Fourteen years ago, James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers caught everyone by surprise when he released a solo album. The lead singer and guitarist of the long-tenured Welsh band had never shown much interest in striking out on his own prior to that, and so his sudden decision to release something without the support of his bandmates at the age of 37 led to many a raised eyebrow. Some fans of the band briefly worried that there might have been a break-up, and the Manics were done for good. Those fears were unfounded. Bradfield’s album, named ‘The Great Western,’ was well-received, but he was back with the band the following year, and they all carried on as if nothing had ever happened.
Now, just as surprisingly as he did in 2006, Bradfield has returned with a second solo album – and one that’s entirely different from his first. ‘The Great Western’ was a collection of songs about various topics, all of which were written from Bradfield’s perspective. This new record, ‘Even In Exile,’ is not. It’s a concept album, and a high-brow concept album at that. Every single song is about the life and achievements of Chilean communist activist Victor Jara, who was tortured and then executed by the dictatorial government of General Augusto Pinochet in 1973. He isn’t a figure that’s well known to western audiences, and that makes him a surprising choice for a whole album’s worth of material.
As a topic, we’d expect to see a solo album about Victor Jara from Bradfield’s bandmate Nicky Wire more than we’d expect to see such a thing from Bradfield. Wire has always been the chief political lyricist and rabble-rouser of the Manic Street Preachers. On the rare occasions that Bradfield has contributed lyrics of his own, they tend to be more personal in nature as we saw with ‘Ocean Spray,’ which was a tribute to his mother after she passed away from cancer. Jara seems an unlikely figure for Bradfield to write so much material about, and indeed he hasn’t. All of the lyrics were written by Patrick Jones, a poet who just so happens to be Nicky Wire’s brother. Jones wanted to put some of his poetry to music, and Bradfield was apparently inspired by the folk music that Jara used to create, so the two came together, and the project was born.
Basing a whole album’s worth of material around an obscure and long-dead Chilean communist activist probably isn’t a great move in terms of commercial potential, but commercial potential has never been of great interest to any member of the Manic Street Preachers. High-brow concepts and topics that other musicians don’t like to talk about have always been their musical and lyrical home. Contrast and compare their commercial conduct to any of their peers. Guns n’ Roses, who were a massive influence on the young Manics, have their own licensed and approved game at online slots websites. Many of the band’s peers have also taken the plunge of getting involved in casinos with no deposit bonus codes, from aging rockers Saxon to US legends KISS. Even 1980s pop starlet Samantha Fox has her own musical online slots game. The Manic Street Preachers do not. They may have got old, but they’ve never sold out. The chances are that this album won’t sell enough copies to trouble the charts, but that will scarcely matter to their fans. All they really want to know is whether it’s any good – so let’s take a stab at answering that question.
If you’re expecting Bradfield to give the fretboard of his trademark white Gibson Les Paul a hammering, lower your expectations. He turns things up occasionally on instrumental tracks like ‘Seeking The Room With Three Windows,’ but for the main part, this is a quieter and more thoughtful piece of work, owing in part to the sadness of the subject matter, and also the fact that Bradfield is now 51 years old and doesn’t play with the kind of youthful venom and vigor that he once did. Some of his best work on the album happens when he steps away from the guitar entirely and creates a palpable and atmospheric sense of doom with a piano on ‘There’ll Come A War.’ ‘Recuerda’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a Manic Street Preachers album, whereas the on-the-nose final track ‘The Last Song’ dabbles in prog rock. You’ll get enough of what you like if you buy ‘Even In Exile’ out of loyalty as a Manics fan, but there’s a musical stamp on the record that’s entirely Bradfield’s own, distinct from the music he makes when he’s in a recording studio with his lifelong friends.
Not everything that’s here works, and that isn’t a surprise. Putting together multiple compelling tracks about the same topic would be difficult regardless of what the topic was, the album has troughs as well as peaks. We’re not sure we got the point of the absurdly-titled ‘Thirty Thousand Milk Bottles,’ and Patrick Jones has let his collaboration partner down with the overly simplistic rhyming structure of the words in ‘The Boy from the Plantation.’ We could probably have done without the hint of flamenco and token Latin guitar on ‘From the Hands of Violeta,’ too. For the main part, though, ‘Even in Exile’ hangs together very well, and can easily be listened to in one sitting without feeling the need to switch off or go and do something else. If you know nothing of Jara and the injustices that he suffered, it’s an educational experience. If you want to see parallels between what happened to Jara and what’s happening in the world today, Bradfield and Jones provide you with just enough material to make the connection.
What we should all be truly thankful for, though, is the fact that Bradfield is still making music for us. When musicians burst onto the scene as angry young men, they all-too-often burn out or fade away. Bradfield may no longer be an angry young man, but he still plays with passion and purpose. He still has a message to share, and a beautiful singing voice to share it with. ‘Even in Exile’ might not be the greatest album you’ll ever buy, but it will be one of the most unique.