about its lyrical inspiration – the suffragette icon Emily Pankhurst and how her accomplishments are hardly ever mentioned while the nation goes apeshit over the likes of Princess Diana (Nicky’s pet hates, not mine!) – the song doesn’t really make such a big deal out of it. It’s less anger and frustration and more so given up and nonchalant in defeat. The chorus even steps away slightly from the subject to deliver a more universal set of truths and laments.

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