May 11, 2012
Weeks in coming. My bad.
I had thought about taking the three songs it would have taken to catch up–two blown weeks, and this one–and combining them all into one larger essay, especially since between the three of them they comprise the bulk of the 90s-negativity antagonism on the list. In the end, I decided not to, because while they had one common thread, a certain blustery and pop-eyed sneer, there wasn’t much beyond that to tie together. So, the other two, you shall see in two other weeks, and today you will spend a few minutes with myself and my #7 Best Single of the 90s: “Life Becoming a Landslide” by Manic Street Preachers.
The Manics–before The Great Disappearance, anyway–are one of those bands that are looked back upon with a mixture of respect and incredulity: “fuck’s sake, only in 1993, man.” James Dean Bradfield (guitar/vocals) and Steve Moore (drums) came off like lads out of Cardiff who’d done a bit of school and a bit more of skinning up to Guns ‘N Roses hits. At the other end of the spectrum, Richey Edwards (lyrics/swagger) was their exact opposite in just about every way, from his Liz Taylor-and-Public Enemy image games, to the absolutely backward way he rooted himself in the group. Between the two poles: Nicky Wire, just fucked up enough, the glue that sniffed himself.
After a particularly energetic start, in which the band promised to sell a million records, sell out Wembley Stadium, and then quit forever–in which Richey Edwards attempted to carve “HIV” into his chest for a photoshoot, only to accidentally fuck it up in the mirror and be photographed with a “VIH” mark–in which the band blatantly padded their debut record with things like a Bomb Squad remix of a song that Singapore banned–in which the feminine was beautiful, and the celeb cameo of choice was Traci Lords–in which Steve Lamacq stared incredulously as Edwards, stone-faced, sensing an affront to his authenticity as a provocateur and rock legend, cut “4REAL” into his arm in great big bloody slashes…
The boys were a hit, and thus decided to properly sell out. Gold Against the Soul, their second record, was full of big-mixing-desk tinkering, bonus instruments, and all kinds of excess. At odds with this bombastic sound was the indolent emptiness of the lyrics, composed by Edwards. The process was unconventional: Edwards would compose lines of verse, and Bradfield would then have to figure out how to fit his phrases into some kind of melody. Bradfield, guitar hero, hewed aggro-pop from the black-lung discharge of Edwards’ worst impulses, and that is how things like “Life Becoming a Landslide” came to be. (Edwards, having contributed his bit to the process, would then wile away the rest of the recording process in a depressed and self-harming stupor, briefly addicting himself to Sonic the Hedgehog.)
The above process explains things like a pop single beginning with the line “Chi-i-i-hildbiiirth–tears upon her muscle…” If there was an essential conflict to the pop music of the 1990s, it was the attempt to reconcile the negativity of one’s image power with the accessibility of one’s musical power. That’s how we got things like Nirvana’s In Utero, drooling and clumsily swinging at the band’s fans while still muttering precious pieces like “Dumb.” It’s also how we got the mid-90s, post-Eazy-and-Pac-and-Big resurgence of the hip-hop hard men, with LL Cool J and MC Hammer and Kris Kross going as bleak as they wanna be: 13 Shots to the Dome, The Funky Headhunter, Da Bomb… This was the heart and soul of Edwards-era, and particularly Gold-era Manics–how to create a rousing singalong out of pitch-black despair.
When that struggle pitched too far into one direction or the other, it resulted in uneven but nonetheless fascinating singles, such as the chattering, almost-hooky “Revol” from the band’s third album (and final with Edwards), The Holy Bible. On “Life Becoming a Landslide,” a naked confession of lost hope and abandoned optimism, the band comes as close as they ever got to perfecting the balance. Bradfield’s ironwork on Edwards’ lyrical frame makes gorgeous, aching melodies out of passages like: “Life becoming a landslide, ice freezing nature dead, life becoming a landslide, I don’t want to be a man…“
The Manics–the old Manics, the Richey Manics–were educated, sober vegetarians who nonetheless felt the powerful compulsion to spit in the pop world’s face. Their first three albums are blistering, harrowing chronicles of hatred: for instutitions, for politics, for murderers and for all of humanity, with Edwards himself first in the firing line. For all of this thrashing and willful needling of the spectatorship, “Life Becoming a Landslide” is perhaps the only time they managed to sound tender.