James Dean Bradfield: The Great Western
If you were to look up contrary in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of James Dean Bradfield. While other British musicians can seem two dimensional at times (probably one of the reasons why Gorillaz are so successful), you can never really get a handle on the singer of the Manic Street Preachers.
Descriptions of Bradfield generally include the words ‘docker’ and ‘swarthy’, and while it’s true that he has always been the most physically intimidating of the Manics (and yes, I’m aware that’s not hard), he’s far from being a Liam Gallagher-esque mindless thug. Apparently deferring a place at university to study philosophy in order to pursue music, he perpetually gives the impression of being as introverted and questioning as his band’s infamous lyricists, although he has perhaps applied himself in a different fashion.
Whilst being the primary composer in the Manics the last 20 years, he’s a reluctant lyricist, contributing only one and a half songs in that time. ‘Ocean Spray’, a eulogy to his recently deceased mother was completed by Nicky Wire, though ‘Firefight’ is apparently all his own work. He’d give you his own reasons why he doesn’t write words, and more often than not they’re connected to issues of self confidence, or quality control. The Great Western sees him tackle this demon head on, and if it proves one thing, it’s that said quality control must be sky high. Somewhat ironically, the music’s not that spectacular, given the highpoints of the Manics discography. However, I suspect this is down to the impromptu nature of the album, and the fact the Manics themselves have a new CD out next year, and that Bradfield will be keeping his best melodies aside.
However, with the lyrics he seems to have a point to prove to himself, and new ground to break. His decision to record a solo album was made sometime last year, after the Manics had decided to take an extended break and he realised he missed music too much to function normally. The lyrical themes of the album developed over a period spent commuting (mainly by train) between his homes in London and Cardiff as he took stock of where he was and where he’d come from.
As such, the album mainly deals with hiraeth, a peculiarly Welsh longing for the land of their fathers, and a feeling that has been affecting Bradfield more and more. Three of the songs are explicitly about Wales, and the album’s title is derived not only from the stretch of railway between London and Cardiff, but from a lyric in ‘Émigré’.
‘Émigré’ also happens to be the song on the album that most recalls the Manics, with a excited guitar figure that resembles the riff from Lifeblood’s ‘Glasnost’. ‘Which Way to Kyffin’ finds Bradfield examining his feelings about Wales in more depth, in specific relation to the paintings of Kyffin Williams, over a gently pulsing organ and beatific acoustic guitar. Other lyrical subtexts visited include the role of the Catholic church in the AIDS epidemic in Africa, on the first single ‘That’s No Way To Tell A Lie’ (an atypically clumsy Bradfield composition) and a remembrance of former manager Philip Hall in ‘An English Gentleman’, whose intro puts you in mind of Razorlight’s ‘Golden Touch’ before growing into a fine acoustic rocker. The most contemporary, and most immediate song on the album, is the slow burning ‘Still A Long Way To Go’. Recalling Snow Patrol’s Run in its careful build-up and anthemic chorus, which closely mirrors the ebb and flow of the lyrics, it finds Bradfield in full flight both vocally and lyrically.
However, this is not an ultra-modern record, and it’s not hard to pick out Bradfield’s ‘70’s rock influences here; the harmonica on ‘Bad Boys and Painkillers’ is reminiscent of John Williams’ Midnight Cowboy theme, and the ghosts of Fleetwood Mac, Steve Harley and Badfinger stalk the Great Western’s carriages. Another noted difference to working with the Manics is noted in the increased volume in backing vocals, which add to the lush textures on most of the songs here; in fact, the choir on ‘The Wrong Beginning’ makes one of the weaker songs much, much better.
I don’t think we should consider this so much as a solo album as a side project, an exercise to occupy a restless mind. James Dean Bradfield set out to write the lyrics for an album of his own, and although only seven of the ten original songs here have words of his own (two lyrics are co-written by Bradfield and John Niven, while the third is by Nicky Wire), and not counting the entirely-self written b-sides, he has succeeded admirably in his aims. The Great Western has a cohesive lyrical identity and theme that other more noted lyricists would struggle to achieve. And while the words don’t provide any answers as such, they do ask plenty of questions, and with personal lyrics like these, you can’t ask for anything more.
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