The Darkness in the Mirror: Manic Street Preachers’ “The Holy Bible,” 20 Years On

It’s a cliché to wax lyrical about pieces of art “changing your life,” and as often as not it’s hyperbole — but I can honestly say that 20 years ago today, an album was released that would have a genuine effect on my life’s direction. The album is by a band who remain underappreciated Stateside, namely Manic Street Preachers, and it’s called The Holy Bible. If you know anything at all about the band, you’ll know there’s quite a mythology around this record — it was the final album released before lyricist, guitarist and spiritual leader Richey Edwards disappeared into thin air, leaving his car near a notorious suicide spot in South Wales and never being seen again. As one might expect from a record with such a backstory, it’s dark, bleak and often harrowing — but it’s also characterized by a deep compassion and humanism, as well as a sort of bitter defiance.

I didn’t discover the Manics until after Edwards was already gone — he disappeared in early 1995 — and I remember approaching this record with a certain trepidation when my expensive import copy finally arrived in Melbourne. There were cheery song titles like “Of Walking Abortion” and “The Intense Humming of Evil,” while the sleeve was adorned with a quote from Octave Mirbeau’s equally uplifting novel The Torture Garden:

“You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretences of your civilization, which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That’s the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.”

The front cover, meanwhile, was a reproduction of Jenny Saville’s triptych “Strategy (South Face/ Front Face/ North Face)”, which depicts three angles on an obese woman in her underwear, staring out at the viewer as if she’s staring at a mirror. The way Saville paints the human form is striking — her work recalls Lucian Freud’s in its depiction of flesh, both impressionistic and somehow naturalistic, presenting people as the lumps of meat we are. The look on the model’s face is ambiguous and neutral — there’s no hint of emotion on her face, for better or worse. She’s neither proud nor ashamed of her body — she’s just regarding herself as she is.

It’s the perfect cover image for an album that does exactly the same thing: regards the human condition without romance or pity or artifice. There’s no doubt that The Holy Bible‘s subject matter is pretty heavy going — its songs cover prostitution, depression, self-mutilation, mass murder, anorexia, the Holocaust and, for good measure, the sex lives of a bunch of 20th century dictators. In the wrong hands, it could easily descend into the sort of shock-and-disgust silliness that characterizes way too many adolescent bands and artists in general. Too often, when singing or writing about the worst of humanity, artists either want to make you share their disgust or just to demonstrate how shocking they can make their art.

There’s none of that here — even the most extreme imagery never feels like it’s there just to shock or appall. Instead, as I suggested above, the album is characterized by a deep compassion. Songs like “Yes,” which catalogues the life of a prostitute as a metaphor for the way life forces compromise on us all, or “4st 7lb,” surely the best and most harrowing first person account of an eating disorder ever rendered in song, or “The Intense Humming of Evil,” a discussion of the Holocaust inspired by visits to Dachau and Belsen… they’re difficult listening, but it’s because they empathize with their subjects to a degree that’s almost painful to listen to.

I don’t expect everyone to share this opinion, but in its own strange way, I find The Holy Bible a strangely uplifting record. There’s a sense that in stripping aside layers of artifice and social convention and civilization, of staring into the mirror and seeing humanity at its best and worst, you also gain some sort of dominion over those extremes. It’s like staring straight at something you’re terrified of instead of looking away, like being able to put a name to a strange disease, or to depression, or to something else that’s ailing you. The not knowing is always the most terrifying bit. (To quote EMA, another Flavorwire favorite, “You gotta stare into the mirror ’til you name this disease/ You gotta know.”) There are conclusions to be extrapolated here about humanity, and they ain’t pretty, but they’re also an acknowledgement of the extremities of being human.

The album’s conceptual centerpiece is “Faster,” which isn’t so much a song as it is a visceral howl of defiance, a declaration that the world and all its bullshit won’t beat you down. (The single’s sleeve came with a quote from Ibsen: “The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.”) The title works as a neat double entendre around the life of its creator — “Faster” as in one who fasts (Edwards suffered anorexia and bulimia for years) and also as the sense of life accelerating toward some inescapable conclusion. It’s painfully self-aware (“Self-disgust is self-obsession, honey, and I do as I please”) and, given the apparent fate of its creator, awfully bittersweet (“I’ve been too honest with myself/ I should have lied like everybody else.”) And yet, it’s a song to live by. “I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing” is a pithy existentialist maxim that Camus or Sartre would have been proud of, while the chorus goes, I shit you not, “I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer/ I spat out Plath and Pinter.” No-one writes lyrics like that any more. No-one else ever really did.

Clearly, this isn’t the sort of record one listens to every day. I rarely listen to it any more, but when I do put it on, that strange, singular feeling it evokes returns immediately. It’s like staring into the heart of an immense darkness — and finding some strange comfort in the shadows.