Saturday, 12 January 2013

Little Empires

‘I’ve never written about Welsh identity before: these days, I’ve got to search for things to write about, whereas in the past everything would be driven by anger and all the rest of it. Now I’ve got to delve more… Ready For Drowning is the most complete song I’ve ever written, I think…’

After Everything Must Go, This is my Truth Tell me Yours is the best album of a mediocre bunch – even with its overblown and airless moments, even with Wire’s retreat behind domestic lines and po-faced earnestness replacing their early half-articulate, all-encompassing ire. Ready for Drowning is perhaps not the best but the most interesting song on the album: its rippling chapel-service introduction; Bradfield’s precisely rendered Valleys diction on the line ‘Said ‘e’d y’eard it in a tacsi’; the second verse’s disappointing touch of that chronic Nineties disease whereby ‘proving you care’ feels like more of an imperative than actually caring; and the climactic sample, amidst the song’s drunk-sounding central lurch, of Richard Burton’s misanthropic telekinesis master in The Medusa Touch. As the early Manics were and remain a band only a teenager could properly love, so this, their first album produced entirely post-Richey, is inescapably the product of a band forced to grow up, but unsure what to grow into – a state reflective of, among other things, the post-industrial stasis and stagnation still affecting much of their homeland. 

Released in 1998, This is my Truth is a deeply Welsh production. Its cover photo was taken on Black Rock Sands in Gwynedd, a tourist-friendly beach which in the cover shot manages nevertheless to look as desolate and featureless as an abandoned slate quarry or the surface of the moon. The album quotes, references or eulogises Aneurin Bevan; the impressively irascible North Wales poet and Anglican priest R. S. Thomas; and the Welsh who left to fight fascism in 1930s Spain. In 1998, of course, at the end of a decade marked by the pushing of confected ideas of ‘Britishness’, ‘Welshness’ was also getting big (everything’s relative). As explored in Wales Off Message, Patrick Hannan’s occasionally amusing compendium of devolutionary culture and its cock-ups, the taking root of specifically Welsh political institutions gave rise to broader debates on how national identity was to be characterised and defined. The Welsh Assembly’s establishment took place alongside a very Nineties shift of focus from economic issues to the nation’s performance on various cultural stages; for Wales, this meant a cathartic concentration on the national team’s improvement on the rugby pitch and the consolidation of a dubious ‘New Welsh Cool’, based around the sudden commercial success of the Manics and the emergence in their slipstream of other Welsh bands of varying quality and longevity. 

Around the time of this album the Manics, never having previously appeared to endorse flags as anything other than combustible material, began draping their amplifiers and themselves in the red dragon. But, just as 1994’s The Holy Bible had been a refusenik splinter in the side of Britpop, so in Wales, when everything surrounding This Is My Truth seemed to indicate a post-Thatcher, post-imperial, post-devolution sigh of forward-looking relief, the Welsh album of the year was steeped in backwards-looking pessimism, quietly if resentfully resigned to despair, and old before its time. Well, of course it was. It’s Welsh.

In late-90s South Wales at least, the experience of having had work first defined as one’s purpose for living, then abruptly removed but not replaced with anything meaningful, was cemented by the shallowness of Blairite triumphalism, which, despite Kinnock’s unenviable place as New Labour’s handmaiden, had little time for Wales. The dispiriting and bathetic micro-machinations surrounding the attempt in 1998 to impose Alun Michael as London’s man in Cardiff, against Rhodri Morgan’s positioning as the people’s choice, exemplified this distance. In addition, New Labour’s post-socialist direction and the Welsh Assembly’s lack of tax-raising powers both militated against any commitment to concrete economic improvement. No longer condemned to an industrial past, vast swathes of the country remained condemned to a post-industrial future, against which the New Welsh Cool rang as hollow as a lot of other Nineties rhetoric. Against this backdrop, Ready for Drowning has no solutions and little hope to offer, in accordance with the quietly bleak defeatism, resignation and pathos that riddles the album.

On This is my Truth, lacking roots in older, more established ideas of Welshness tied to custom, place and language, Wire’s casting around for a secure identity finds him latching on to specific traditions of Welsh political history. From the Bevan quote in the album’s title to Welsh participation in the Spanish Civil War, these aspects of Welsh identity are more modern than ancient, more southern than northern, and more industrial than agrarian. They are also, crucially, based in class rather than national consciousness, and they are, equally significantly, things of a heroic and romanticised recent past – stuff of history rather than myth, but just as irrecoverable. The album derives its few comforts and securities from the past, reinforcing the present lack of either. Ready for Drowning, like If You Tolerate This…, is almost unbearable in its yearning for what’s lost – for principles, potential and power that, by the end of the twentieth century, were all over bar the shouting.

[A much longer version of this, if you're so inclined, is here, here, here, here and here.]

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