+manics albums: no. 2+

My apologies for the delay. Let’s talk about a fantastic record, shall we?

NUMBER TWO: KNOW YOUR ENEMY (March 19, 2001)
Favorite tracks: Miss Europa Disco Dancer; Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children; Ocean Spray; Wattsville Blues; Let Robeson Sing; My Guernica

I’ll admit it straightaway. Know Your Enemy is undeniably inconsistent and probably a couple songs too long. But it is without a doubt my second most listened to Manics album, and I’ve come to love it, flaws and all, over the years. Whereas Lifeblood needs to be taken as a whole, KYE and its wide variety of styles is best appreciated on a song by song basis. The record begins and ends with a straightforward rock and roll sound, but the rest of the record is all over the map. In between, we’ve got some folk music, a touch of gospel, plenty of politics, polished pop gems, and disco (for those who’ve never heard this album, no, I’m not kidding–disco). This schizophrenia of style didn’t appeal to many of the critics, but to me, it all comes out in the wash. By the time I make it to track 16, I’ve forgotten all about the stylistic starts and stops, and I’m left feeling more than satisfied by what I’ve heard, disco music and all.

Speaking of disco, let’s start with that track. I unabashedly admit that Miss Europa Disco Dancer is my favorite track on the record. This declaration surely leaves many people ready to stop reading this review and discount anything else I ever write about music, but hear me out. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Miss Europa Disco Dancer. I was listening to online radio at work, and it came on the station as a result of my having listened to so many other Manics songs. I was absolutely stunned. Not only were the Manics playing disco, they were playing it well and saying something important to boot. To me, the lyrics describe a life that looks glamorous to outsiders but is actually crumbling to pieces. In the same way, the music of the song is shiny and swirly and bright while the lyrics are a bit dreary, ending with the repetition of the words “Braindead Motherfuckers” over and over again at the end. I love it when bands can pull off this kind of double dip, reflecting the lyrics in the music and making you feel good and bad at the same time.

And perhaps it’s that ambiguity and fluctuation of emotion that makes it okay for this album to showcase so many different types of songs, because isn’t life just like that? The first half of the album is particularly all over the place. We have Ocean Spray, a simple yet touching song, surrounded on both sides by the urgent Found That Soul and Intravenous Agnostic. So Why So Sad strikes a more hopeful chord, followed by the soulful Let Robeson Sing, a song whose chorus I love to sing along to. Not to mention, when the song fades into the background as Paul Robeson recites lines from the poem “Freedom Train,” I always smile at the song’s optimism, despite myself and my cynicism. The Year of Purification, God help me, sounds like it belongs on an early 90s R.E.M. album. I always get visions of Mike Mills frollicking in golden fields outside Athens, Georgia, when I listen to it. But all is redeemed when Nicky Wire, your favorite vocalist and mine, takes the mike for Wattsville Blues. I’ve said it before, but something about hearing Nicky sing fills me with delight and/or glee. It’s unexplainable, but that is why I adore this song. Then, after Miss Europa Disco Dancer, I find that the album evens out a bit. Dead Martyrs and My Guernica are impressive, meaningful rock songs that remind you, yes, this is the Manic Street Preachers. At this point, I could take or leave the next four songs, especially Baby Elian, which is too political even for my tastes. That being said, I adore Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children, which sports my favorite song title ever. This tune is a political song done the right way, and you’ve got to love the way that Nicky calls out celebrities by name. It’s a bold end to a bold album.

Maybe I’m a bit rusty, since I haven’t blogged in a couple weeks, but I am really finding it hard to put into words why I have placed this album in the number two spot. It can’t just be the red and teal album cover, can it? (Just look at my blog…I obviously love this color combination.) As I sit here and think about it, all I can say is that I truly enjoy this record. It’s a strange record, a mishmash that is often times preachy but always poetic. There’s a little something here for every Manics fan. I also love the unfinished feeling of the record as a whole. Too many bands overproduce and overmix and overpolish their songs these days. KYE seems to say, “Here’s our record. It’s a bit scattered and disorganized, but you can take it or leave it.” Its imperfections are charming, and the whole sound of it seems to have a punk, rebellious feel to it, even at its most beautiful. Kinda sounds like the men who made it, don’t you think?

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~ by Jennifer Cunningham on September 28, 2008.

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