“When a man is young, he is usually a revolutionary of some kind. So here I am, speaking of my revolution” Wyndham Lewis
The above quote was used by the Manic Street Preachers for the inlay of their love letter to their formative influences (The Clash and Guns & Roses), 2007’s Send Away The Tigers, an album that the band created to return themselves to some idealistic state of being that they had embodied in their youth but lost to the conspiring of both age and tragedy.
And in an indirect, roundabout way, Even in Exile, the new solo album from Manics frontman, songwriter and guitar hero James Dean Bradfield, works in the same way as Tigers but on an intellectual, inspirational level. Even in Exile reunites Bradfield with one of his teenage fascinations – Victor Jara:
I was aware of Victor’s story from the kind of early ‘80s onward but I’d never really investigated his music that much, strangely…I first became aware of Victor Jara from a Clash song called ‘Washington Bullets’, from their album Sandinista. There was then a group called Working Week, a jazz collective from London in early ‘80s, who also wrote a song about him. You lead on to U2, and their song ‘One Tree Hill’, which mentions Jara. Simple Minds also dedicated Street Fighting Years to him as well. At this point you think, ‘Right I’ve got to find out more about this guy’. He was like an echo that kept coming up all the time.
One of the aspects of the Manics that had the most impact on me, perhaps more than any other band, was how their lyrics, artwork, interviews and entire artistic endeavour seemed to be simultaneously a catalogue, celebration and a critique of history, politics, and culture, but more than that, a great secondary education in areas my own schooling had left me ignorant of and ill-informed by. Looking at the route I was going along with film and literature when I first fell into the Manics at 19 years old, I probably would have come across the likes of Camus, Kafka, Plath, Betty Blue and Rumblefish. But the Manics, importantly, got to me first. They also gave me a context for these arts and artists, explained why they were important, established them in a wider world outside of their respective pigeon holes, and took them to task as necessary. All the more impressive for what was, ostensibly, a populist rock and indie band.
Now, at 34 years old, I’m being educated once again, caught up in wonder that there is still so much to learn about the world and its people. I had never heard of Victor Jara before this album was announced. Now I wonder why more people don’t know of him, his story being as wondrous and tragically deathful as it is.
Born into poverty as part of a plantation family in Chile, he surpassed expectations of his class by becoming a theatre director, a poet and a singer-songwriter, singing gentle songs of demand for fair human rights and justice. A socialist and supporter of/cultural ambassador for eventual president Salvador Allende. Jara would be tragically and horrifically killed when Allende was removed from power by the USA-backed coup of General Pinochet.
Jara’s influence is still felt in Chile, and he is considered to be a national hero, particularly to those on the left who protest for human rights. It’s an incredible story, if heart-breaking, and I am grateful to have become aware of a man who believed so strongly in inclusion and fairness. I’m in no way surprised that Bradfield was so taken with Jara.
Working with poet Patrick Jones, brother of Manics bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire and close friend of Bradfield’s, the album positively exudes the idea of focussing on a single intoxicating idea, in this case, an album centred on Jara. Jones’ lyrics, said to have been initiated as a ‘writing exercise’ in the wake of the death of his parents, are full of fear and disgust at the tyranny of oppressive forces and the bloodshed such power inevitably wreaks on those held captive under the soles of its big leather boots. But they’re also full of love, for the fantastic female figures in our lives (in Jara’s case, his mother, nurturer and teacher, and his widow, who campaigned tirelessly for justice for Jara and the hundreds/thousands like him who were killed unlawfully). Single ‘The Boy From The Plantation’ in particular nails the unconditional bond of love between mother and child: “I knew when I cradled you/that you were gonna shine/as your hand held so tightly/forever, I thought, onto mine/when you’d cry I’d wrap you in a blanket/and sing you my songs/all I knew to right the wrongs/as we held onto love”. It’s beautiful, in both sentiment and economy of expression (no surprise from a poet, of course).
(Incidentally, this is not the first time James Dean Bradfield and Patrick Jones have collaborated. Check out the stunningly mournful ‘It Will Take More Than a Grave to Bury You’ here).
I’ve heard it said that the album indulges in prog, and while it’s definitely there, I would say that it’s prog with a lower-case ‘p’. This isn’t a Yes album—there are no twenty-minute multi-sectioned suites about Tolkien-esque figures, and any painfully smug pretensions to being a modern-day Wagner or Beethoven are thankfully absent.
Where the album does embrace prog is in the expansiveness of its musicianship, its embrace of instrumental explorations that interrupt themselves with unexpected passages, and its shifting time signatures. Take for instance the light, airy ‘Seeking the Room with Three Windows’, an instrumental that alternates between passages of 6/8 and 7/8 time signatures, its heroic guitar lines giving way to a moody, very prog, synthesiser passage in the middle.
Then there’s the jazzy, seductively dark chords in ‘From the Hands of Violeta’ and ‘Without Knowing the End’ which disrupt otherwise tasteful chord sequences, lending both songs a frisson and tension that gives them a sense of mystery and the unexpected.
Although a big fan of Rush, Bradfield has spoken more in the past about the so-called ‘Krautrock’ bands, and what I feel this album has is more of the Krautrocker’s fascination with texture and the expansiveness of space within the sound than the traditional prog of extended suites and classical influence. ‘There Comes a War’ creates an icy picture of dread, its chord sequence giving a sense of unease by using the aural space around it to entrap the listener in its frosty depths. You can see your breath in the air as you listen. Early Simple Minds would approve (Bradfield used to give copies of their Empire and Dance album out as presents circa The Holy Bible).
There is also a cinematic, Morricone-esque feel to instrumentals ‘Under the Mimosa Tree’ and ‘La Partida’, the latter an atmospheric cover of the Jara tune which, under Bradfield’s evocative arrangement, would make an excellent theme for a TV drama (if any TV producers want to take note).
This is definitely not a Manic Street Preachers album, an attempt at ‘mass communication’ with choruses to punch the sky to. Yet there is some immediacy amongst these wondrous textures. ‘Without Knowing the End’ mixes the guitar hook from REM’s ‘Green Grow the Rushes Grow’ with the stately rock of The Cult’s ‘She Sells Sanctuary’. And ‘The Boy From the Plantation’ is as close to typical Manics anthemics as the album gets, mixing a big chorus with warm, empathetic guitar and harmonica hooks, and pulling off the old Richey Edwards trick of giving Bradfield near-impossible tongue twister lyrics, in this case, Jara’s full name in the chorus: Victor Lidio Jara Martinez.
Ultimately, Even in Exile is the sound of what can happen when the weight of having to write music that lives up to the idea of the Manic Street Preachers. As much as I love the Manics, it does feel that at times the weight of the concept of the Manics impinges on the band’s music, the manifestos of Nicky Wire pulling the music in ways perhaps it wouldn’t go without that pressure of being ‘for real’, or true to the idea of the band. That is not to say I don’t like the music of the Manics, because I love it very much. It’s gotten me through some difficult times. But the Manics could not have made this album.
Unchained from the party ideals, Bradfield has made a highly atmospheric, empathetic, expansive and artistic album that demands and rewards multiple listens. It is music to get lost in, to educated by, and to feel some genuine human warmth from.
Just the right album for these difficult times, then.