Review: Manic Street Preachers, Royal Albert Hall.

“What’s the point in always looking back, when all you see is more and more junk?” cries James Dean Bradfield, during No Surface All Feeling – the spine-tingling, Richey Edwards-scribed denouement to Everything Must Go. But if the past few years have shown us anything, then it’s that the Manic Street Preachers’ retrospectively looking back over their storied career has thrown up some utterly tremendous nights out; wallowing in The Holy Bible, live at London’s Roundhouse, was the greatest of gifts to have been received in December 2014, for instance. But tonight is not about “looking back” at that album – indeed, not one solitary number from Edwards’ magnum opus makes the cut; nor, incidentally, does Motown Junk – but rather the triple-platinum “album that soothes”, Everything Must Go: celebrating its 20th birthday this week, it was, and remains, the record which saw the Manics naturally gravitate away from “being so young, and being so vain,” to become the alt. rock leviathans stood before us this evening.

It exhibited a maturity – awash with Martin Greene’s lavish string arrangements, John Green’s consoling keys and, in a nod to their native Wales, sumptuous harp segments – that would stand them in the best of steads to go on and get to Number 1; and it’s during the climactic, concluding If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next that, as the Royal Albert Hall is transformed into a Brobdingnagian snow globe, confetti fluttering earthwards, the transformative virtues of Everything Must Go are made most palpably apparent…

An album that is, rather apparently, far better than it’s remembered for being therefore, the sound assumes a profound depth to match the bold ambition innately located within, forgotten singles such as the “melancholic but also uplifting” Australia and Everything Must Go – the perfect epitome of the Manics’ coming to terms with moving on, James singing of being “freed from the memory” of tempestuous histories atop a track completely in keeping with their new Mike Hedges-produced, superlatively polished direction – dusted down and spruced up.

More interesting still, mind you, is the way in which their revisiting Everything Must Go allows us to retrospectively scrutinise the songs ourselves, seeing where they came from and which others they went on to precipitate. For example, Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning) tonight recalls the prologue to futurology that is the thus sonically prescient, magnificent 4 Ever Delayed; “the Colossus that is Mr. Nicholas Allen Wire” may well consider The Girl Who Wanted to Be God an intoxicating cocktail of “ABBA’s Dancing Queen, Phil Spector, Richey’s cheekbones and the poetry of Sylvia Plath,” although it now sounds like a kind of prototype for the deplorably underappreciated Miss Europa Disco Dancer.

This intertextual contextualisation then continues, as a visceral, serrated rendition of Removables takes several leaves from The Holy Bible of acerbity, while a languid You’re Tender and You’re Tired recollects Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier. He may be a few streaks of “limited face paint” lacking, but Dean Bradfield – attired in suitably blue-collared shirt, given the fluent efficiency with which so much of Everything Must Go is approached – looks increasingly like a blue-suede-shoed impressionist himself; however with that said, and unlike Presley, he’s anything but “out of date,” to which his forever-irreproachable vocal attests. It’s tested at times, most notably during “almost […] love song” Further Away, but it stands up to this intense scrutiny, no question.

As does another single, in Kevin Carter: the first time they’d managed to cajole Sean Moore into tooting a trumpet inside a studio, it too set a precedent, the likes of Ocean Spray and “wedding reception song,” Show Me the Wonder subsequently benefitting from its brassy tones. But, written by Edwards in homage to the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who committed suicide in 1994, the song now stands out as a truly remarkable release: it entered the Top 10 in ’96, despite featuring a trumpet solo, brittle riffs, and references to “Kaffir[s]” and “AK-47[s]”; something that is virtually impossible to envisage, say, Catfish and the Bottlemen doing nowadays.

Indeed, so extraordinary is Kevin Carter, that it totally eclipses A Design for Life: “I’m so used to it being the last song” says Wire, restraining himself from walking offstage ten minutes in, and while you can bet your bottom dollar that the “price now for a shallow piece of dignity” has increased considerably – and not in line with inflation – since ’96, it loses some of its gravitational value when thrown away second on. It may be ameliorated tonight by visuals courtesy of Kieran Evans, three rectangular, hanging screens reminiscent both of the Everything Must Go sleeve artwork and Mitch Ikeda’s Polaroidal documentation of that particular era, although even within this stately enclave, it sounds more pub- than stadium-rock.

