Manic Street Preachers / Lifeblood reissue reviewed

In depth look at the album & the reissue

Manic Street Preachers / Lifeblood 3CD reissue reviewed by SDE

Manic Street Preachers’ glacial, electronica-tinged and elegiac seventh album was, for years, the black sheep of the family — the only one of the band’s post-breakthrough records to debut outside of the top 10, their worst selling album yet, and allegedly the least beloved by fans (though it’s always had its champions). The Manics themselves disowned it pretty quickly. Interviewed by Vice in 2015, James Dean Bradfield is especially damning — “It lacks our true instinct,” he says of the 2004 release. “It lacks the essence of what we are … it was an investigation that didn’t work.”

Over the years the band have made various excuses for it — that due to the isolating way they recorded, there was never a sense that they were playing as a real unit; that they forced themselves to ignore their instinctive approach to songs and try different ideas, throwing the baby out with the bathwater in the process; that Nicky Wire’s writer’s block hung like a cloud over the whole thing; and that sessions with Tony Visconti in New York didn’t quite work. The impression, from interviews at least, is of a band trying too hard. It almost destroyed them, too. Ascending stars Razorlight were brought in as tour support to help fill underselling arenas, but several venues still failed to sell out. The band never attempted a full UK arena tour again. Two singles, ‘The Love of Richard Nixon’ and ‘Empty Souls’, both peaked at number two, but neither had much chart staying power and a planned third single was cancelled. Lifeblood remains the only Manics album from the band’s first 20 years to not crack the 100,000 sales mark. A month later, they released a tenth-anniversary box set of their classic, The Holy Bible. It was pretty clear which of the two winter releases fans wanted to find under the tree that Christmas.

Q Magazine called Lifeblood “miserable and insipid”. That was the review that stuck.


When the trio toured again the following Spring, they seemed to have forgotten that there had been a brand new Manic Street Preachers album just six months prior. All Lifeblood imagery was absent from the tour marketing, and the mammoth, career-spanning two-hour setlists included only two songs from the record. The message was clear — “let’s pretend that never happened.” When the Manics returned with Send Away The Tigers in 2007, following the longest hiatus of their career, it was in big, anthemic rock mode. Aside from an occasional outing for ‘1985’, songs from Lifeblood would be largely absent from the band’s setlist for the next two decades. A good chunk of the album has never been performed live. Back in 2004, NME had said the record was “their best since Everything Must Go”, but then they also said that the following year about both James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire’s solo albums. Q, meanwhile, called Lifeblood “miserable and insipid”. That was the review that stuck.

Twenty years later, we’re given the chance to essay Lifeblood again. This time shorn of its context. We no longer have the band’s ascent from the intense cult of The Holy Bible to the near ubiquity they achieved by the end of the millennium in our rear view mirror. Neither do we have the mid-00’s rock revival ringing in our ears; back in 2004, Lifeblood felt out of place amid the music press worship of the Libertines, Franz Ferdinand and The White Stripes. Meanwhile, the pop intelligentsia; Damon Albarn, Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, Chris Martin, were vocally opposing Bush, Blair and the Iraq War. The Manics ignored both trends.

What they released instead was not only retro-futuristic in its sound, all icy synths, processed drums and textured guitar parts, it was also future-proofed. While much of the music released in 2004 feels firmly of its time, Lifeblood actually sounds timeless. And gorgeously so. It’s something a lot of people missed the first time around. Everyone else turned outward, yelled about the news and stayed musically on trend. The Manics did what they always do — pretty much the opposite of what was expected of them. They turned inward, they took stock of themselves, they looked to the past for their lyrical themes and the future for their musical ones to create an artistic statement that was largely dismissed at the time, but now sounds somewhere between a forgotten classic and a fascinating curio, albeit one so out of step with its era that no-one particularly noticed. Not even its creators.

Time is a wonderful healer, though. Approaching Lifeblood afresh reveals much to enjoy. The band had wanted to do Springsteen’s Nebraska as played by Berlin-era Bowie, and odd as that sounds, it’s more or less what they pulled off. It certainly explains the engagement of Tony Visconti, the co-producer of Bowie’s Low, Heroes and Lodger, for the initial sessions, though ultimately only three tracks made it to the album. Still, you can see how the Visconti/Eno/Bowie influence sets a template for the record’s tone, which is both futuristic and retro-futuristic — it’s a very specific balance of icy and warm, distant and intimate, that few have managed since.

