In 2007, when I was not so young but might well have been more stupid, I wrote an article on the use of Nietzsche’s thinking in the songs of the Manic Street Preachers. As my first ever publication I’m quite proud of it (it took three years to appear in print, for reasons I’m not too sure about as it was never rewritten from submission) although I see it as deeply flawed and superficial. I was still an MA student in Philosophy at the time, and primarily wrote the article as a way to kill time in the office on a boring Thursday afternoon in June.
Despite my pride, I’m also embarrassed by one line. In the article, I described the Holy Bible as “an education in nihilism and alienation”. Of all the things I’ve written, it’s that statement that actually hurts to read. I’m not certain I ever thought the Holy Bible was nihilistic, although the sentence may have some meaning in the context of a discussion of Nietzsche. In December I’m going to watch the Manics play the album in full to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of the album, and here I want to redress the balance somewhat with my current feelings and thoughts on the album.
What to say? The album is lauded, rightly, as not only the Manics best work but also one of the most important albums of the 1990’s. It’s easily one of my favourite albums, although it remains often difficult to listen to due to the mood of the work. Musically it is brilliant, lyrically it veers from off the scale brilliant to incredible, although always challenging and difficult. Its this challenge that, for me, defines the greatness. The topics of the songs are in themselves challenging: prostitution, serial killers, anorexia, the holocaust, fascism, political revolution and often despair. Nihilism in the face of such topics is a comfort – easier to believe in nothing than confront the issues. In listening to the album though, I do not retreat from the ideas that are fired forth like a machine gun. Through confrontation comes an affirmation every time I listen to the album (I did so earlier today while working on an operations management paper – infinitely more horrifying). There is something life affirming about being challenged to confront ideas, history and mortality and come out the other side. This is Yesterday always feels like a sigh of relief, despite its lamentation on ageing, and despite Die in the Summertime, The Intense Humming of Evil and PCP to follow. There is an existential mood in listening that is angst in character; cathartic and at the distance that listening to an album allows the angst is realised through the the process of listening through the album and coming to an understanding and accommodation with the album.
I now see the album as a massive critique of modernity and the need for quantification, valuation and reduction of humanity down to category. The themes fit such a view: they revolve around exploitation, mechanised and systematic annihilation through reduction to less than human status and quantification on measures applied empirically. The latter point is exemplified by 4st 7lb, the weight at which death is medically unavoidable for anorexics. The life of the human is compared to a quantification that results in annihilation. The churning up of humanity in the face of modernity – the will to improve, to make more efficient, to destroy difference and make valuable on market rather than moral worth – is the theme that I keep revisiting when listening now. This is of course a consequence of my own development intellectually, as I have developed from a naive reader of Nietzsche to a more rounded academic interested in the Philosophy of Technology and the reorientation of humans in the face of ubiquitous computing. The album serves as a touchstone to the rawer feelings associated with this critical position, as in how far this orientation to life can take people when they invest in efficiency over man.
The album is (primarily) the thoughts and feelings of one man. I cannot speculate on the mental state of Richey, nor would I want to – many amateur psychologists have, trying to answer the unanswerable. I’m thankful that these thoughts were produced in a form to be preserved, replayed and dwelled upon 20 years later and many years from now. There’s not been an album like this since that I’ve heard, and I doubt there will be. It’s the Manics in an isolated, liminal state away from being from Wales, being male, being anything. Beautiful and harrowing, but not nihilistic.