However, if ever there were a band capable of making the Royal Albert Hall feel, at turns, like both a squalid pub and an imposing stadium, then it’s the Manics. It’s a stage with which they’re relatively au fait, having played here in the spring of ’97, Dean Bradfield recalling having “the royal shits” in the knowledge that not only his parents, but also Jimmy Page was then in attendance. That he regales us with this tale during a routinely comfortable solo acoustic section, during which lyrics from Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head get lost “in [his] fuckin’ stupid head,” shows how far he’s come as a performer, not in the least bit flustered by this fleeting lapse in muscle memory. But the cover version not only allows the Manics the occasion to make the most of trumpeter Gavin Fitzjohn, but also pertains to the pub-based singalong shtick; a shtick by which they’re often tarred…

With its trisyllabic chorus and ballast status, it’s little wonder when You Love Us – not to mention Show Me the Wonder – has become so firm a staple; and, truth be told, even those less tender, more unashamedly stadium-made instances – such as Motorcycle Emptiness, or the eternally unifying You Stole the Sun from My Heart – have grown rather tired. So, rather ironically, in revisiting previous releases in full, with setlists consequently dictated by tracklistings, the live shows have become less predictable and, ultimately, more pleasurable.

Those of these two consecutive evenings are made all the more so, for those who frequent both, by the ample, even admirable variation between them; this seemingly in recognition of the adoration, dedication and so on that the band seem to receive wherever they voyage. But still, and in stark contrast with the rejuvenated vitality of singles Australia, Everything Must Go and Kevin Carter, more contemporary equivalents – of which there are remarkably few, therefore corroborating this point – don’t solely persist, but prove wholly disposable, also: of Australia, Wire once said, “Everybody gets that kind of sad uplifting moment. It’s raining, or you’re pissed, but you’re still kind of OK”, with this universal appeal later translating to the critical acclaim lavished upon it. (Or ‘lavished upon it’ above, at least.) More recent releases lack this, though: Walk Me to the Bridge, with a bass line that’s more Mani than Manics, already sounds better suited to indie landfill than “the indie disco,” while “wondrous megahit” Your Love Alone Is Not Enough sounds even worse than anything on Wire’s 2006 solo effort, I Killed the Zeitgeist. And of that particular release, he himself says, “Every song sounds shit; I can’t remember any one of them.”

All the more memorable, then, are those which have been penned by Edwards, and the blinding intellect thereof: of the linguistically swollen Small Black Flowers That Grow In the Sky, Dean Bradfield remembers, “There are too many good words to cut out; I’m just gonna have to sing ’em all,” recalling his reaction to Richey’s proffering its activistic lyrical content as, “Motherfucker’s gone and done it again.” Backed only by Nick Nasmyth, on synths mimicking the heartstring-tugging harp parts of Julie Aliss, the same can be said of Dean Bradfield, with this another thoroughly emotive vocal turn.

The song of course affords Wire the opportunity to (at least attempt to) match the number of times he changes garb with the number of times Dean Bradfield changes guitars; the latter, by contrast, doesn’t even bother changing between sets, nor when his trousers split. “You don’t get that trouble if you’re wearing a skirt, see?” his sometimes-cross-dressing counterpart jests, but once the pair of them are back onstage, backed up – as per always – by Moore, the inexplicably baggy Roses In the Hospital makes a most welcome return to the fore. And, back to form, if Gold Against the Soul may “not [be] the best record [they]’ve ever made” by Wire’s own admission, then I, for one, am looking forward to 2019 when, at thirty, it too may be played in full…

Fully unpredictably, their reworking Fiction Factory’s (Feels Like) Heaven – which goes out to one-time school disco gooseberries in the building – makes an appearance on both nights, but serves less as a rarity, and more a reminder of the Manics’ status as Radio 2 stalwarts; something that was, tenably, initiated by Everything Must Go. Of course, Wire has this exact attitude toward the British monarchy: in ’99, he decreed, “I’d love to see the dismantling of the royal family”, decrying, “We’ll never get rid of the monarchy – no matter how many dysfunctional halfwits they produce, they’ll never ever fucking go. That’s incredibly depressing.” Regardless, on their therefore improbable return to these regal surrounds, he reveals “it’s unlikely [they]’ll be playing here again” but if this should be so, then so be it. Because if Dean Bradfield may be a changed “renaissance man” or, rather, “guitar hero,” in that “he drives, he iPhones, he reads; he does everything [that Wire does]n’t do any more,” then similarly, these two evenings have changed my perception of Everything Must Go forevermore.

“Born in Wales, born in France, and given to the heathens of Britpop and ‘Cool Cymru’,” the Manics have rather emphatically reclaimed a record I, for one, had prematurely consigned to the figurative “junk” folder. And so, as Wire bawls, “Glory, glory, halle-fuckin’-lujah!” as canons ejaculate all kinds of tricolour confetti, a certain quote – since confirmed and verified – comes to mind: “We’ve reached a point now”, he said in ’94, “where we feel as if we’ve prostituted ourselves so fucking much, just given and given and given, that we’ve given everything away, and we’ve got absolutely fucking nothing left of our own.” Well, as of the spring of 2016, if nothing else, Everything Must Go is very much their own once again…