[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen the Manic Street Preachers released The Holy Bible 20 years ago tomorrow, it was a distinct departure from not only the British guitar pop music of the day but also the band’s previous sound. By the time they recorded The Holy Bible, the Manics’ early look of spray-painted blouses and tight white jeans had been traded in for “military chic”; lots of olive green, and even singer James Dean Bradfield sporting a balaclava. The Welsh four-piece had always been a politically charged band, but here, guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards took the band’s views front and center.
One of rock lore’s most tragic figures, Edwards had made headlines early in the band’s career when he carved the word “4REAL” into his arm during an interview with the NME. Never a star guitarist, Edwards spent The Holy Bible recording sessions sleeping on a studio sofa while the rest of the band laid down tracks. Edwards’ band mates later recalled that he was drinking heavily and frequently crying during this period. Less than a year after The Holy Bible’s release, Edwards would disappear from a London hotel on the eve of a North American tour.
The lyric-writing duo of Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire contributed equally on the Manics’ two previous albums, but The Holy Bible saw Edwards penning about 70 percent of the lyrics. The album’s subject matter ranges from British imperialism to eating disorders to American consumerism. The music has its classic pop hooks here and there but largely reflects the angry sentiments found in the lyrics. Driving guitars and pumping drums echo the band’s fondness for military style during The Holy Bible era.
On the eve of its 20th anniversary, New Ordered ranks the 13 songs on the record from best to worst. But full disclosure: this album is a very hard one to re-order. Each song is unique, dealing with its own subject matter and providing its own sound. But someone’s got to draw the line and determine which shine through the most, even after the band’s glow has diminished after two decades.
The Holy Bible’s first single (as a double a-side with “P.C.P.”), “Faster” is a hard-hitting tune. Bradfield is essentially yelling at the listener over the verses before launching into a shockingly pop-tastic chorus. Thanks to Bradfield’s unique vocal delivery, it’s hard to make out quite what he’s saying — perhaps that’s why it was considered radio-friendly enough to reach #16 in the UK singles chart. The lyrics, like the rest of the album, are brutal. Edwards claimed the song was about self-abuse. With lines like “Self-disgust is self-obsession, honey” and a chorus declaring, “I am all the things that you regret,” this is a teenage angst anthem that holds up from a time inundated with teen angst anthems.
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The album’s opening track slaps the listener right across the face with the first lyric “For sale? Dumb cunt’s same dumb questions/Oh virgins? Listen, all virgins are liars honey.” The song tackles prostitution (“For $200 anyone can conceive a God on video”) and Edwards’ struggles with self harm (“Can’t shout, can’t scream, hurt myself to get pain out”). This raw song is a bold way to begin an album. “There is no part of my body that has not been used. Pity or pain, to show displeasure’s shame. Everyone I’ve loved or hated always seems to leave.” Damn.
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3. “Archives Of Pain”
A creepy song about the glorification of serial killers, this song displays some great guitar work from Bradfield. It eerily kicks off with a recording of the mother of one of Peter Sutcliffe’s victims before Bradfield gives the listener a surprisingly subdued delivery of the verses. The chorus kicks things up a notch repeating, “Give them the respect they deserve.”
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4. “4st 7lb”
Perhaps one of The Holy Bible’s most disturbing tracks, “4st 7lb” chronicles Edwards’ struggles with anorexia. It’s told from the point of view of a girl looking up to models like Kate Moss declaring, “I want to be so skinny that I rot from view/I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint.” The song’s rough verses give way to a melodic breakdown featuring the chilling lyric “such beautiful dignity in self abuse.”
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5. “She Is Suffering”
The album’s “softest” track, for lack of a better term, “She Is Suffering” weaves the tale of a tragic, toxic beauty. Bradfield sings: “Beauty she is scarred into man’s soul/A flower attracting lust, vice, and sin/A vine that can strangle life from a tree/Carrion, surrounding, picking on leaves.” Having a slower, more-toned down sound than the rest of the album, this track is accessible to the casual listener until its brutal lyrics are recognized. Wire and Bradfield later expressed their disgust over this track thinking it glorified a damsel in distress, but Edwards maintained that the “she” in question is actually desire.
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6. “This Is Yesterday”
This track is the precursor to “William’s Last Words,” the haunting Wire-sung track from 2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers. It’s a sweet-sounding nostalgia trip about lost youth. Was this Edwards reflecting on his childhood while battling his adult demons? He visits this theme repeatedly on The Holy Bible most notably also in “Die In the Summertime” and “Faster.”
The song with the long, run-on title is the Manics’ ode to American consumerism, politics, and race relations. It’s an interesting song to listen to in the wake of the ongoing Ferguson tragedy. “Cool — groovy — morning — fine — if white,” goes the chorus. Like many of The Holy Bible’s tracks, “ifwhiteamerica…” marries poppy melodies and militaristic, driving beats.
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This song name checks everyone from Gorbachev to Guevara. Wire explained that Edwards wrote the song about political relationships. Featuring an anthemic chorus, “Revol” was The Holy Bible’s second single. It’s easy to picture eyeliner and spray-paint clad Manics fans pumping their fists in time as Bradfield chants “Revol! Revol!”
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9. “Die In the Summertime”
This song is another window into Edwards’ frail mental state. Its lyrics speak of self-mutilation, lost childhood (also echoed on “This Is Yesterday” and “Faster”), and suicidal thoughts. Bradfield channels these feelings into emotive vocals over dark, post-punk inspired guitar riffs.
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10. “The Intense Humming of Evil”
With dark, machinistic beats layered over a clip of a report on the Nuremberg Trials, “The Intense Humming of Evil” does exactly what it says. It’s “Mausoleum’s” sister song dealing with the same subject matter, but does so in a way that sounds less Manic Street Preachers and more Nine Inch Nails. Musically, the song is different from anything else on The Holy Bible. Where “Mausoleum” focuses on the ghostly remains of concentration camps, “The Intense Humming of Evil” paints a picture of the human suffering. “Welcome, welcome soldier smiling. Funeral march for agony’s last edge. Six million screaming souls,” goes the first chorus. The song leaves the listener with chills.
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For a song with a title inspired by a drug and lyrics about political correctness, “P.C.P.” is surprisingly poppy. Bradfield bounces through the chorus and thanks to his vocal delivery, the song’s lyrics aren’t apparent until you actually sit down and read them. Twenty years later, we’re facing a lot of the same social issues: “P.C. caresses bigots and big brother/Read Leviticus, learnt censorship/Pro-life equals anti-choice/To be scared of/Of feathers.”
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12. “Of Walking Abortion”
Not many bands can write songs about right-wing totalitarianism, but the Manics accepted the challenge on “Of Walking Abortion.” Sean Moore’s drums march through the bridge before Bradfield declares, “We are all of walking abortion” on the chorus. The song criticizes totalitarian dictators like Hitler and Mussolini while also shaming those who stand by and let the atrocities happen. Its classic outro is “Who’s responsible? You fucking are.” Twenty years later, the song is still relevant.
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Inspired by the band’s visit to the former concentration camps at Dachau and Belsen, “Mausoleum’s” lyrics are some of the straightest forward on The Holy Bible. An excerpt from a J.G. Ballard interview plays in the middle of the song further driving home its point about both incredible suffering and tourists later visiting the sites of such atrocities. “The Intense Humming of Evil’s” sister song calls to life ghosts and the shame left on humanity.