For his first decade and a half in the Manics, Nicky Wire stuck to what he knew best: writing lyrics, wearing sexy eyeliner, playing bass, and jumping unfeasibly high in tight skirts.
Apart from playing the stuff, he didn’t seem that involved in creating the Manics’ music, and having James Dean Bradfield on vocal duties meant he damn well wasn’t going to sing any of it.
That line began to dissolve with the sprawling Know Your Enemy. On the B-side of joint lead single ‘Found That Soul’, Nicky swaggered up to the microphone for ‘The Ballad of the Bangok Novotel’.
And what a debut it was. A squalling, sweary, gleefully atonal RACKET. Like the much more trad ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ and then-off-in-the-future ‘Still Snowing in Sapporo’ it’s a tour travelogue, specifically about the dark, destructive side of life on the road (“Breakfast, my mouth tastes like piss … Four sickly boys are losing resistance”).
It’s a significant nod at the lo-fi ’80s UK indie influences the band would increasingly lean into, and also much better than pretty much everyone gives it credit for. It’s more sparky and fun than a good half of Know Your Enemy.
On the album itself, Wire stepped up once more for ‘Wattsville Blues’, which played with fire by having Wire’s spoken word drawl alternate with James Dean Bradfield’s choruses, and even letting them go head to head. They got away with it, too.
Where ‘… Novotel’ ripped away the supposed glamour of life on the road to reveal the diseased reality, ‘Wattsville Blues’ flipped things around, celebrating the familiar boredom of home (“And time is leaving me here… I’m so happy, I know I can never leave”).
After the splurge of KYE came the career ellipsis of 2002 greatest hits Forever Delayed and the following year’s B-sides compilation Lipstick Traces, before the band reconvened for the restrained, flawed ambition of Lifeblood.
It’s scary to watch someone you love go into the center of himself and confront his fears, fear of failure, fear of death, fear of going insane. You have to fail a little, die a little, go insane a little, to come out the other side.Eleanor Coppola in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
Things got properly back on track with Send Away The Tigers (and you can read how in my chapter in Manic Street Preachers: Album By Album), but bridging that gap were Nicky and James’s solo albums.
Both are now seen primarily as stepping stones for the Manics’ return. Released on Columbia, JDB’s The Great Western got to a more-than respectable 22 in the charts, with its lead single ‘That’s No Way to Tell a Lie’ even going Top 20. He’s since released the movie soundtrack The Chamber and a second proper solo album Even In Exile.
By contrast, Nicky’s I Killed The Zeitgeist shuffled out on the (yes, Sony-owned) indie Red Ink, peaking at 130. Even at a time when normal people still bought albums, you’d have thought name recognition would surely have pushed it higher than that.
Critics described the album as “possibly the least anticipated solo record yet released”. Even some of the biggest Manics fans mention it now with a smirk, or at best see it as a necessary housecleaning exercise.
The woods are lovely, dark and deepRobert Frost – Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The reviews on release were a lot kinder than you might remember, though they all predictability laid into Wire’s singing (“a rough tone that may not be to everyone’s liking”, “something only a fan of vacuuming could love” and “a drone to match Ken Livingstone”).
With uncharacteristic insecurity in both interviews and even in his lyrics, Nicky had the jump on them. He pre-empted and likely encouraged the almost-instant dismissal of the album (“This is my last crusade / No-one is listening anyway” he sings on ‘Nicky Wire’s Last’).
So it’s a surprise to listen with open ears 15 years later to find that I Killed The Zeitgeist is a brilliant, ramshackle masterpiece. It’s thrillingly different, and at least as good as the Manics albums either side of it.
Musically it zips along with real pace and energy. There’s the early Manics bounce and thrash of the opener/title track and the the enjoyably underthought Britstomp of ‘Withdraw/Retreat’, ‘Stab Yr Heart, ‘Kimono Rock’ and ‘You Will Always Be My Home’.
The road has taken a lot of the great ones: Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Janis, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis. It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.Robbie Robertson in The Last Waltz
And it’s not just quintisentially long ’90s guitar rock. There’s the cavernous echo of ‘Goodbye Suicide’, the strung out New York drawl of ‘So Much For The Future’ and sonic workouts of ‘Sehnsucht (Neu Song)’ and closer ‘Everything Fades’.
They may not have the shimmer, sheen and style of the Manics own similar experiments in sound, but given the guitar/bass/drums template they’re bound to, they’re every bit as bold.
Best of all is the sense of melody that weaves through everything here, with the pure pop sensibility if anything elevated by how rudimentary the recording and performances are, even with JDB popping up on a couple of tracks.
The single ‘Break My Heart Slowly’ burrows into your brain pretty instantly. The deceptively mellow ‘Bobby Untitled’ follows. ‘The Shining Path’ has such a great tune that most of the mid-’00s bands churning out too-eager-to-please radio-friendly material at the time would have gladly pawned their trilbies for it.
Nicky Wire had long been drifting away from the pure sloganeering of the Manics’ early work to incorporate more personal expressions, and on I Killed The Zeitgiest he freely mixes the two without having to worry about the Manics brand. It feels like he’s working without any sort of filter, and the results are endearingly unguarded.
So you’ve got screamed manifestos (“I killed the zeitgeist/ Ground it all to dust”), brazen simile (“Hope dead, like Jesus on the cross”) and art biography (“Break my heart slowly/ Dora Maar said to me”), alongside real emotional honesty (“If the ending fits the words/ If you struggle to be heard”, “We’ll tattoo ourselves and each others hearts”).
The furies are at homeRS Thomas – Reflections
in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the clearest water,
If deep enough can drown.
Lyrically, those records were very much Richey’s albums, and it’s striking how the quartet of quotes on …Zeitgeist – from Eleanor Coppola, Robbie Robertson, RS Thomas and Robert Frost – could easily be interpreted as being chosen for their resonance with his troubles and eventual disappearance.
And the album isn’t great in spite of Nicky’s vocals – his voice is a key part of its charm. Sure, he’s no James Dean Bradfield, but there’s something enthralling about the raw, strangled honesty of an otherwise talented musician struggling to get the right notes out of a strange instrument that’s bound into their physical being.
Since I Killed The Zeitgeist, Nicky’s sung on a few more Manics songs (‘William’s Last Words’, ‘The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever’, ‘As Holy as the Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’, ‘The Left Behind’, plus some B-sides and deluxe edition demos). He’s also written some Manics music (‘Some Kind of Nothingness’, plus co-writing credit on Journal For Plague Lovers and every album from Rewind The Film on).
He’s only been getting better as a songwriter and as a singer. You could paste together a pretty convincing compilation of Nicky-fronted Manics songs from the last 20 years that earns its place among their proper albums.
So what next? As the Manics trundle into their fourth decade with intermittent flashes of brilliance, James recently put out his soundtrack and hooked up with Nicky’s brother Patrick Jones for his second studio album.
Nicky’s also been moonlighting, and as with last time round, he’s already looking to dampen expectations. “All I’ve got to do is get 500 CDs made, print off a lot of polaroids and hand-make them all,” he says.
He doesn’t need to be so modest.