In contrast to the records the band released on either side, Know Your Enemy (2001) and Send Away The Tigers (2007), Lifeblood is an experience of conscious sonic texture that rewards close listening; an album of space and the just-so placement of sound. Bradfield’s guitar, which can cartwheel off into widdley-widdley territory if left unchecked, is more textural here, enhancing the mood rather than dominating it. There’s nothing as direct as a solid riff, though there are some understated but effective solos, particularly on ‘The Love of Richard Nixon’. Nicky Wire’s bass playing, meanwhile, is something of a revelation. The man who once rated himself “10/10 as a lyricist, 0/10 as a bass player” is, against all expectation, the backbone of the album’s sound. His playing is absolutely beautiful, from the ‘Billie Jean’ groove of ‘A Song For Departure’ and the funky stabs of ‘Always/Never’ to the way he guides the mood and melody on ‘Emily’. It’s Wire that centres the whole thing, glueing the bleeps and bloops and the washes to the beat. The snotty punk that can be seen on YouTube at Reading 92, hitting bum notes and concentrating more on star jumps and soundbites than playing in key, has become a fine musician. You’d never have seen it coming. You’d certainly never have heard it coming. It’s partly Wire’s playing that makes Lifeblood, which could have been clinical or sterile, a surprisingly warm, organic experience.

Lyrically, Wire (here working on the page with his brother, the poet Patrick Jones) approached the record in much the same way that Dr. Sam Beckett approaches time travel in the classic sci-fi show Quantum Leap: flitting from event to event within his own lifetime. On opener ‘1985’ the time-travelling is direct and personal, a psychogeographic snapshot of the year the Manics first made music together, all Morrissey and Marr, Torvill and Dean. This was before they’d even discovered punk, before their school friend Richey Edwards had been recruited on (sort-of) guitar. This isn’t nostalgia for its own sake though, something Wire can be particularly guilty of in his unguarded moments (Exhibit A, 2007’s ‘Ghost of Christmas: “Christmas Day stuck in the 70s/Play all day with your Scalextric.”). ‘1985’ isn’t the golden glow of the good old days. It was the year “Orwell was proved right”, the year “The civil war failed”. When Torvill and Dean’s Olympic victory was “as redundant as a sad Welsh chapel”. The chorus, which is so Manic Street Preachers it almost, but not quite, wobbles into cliche, quotes Nietzsche, where “God is dead” and “Superstition is all we have left.” To Wire, the year 1985 may have been the beginning of the band, but it was also, as Francis Fukuyama would later write of the end of the Cold War, the “end of history”. Wire’s is a double-edged nostalgia. This was the start of his problems. Maybe the start of everyone’s. And good or bad, there’s “no going back”. It sets the tone for a record that spends most of its running time in Wire’s past, sometimes staying very personal and sometimes telling its story through political history.

There’s an attempt to rehabilitate one of the more notorious 1970s political bogeymen on ‘The Love of Richard Nixon’, a particularly big swing for a band who might have felt hemmed in and over-defined by their encounter with Fidel Castro while visiting Communist Cuba a few years earlier. Astonishingly, it was chosen as the lead single. There’s the still-fresh memory of 9/11, where Wire finds his optimism “collapsing like the Twin Towers” on ‘Empty Souls’ (proof in itself that the band had given up on conquering the US, where that line would be radio poison. Even in the UK the single version redubbed the lyric.) There’s the appeal to “make your own Glasnost” on the song of the same name, referencing Soviet Russia’s attempt to reinvent itself as a more transparent and accountable regime in the mid-80s. There’s as much history and politics here as you can ever ask from the Manics, but unlike 1994’s ‘Revol’ (Richey Edwards’s pean to “group sex in the Kremlin”) or the band’s attacks on soft corporate power on 2014’s Futurology, the references on Lifeblood are usually there to illustrate the sighing, ageing, exhausted and completely-fucking-done-with-this-shit internal life of Nicky Wire himself.

