20 Years of The Holy Bible — Richey Edwards’ Testament to the World

Last week a piece of popular culture celebrated its twentieth anniversary. I use the word ‘popular’ loosely. On its release in 1994 it did not enter the cultural conscience of the British population, nor was it an outstanding critical success. Although reviews were predominantly positive, there were no awards forthcoming. Those went to contemporaries.

Two decades on since it was unleashed on an unappreciative public, the Manic Street Preachers third album, The Holy Bible, is now held in great reverence, often appearing at the sharp end of the omnipresent ‘best ever album’ lists so beloved by a failing music press as it desperately strives for relevance in the digital age. Yet, even now, were you to ask the alternative music fan on the street for their most memorable mid-nineties album rarely would The Holy Bible be on the tip of their tongue.

A shame, for it is, after all, a masterpiece; and not just in the sense of being an exceptional indie rock album but in the wider context of a truly great work of literature or modern art. Its title couldn't be more portentous — just consider the nerve of calling your album ‘The Holy Bible’ — but it speaks of a complete and total defining of the band’s message, a sacred scripture of their own. The album’s 13 tracks could conceivably be seen as lead lyricist Richey Edwards’ own personal commandments, his own truths begotten to the human race, not in stone but in rock music.

Listening to the album itself is an intense and unforgiving experience, lurching as it does from themes of self-exploitation (Yes), to the male weakness for beauty giving rise to lust (She is Suffering), then again to the horrors of the holocaust (Mausoleum and The Intense Humming of Evil).

At one point, J G Ballard’s voice can be heard: “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror”. The quote defines the album. The Manics are attempting to peel back the layers of century upon century of humanity’s facade, not only in a bid to expose the realities of our human deficiencies but to accuse us of being continually complicit in their ongoing prevalence. “Who’s responsible?” screams Of Walking Abortion. “You fucking are!” comes the tearing reply.

The Holy Bible constantly forces upon you an exercise in self-evaluation. How many of these sins are you guilty of listener? “Pure or lost?”; “Spectator or crucified?” Throughout the album confronts you. Challenges you. Opens your eyes to a reality not previously perceived.

And yet piercing the caustic aggravation are moments of tragic, aching beauty. Richey Edwards’ inner turmoils are well documented but never before had they been so apparent in his lyrics. 4st 7lbs is a song about anorexia which frankly borders on the horrific but still clings to its kernel of self worth through self control. “This discipline’s so rare so please applaud” Richey dares us before delivering a sucker punch…”I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint”, this image of his — and our — very existence tainting the world around us is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

In hindsight, Richey’s disappearance the following year seems the ultimate realisation of this idea. It’s the final proof of his complete sincerity, of the authenticity of his emotion and intellect. In a sense, his vanishing is the ultimate full stop on the artist and his masterwork.

Of course lyrics alone do not make a great album. This is fundamentally an audible medium and the impact of The Holy Bible would reverberate far less were it not for the interpretations of both James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore in writing the music. Imagine being confronted with those words; having to strive to concoct a fitting ‘score’ that channelled the rage, disgust and self-flagellation without becoming an incoherent, self-indulgent mess.

That they achieved such a raw, stripped down and urgent soundscape, which formed a coherent whole, is a remarkable achievement. That these obtuse stanzas have been crafted into an incessant, pulsating, post punk rock album allows The Holy Bible to not only be a cerebral experience but a visceral one.

Hear how James spits the lyrics of Mausoleum, a constant stream of rhythmical emphasis on each, carefully chosen word — “idolise, despise and scrutinise” — barely stopping to breathe throughout; behold the unmistakable guitar solo coda to Archives of Pain, punishing the listener with each squealing intricacy; consider the verbal volley of PCP, lines spewing forth like bullets from a machine gun — ‘ack, ack ack’!

And finally, of course, there’s the artwork. Jenny Saville’s triptych of an overweight human in their underwear demands us to strip ourselves naked, to observe our every flaw from every angle and in the cold, white light of day. It’s a deliberately unsettling image; The Holy Bible is a deliberately unsettling listen but it is also a cathartic and empowering one.

For if there is a grain of hope to be found in this most excoriating of records — and despite its horror I feel compelled to try and find one — it’s that through an understanding of the true evils of our past we can attempt to recognise them in our present. The bright white magnesium burn of rage that is The Holy Bible takes an ultimate, defiant stance against our human weakness. It is fuelled by an uncompromising mentality and an incredible integrity, that which Richey Edwards cherished above everything and everyone.

image: Manics Dogtags, from the Holy Bible tour of ‘94. Nina J G via flickr

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