Album Review: James Dean Bradfield – Even in Exile

[Delware Ltd.; 2020]

These are fraught times we’re living in. While large companies are gentrifying our mindsets and politicians battle over a continuously more disappointing status quo, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic-induced quarantine and a wave of unrest unlike anything since the human rights movement of the 1960s. Yet, it’s a frustrating task to look for genuinely political records spawned by the Trump era, simply because there are so few.

Has the internet killed earnest pathos and provocative sloganeering? Can there still be protest songs in 2020? It seems like any genuinely political statement needs the perspective of nostalgia, calling for long lost prophets, their voices silenced long ago.

Maybe it’s the fact that nothing about Even in Exile comes as a surprise that makes it feel more necessary than it might on paper. Here we have James Dean Bradfield, vocalist of the borderline communist British rock legends Manic Street Preachers, eulogizing Chilean legend Víctor Jara, whose murder at the hands of Pinochet’s army made him an everlasting martyr of the left. The album’s lyrics are derived from poems by Welsh poet Patrick Jones, who also happens to be the brother of Manics’ bassist Nicky Wire. It’s a bit of a retro record, really – in fact, it feels as if this project should have been completed 20 years ago, when Bradfield was at the height of his career.

Even in Exile sounds like what you’d expect from another branch in the band’s rich history: euphoria meets defiance in a constant symbiosis of pathos and revolutionary symbolism. Structuring his music around Jones’ lyrics, Bradfield plays with well-tried staples of art rock, at times quite openly referencing other artists (is that Bowie’s harmonica from “A New Career in a New Town” in “The Boy from the Plantation”?). This approach, at times, even reconnects with The Holy Bible‘s gloom, as during the slightly industrial “There’ll Come a War”, and isn’t that far off from Roger Waters’ recent forays. But overall, Even in Exile isn’t very dark – it feels more like an earnest and very intellectual attempt at finding a place in a long line of sophisticated political art rock.

There’s a lot to dissect here in terms of musical structure. The airy, spacey, psychedelic rock-opera feel could best be described as a blend of Pink Floyd and The Who, or the earnest Britpop of The Bends-era Radiohead mixed with Tears for Fears and The The. As usual with anything Manics related, the production is reliably crisp and there’s a whole armada of instruments, most of them apparently played by Bradfield, which is quite impressive. It’s palpable that this is more of a love letter than a cold exercise, especially when Bradfield indulges in the Jara-influenced folk material. This conviction of the concept results in an impressive first half.

Yet there’s a stark feeling of distance to the subject once the second half comes on. Aside of the lovely “From the Hands of Violeta”, the latter material isn’t very impactful. “The Last Song” feels a little too close to Pink Floyd’s “Fat Old Son” to be comfortable, just as “Without Knowing the End” is a little too comfortably paying tribute to R.E.M.’s “7 Chinese Bros.” There’s also the instrumentals, including a new interpretation of Jara’s “La Partida”, which somehow puts the breaks on the flow of the album. By the time “Santiago Sunrise” closes off the record – going for the cataclysmic, cacophonic final statement – we feel a little lost, a little tired of all the pathos and pastiche. It is a shame, because it has the potential to make you forget how strong the good songs on here are.

Initially, the temptation is not to return to Even in Exile but instead to Jara’s El Derecho de Vivir en Paz, which reveals the issues with Bradfield’s approach: Jara’s intellectual and heartfelt blend of folk and rock transcended his contemporaries and found no need in grand postures. Its pathos feels almost minimalist against Bradfield’s well-tuned maximalism. It’s more Neil Young (minus the Horse) than Roger Waters. To use a line from Jara: his music is revolutionary songs – music meant to overthrow – whereas Bradfield’s is protest songs; music full of lament.

It would be easy to write off Even in Exile, and many will. But then the Manics have always been one of the most potent acts of their generation, neither afraid of pathos nor socialist iconography. It’s hard to find a single “bad” release in a discography this rich with iconic drama, misunderstood detours, genuine intellect, which extends to the two very good (but forgotten) competing 2006 solo outings by Bradfield and Wire. Even if it’s a bit much at times, Even in Exile could well be the best record Bradfield has lent his voice to since 2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers; it’s not a classic, but a very strong, autumnal call to arms.