The album Lifeblood by Manic Street Preachers is 8 years old this year. For me this is hard to believe, it really doesn’t feel that long, but the album is little known, and largely ignored by all save for the hardcore MSP fans.
I can understand this. There are stand out songs on there, and a return to the wry political humour that always made the band unique, but it caused little excitement to my knowledge.
Being a lifelong fan I bought the album the day it came out. One song really had the edge, in my opinion, over the others and that was a song called Empty Souls.
Like many of the band’s songs it deals with death, and how hard it can be to understand and cope with it. This is unsurprising considering the disappearance of the former rhythm guitarist Richey James Edwards, which has preoccupied so much of the manics’ music, while other songs like Ocean Spray, from the album Know Your Enemy, pay tribute to lead singer James Dean Bradfield’s Mother who died of cancer.
No doubt Empty Souls refers back to these episodes as well.
The chorus of the song reads:
Exposed to a truth we don’t know
Collapsing like the twin towers
Falling down like April showers
Colossal endless like a marathon
My reading of this is as follows: the empty souls that leave their bodies, which is referred to in the song’s opening line, explains a passing, while the anguish that is felt by those close appears as a disturbance almost without comparison, like something swoops in from the ground to take it from you.
How are we able to do a comparison justice? Something so sustained and mentally challenging. The Manics have chosen to explain it with reference to the twin towers.
Indeed this reference is, I find, most adequate. To be sure explosions and buildings collapse all the time, and wars are even taking place as a normalised standard. But the twin towers falling was different. It was a disturbance to the usual functioning of things as we are generally used to it in the West, i.e. acts of war are fought on the ground of an elsewhere; a land far away – whereas the twin towers was a clear and present act of the grandest proportions in a land where the dust of ground war had by and large cleared years ago.
For some it changed their whole perception of things. For some it necessitated revenge acts or war, for others it raised the question of the west’s foreign policy. The event could not be looked at through neutral eyes. Whether or not 9/11 was confirmatory, or whether it impacted terrifically on an individual, it made us all reconsider everything we knew. We questioned everything and nothing has been the same since.
On a personal level the death of a loved one comes via this same mental process; everything is questioned, nothing remains the same.
Empty Souls was released as the last single from the album (and only second overall). But for reasons of sensitivity the lyric was pulled. Instead of collapsing like the twin towers, the lyric was changed to the lesser “collapsing like dying flowers”.
For sure the original lyric doesn’t undermine the event. In fact it does how disturbing it was justice by comparing it to the very worst that an individual can experience. If we can’t talk about the tragedy of 9/11 for what it is in the public sphere then how can we ever seek to properly understand it?
However this sort of isn’t the issue. The lyric was pulled from a popular song, perhaps on the grounds of taste – which is an assumption on my part, but a fair one I would say. If so, as I have tried here to explain, we find a grave misunderstanding. The song isn’t particularly asking questions about the event, but it is dealing with the sense of scale and proportion in which we experience tragic events on an emotional level.
Finally, the reason to take the lyric away says a lot about how much record companies think and trust how we can interpret and enjoy music. To be clear it wasn’t just modified for air play, it was changed for the single. Even fans of the music could not be trusted.