Album review

James Dean Bradfield

In the midst of a pandemic that has exiled the entire nation, James Dead Bradfield has emerged bearded and wearing designer glasses with his second solo album ‘Even in Exile’. This is a first for the Manic Street Preachers’ frontman as he releases a concept album.

Having spent his thirty-year career with the Welsh rockers balancing the precarious precipice between punk, glam, and progressive rock, it seems as though Bradfield is happier to wear his Rush influences these days.

‘Even in Exile’ is an entire album about Victor Jara. Jara was a Chilean singer-songwriter, theatre director, and teacher who was murdered by the Pinochet regime in 1973. This may sound like a difficult subject, but with the help of Patrick Jones (Welsh poet and brother of Manic’s bass player Nicky Wire), Bradfield creates a minor masterpiece.

Bringing history to life is something that the Manics are great at. Consider classics such as ‘Kevin Carter’ about the Pulitzer prize-winning photographer or the silent Welsh twins June and Jennifer Gibbons who the song ‘Tsunami’ is about. It should be no surprise that Bradfield would eventually move into full concept album territory.

The album is fantastic. It is never going to set the world alight and it won’t stand up against Manics classics such as ‘The Holy Bible’, but it has some great songs and lyrics and should be celebrated as such.

Released last month, the record peaked at the number six spot in the UK charts, giving Bradfield his highest chart position for a solo album.

‘There’ll Come A War’ is a beautiful slow-burner of a song that may take a few listens to understand musically. With its simple piano riff and underlying menacing synth, this song would not sound out of place in 1999s ‘This is My Truth Tell Me Yours.’

While ‘Recuerda’ (which translates as “remember”) is stunningly produced and beautifully performed and would not sound out of place on any recent Manics album.

There are stunning instrumentals in the form of the Morricone-style waltz ‘Under the Mimosa Tree’ which would not sound out of place on 2013’s ‘Rewind the Film’ and ‘Seeking the Room With the Three Windows’ which has a spectacular progressive riff that is reminiscent of ‘Sequels of Forgotten Wars’ off 2018s ‘Resistance is Futile’.

Another track that features some amazing fretwork from the Manics frontman is ‘Thirty Thousand Milkbottles’ which follows ‘Seeking the Room With the Three Windows’ perfectly.

Lyrically, the album is everything that you would expect from Welsh poet Patrick Jones. Fresh from releasing ‘Renegade Pslams’ last year, Jones’s songwriting shouldn’t be overlooked here in favour of Bradfield’s musicianship. The songwriting is masterful and challenging and takes you on a journey through the life of Victor Jara.

The crafting of this album is perfect. Every song leads into the next in a way that we just don’t see in modern albums anymore. This truly is a concept album, designed to be listened to in its entirety and designed to be enjoyed in order. This is something that even the great Manics have rarely achieved in their recent albums, and while it is a concept album songs such as ‘The Boy From the Plantation’, ‘Recuerda’, ‘There’ll Come a War’, and ‘Thirty Thousand Milk Bottles’ all stand up for themselves as being standalone classics in their own right.

The album features a host of Manics regular helping hands. Touring members Nick Naysmith, Gavin Fitzjohn, and Wayne Murray all lend their skills here, and long-time producer Dave Eringa helps out with mixing and additional production.

The last time we saw Bradfield performing solo duties, was back in 2006. Following ‘Lifeblood’, the Manics had appeared to have got somewhat lost and both Bradfield and Wire released solo efforts.

Solo albums represent somewhat of a hiatus for Bradfield, and it may look to the outside world as though there is not much going on in the Manic Street Preachers camp at the moment.

But this solo outing does not come at such a troubling time. 2018s ‘Resistance is Futile’ was a strong album. Although it was the first album from the band for five years, the band had been busy in the meantime celebrating the twentieth anniversaries of the classic albums ‘The Holy Bible’ and ‘Everything Must Go’. They’ve headlined multiple festivals, and have since reissued and toured ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’. There is also the promise of two gigs to say thank you to the NHS later this year and a new Manics album in the pipeline. Although they may have only released one album in the last seven years, it’s not to say that the Manics haven’t been busy working hard. And it’s certainly not to say that they have not been creative. As Bradfield proves here. His musicianship is evolving and we even get to see him playing piano at times which is a rare treat. Aside from creating this album, he’s quite recently been seen scoring film soundtrack, back in 2017 he wrote the soundtrack to ‘The Chamber’.

From the man who once received the highest number of complaints about his appearance on Top of the Pops (dressed in a balaclava), this is a mature and thoughtful album that spans a wide range of genres and musical influences. Although it may be a progressive concept album by nature, that doesn’t mean that it’s not accessible. Just as the Manic Street Preachers have made a career out of bringing us high art and literature in-stadium rock-shaped chunks, James has made the story of Victor Jara accessible for the masses.

The album is truly what James Dean Bradfield does best, musical communication to the masses. ‘Even in Exile’ shows that Bradfield has all of the creativity and maturity in his production to create works that rise up above the glam and anger that his career has been steeped in.