Almost 10 years after his best friend’s completely unexplained disappearance (Richey Edwards famously vanished in early 1995 on the eve of a US tour, never to be seen again… but you probably knew that), followed by his band’s ascent to the big leagues of British indie rock, this is Wire trying to process his grief and bewilderment and constantly coming up with a sort of buffering exhaustion: God is dead. The Towers come down. “Build bridges” but “not roads”. “Live to fall asleep”. Solitude sometimes is/The place that I would like to live”.We used to have answers” says Wire on ‘Emily’, ostensibly a celebration of Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, “now we have only questions”. The cocksure glamourpuss punks of the early 90s have been left trying to make sense of everything, including their friend’s actions, and drawing a blank. Lifeblood is Wire’s attempt to deal with that. In that way it can justifiably be seen, as he said at the time, as “The Holy Bible for 40-year-olds”.

So what of the reissue itself? The Manics have always been good at this stuff. Nicky Wire, the band’s self-declared archivist, is a fine curator of their past, and he instinctively understands the balance of consumer fetishism and a genuine glimpse under the hood that his fans want. While not quite as comprehensive as some Manics reissues (the gorgeous photo book that came with Gold Against The Soul, for example, or the demo-heavy evolution of the album and the box of memorabilia you got with Generation Terrorists,) Lifeblood’s 20th anniversary set still does the job in front of it, and does it pretty well.

A CD of B-sides illustrates a few things that have always been suspected about the album — that Wire’s writer’s block was hampering his creativity, and that there are a few different directions Lifeblood could have taken. That writer’s block is pretty clear in the lyrics, which rely a lot on conscious minimalism and repeated lines — rather than the unfiltered torrent of ideas that often characterise a Manics’ B-side. Luckily, there’s a lot of beautiful stuff as well. The appearance of Richey’s softly-spoken voice at the close of ‘Askew Road’ is particularly poignant, and the revolving sense of yearning and resignation found on the album is just as present on its companion material (“been at war with myself since the day I was born”, says Wire on ‘Litany’, a working title for the album itself. It’s quite possibly the definitive Nicky Wire lyric). Musically, the Manics’ 80s influences are painted in bolder colours here — the chorus of ‘No Jubilee’ is pure War-era U2, ‘Everyone Knows/Nobody Cares’ smacks of classic Manics touchstones like The June Brides and The The, while ‘Dying Breeds’, written and sung by Wire, is a direct channel to Echo & The Bunnymen. ‘Voodoo Polaroids’, meanwhile, is far more upbeat than anything else here, throwing back to the Know Your Enemy era. It sticks out like a sore thumb, but does tell us that a more propulsive direction may have been toyed with and discarded. There’s also a couple of new remixes of ‘1985’ tagged onto the end of the disc, of which the appropriately-80s extended version (by Steven Wilson) is the most satisfying, though neither add much to the original.

Manic Street Preachers / Lifeblood 20th anniversary reissue
The 3CD deluxe book edition of Lifeblood

Elsewhere, a disc of demos and session tracks rather undoes an often-quoted narrative that much of Lifeblood was “found” in the studio during the recording process. While scratch recordings of ‘1985’ and ‘The Love of Richard Nixon’ do show different directions, most of the demos here reveal the songs to be pretty fully formed, at least in terms of tone and structure, before recording began. The studio process was of highly polishing, but not necessarily writing or structuring, at least not based on the evidence here. The band already had a sonic palette in mind going in and were pretty well prepared. Also on the third disc are Tony Visconti’s original mixes of the three songs he worked on; ‘Cardiff Afterlife’, ‘Solitude Sometimes Is’ and ‘Emily’. They’re fine, but you can see why he didn’t work out as a producer — they’re a little too lush, a little too stately. The balance of warm and cool that makes Lifeblood work so well is missing. Maybe Visconti didn’t understand the assignment? Or maybe working with him crystalised what the band didn’t want. Proceedings are rounded off by a decent, if inessential, set of live tracks recorded at the BBC.

