‘Cleaning, and cooking, and flower-arranging / dissolves a kind of liberation.’“Virginia State Epileptic Colony” by Manic Street Preachers
It seemed like a good time to revisit this album. Recorded in 2009, Journal for Plague Lovers acts as a companion piece to The Holy Bible, the last studio album recorded with the band’s former “rhythm guitarist” and childhood friend, Richey James. The lyrics for the record were cribbed from a notebook left behind by James in early 1995 before he departed the Embassy Hotel in Bayswater—now a Hilton—and vanished, his car found abandoned at the Severn Bridge days later.
This record got me through a tough time. I didn’t listen to it in 2009, wasn’t ready to listen to it, but in 2013, at work all day, half-drunk at night, to paraphrase Larkin, it made a lot of sense to me. For those surprisingly uninformed, The Holy Bible is my favourite record, and, in 1994 when it was first released, the Manic Street Preachers were my favourite band; it felt strangely fitting that what had got me through a rough adolescence helped get me through the first significant challenge of that new era.
Recorded by Steve Albini, it is impossible not to evoke the spirit of that other record to which The Holy Bible is sometimes compared: Nirvana’s In Utero. For the causal listener, the decision to employ Albini as the engineer on this album might seem crass, might seem too obvious, and yet it feels as if there was never really any other sensible choice—not only is Albini possibly the best sound engineer in the world (my opinion), the politics of loss make Journal for Plague Lovers a cathartic experience, a poignant experience, a reflection on all that we gave away in the 1990s.
Lyrically though, the album reflects nothing of the time in which it was composed, being entirely fixated on the author’s inner life, the connexions he draws between his own experience and those found in literature, in cinema; these words are not concerned with the modernity of the period in which they were written, but rather they are a struggle to build a bridge between what has passed and where James finds himself at the time of writing. Dealing obliquely with Richey James’s time in mental health care facilities, the album constantly refers back to a personal mythology that none of us can hope to understand, a symbolism clear in its significance but impossible to decode. It is a terribly sad record, again not because of the words — which, at times, express a near manic state of euphoria — but because it is the last recorded words of someone who was deeply troubled, who was deeply unwell.
It is strange now, being an adult and listening to these words, as well as those that preceded them. When I was a teenager, 27 seemed like such an impossible age, I thought you must know so much about how the world works, about how to navigate its cruelties when you were 27. Now, as an adult, and looking back on all this and knowing that James will never age, will never grow older than those 27 years, I feel a strange sort of tenderness and compassion towards the memory; he feels more like a boy to me now than the adult man I mistook him for when I was younger.
Journal for Plague Lovers is a wonderful record, it is a sad record, it is a record that is highly appropriate for the moment we are in right now… and it is the words of a boy we will never hear from again.
Image by Jenny Saville (Original Album Art) / Blusterhouse Illustration