Lifeblood’s singles were formatted for an industry unsure what 21st century single releases should look like


For once, though, the big draw for fans isn’t the exclusive and unreleased stuff — it’s the B-sides that have technically been available previously but were a bugger to track down. Lifeblood’s singles were formatted for an industry unsure what 21st century single releases should look like, and a handful of tracks, ‘Failure Bound’, ‘Dying Breeds’, ‘Quarantine (in my place of)’ and ‘Voodoo Polaroids’, were available only on the short-lived “DVD single” format, used to maximise the benefits of a physical disc and combat piracy. What’s more, due to the cancelling of a third single, the usual bonus tracks found on the Japanese edition (in this case ‘The Soulmates’ and ‘Antarctic’) and used for late-campaign b-sides were never formally released outside of that country. It’s nice to have them all in one easily accessible place. The 3CD version comes packaged in a DVD-case-size hardback ‘bookset’, a mainstay of the Manics’ more affordable deluxe editions. It’ll sit nicely alongside the others, if you have them.

As Manics reissues go, this isn’t as essential or as interesting as last year’s repackaged and freshly-mixed version of Know Your Enemy, which allowed us to hear different takes of familiar songs with fresh ears. The demos don’t illuminate much about the process, the b-sides have all been previously (if occasionally awkwardly) released, and the remixes and live tracks feel obligatory rather than illuminating. There’s no documentary or video content, and the packaging for the 3CD edition is nice enough, but no more. I suspect for many fans, the 2LP “blood red vinyl” version will be the big draw, since the original album had an extremely limited vinyl release and copies now change hands for three-figure sums.

On the audio front, the remastering, overseen by James Dean Bradfield himself, does feel softer and more immersive when listening to tracks from both versions back-to-back on my posh Apple AirPods Max headphones, but there’s very little in it. Playing on a mid-range Amazon Echo smart speaker, for example, I struggled to really pick up a difference between the original and new masters. It was a well-mastered record to begin with, as befits something so sonically detailed. Thankfully, that’s been preserved.

The real value in reissuing Lifeblood, though, is in the opportunity to once again immerse yourself in a fascinating and overlooked corner of the back catalogue of one of our most fascinating bands. Those that dismissed the record 20 years ago would do well to try it again. Chilly and distant as it might sometimes sound, it deserves its moment in the sun.

Lifeblood was reviewed by Marc Burrows for SDE. The reissue is released on 12 April 2024, via Sony Music.


Manic Street Preachers / Lifeblood 20th anniversary reissue

Lifeblood Manic Street Preachers / 20th anniversary reissue

    • CD 1
      1. 1985
      2. The Love of Richard Nixon
      3. Empty Souls
      4. A Song for Departure
      5. I Live to Fall Asleep
      6. To Repel Ghosts
      7. Emily
      8. Glasnost
      9. Always/Never
      10. Solitude Somes Is
      11. Fragments
      12. Cardiff Afterlife
    • CD 2
      1. Askew Road – B-side
      2. Everything Will Be – B-side
      3. Everyone Knows/Nobody Cares – B-side
      4. Voodoo Polaroids – B-side
      5. Quarantine (In My Place Of) – B-side
      6. All Alone Here – B-side
      7. Dying Breeds – B-side
      8. Litany – B-side
      9. Failure Bound – B-side
      10. No Jubilees – B-side
      11. Antarctic – B-side
      12. The Soulmates – B-side
      13. 1985 – Steven Wilson’s Extended Eighties Mix
      14. 1985 – Gwenno Mix
    • CD 3
      1. 1985 – Alternative version
      2. 1985 – Demo
      3. The Love of Richard Nixon – Drum machine demo
      4. The Love of Richard Nixon – Live rehearsal demo
      5. A Song For Departure – Demo
      6. I Live To Fall Asleep – Cassette
      7. To Repel Ghosts – Demo
      8. Emily – Demo
      9. Solitude Sometimes Is – Demo
      10. Fragments – Demo
      11. Cardiff Afterlife – Cassette
      12. Cardiff Afterlife – Demo
      13. Solitude Sometimes Is – Tony Visconti Mix
      14. Emily – Tony Visconti Mix
      15. Cardiff Afterlife – Tony Visconti Mix
      16. Empty Souls – Live At BBC Maida Vale
      17. The Love Of Richard Nixon – Live At BBC Maida Vale
      18. I Live To Fall Asleep – Live At BBC Maida Vale
      19. A Song For Departure – Live At BBC Maida Vale
      20. Fragments – Live At BBC Maida Vale

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