Manic Street Preachers - Back on track, for real

The Manic Street Preachers' new album showcases the lyrics of the unforgettable Richey Edwards, writes Elisa Bray

The Manic Street Preachers have long guarded the lyrics written by their lost fourth band member, Richey Edwards. Now, 14 years after the 27-year-old disappeared from the Embassy Hotel in London's Bayswater on the day before he was due to fly to America with vocalist and guitarist James Dean Bradfield for a promotional visit, they are releasing a new album consisting entirely of his lyrics, called Journal for Plague Lovers.

The decision to publish Edwards' lost lyrics must have been a tough one. But it is a fitting time: six months ago their lyricist and rhythm guitarist was officially declared dead, finally laying to rest one of rock's most enduring mysteries. Although his Vauxhall Cavalier was found abandoned near the Severn Bridge a fortnight after he first went missing, and his passport left behind in his Cardiff flat, Edwards has not been seen since and no searches have uncovered his remains.

In the weeks leading up to his disappearance in February 1995, Edwards gave personal items to his bandmates. To his co-lyricist on the band's early albums, bassist Nicky Wire, he gave a handful of notebooks containing his lyrics. Where the words were in prose, the band members edited them to lyrical form for use on the new album.

The lost verses are steeped in existential angst and Edwards' intellect. Self-harm, which manifested itself in Edwards' cutting, cigarette-stubbing and anorexia, bleed through the often violent and bloody imagery of the lyrics of Journal for Plague Lovers. "She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach", continuing in the poetic format Edwards developed during the writing of the band's masterpiece, The Holy Bible, begins: "She'd walk on broken glass for love/ She thought burnt skin would please her lover." "This Joke Sport Severed" is imbued in imagery of "bone" and "skin", within three verses of finely crafted internal rhyme. "Facing Page: Top Left" references hospital visits and medication (Edwards checked himself into the Priory shortly after the 1994 release of The Holy Bible): "Private care. Sugar pills. The flak of healing./ Fragrance my escort of no meaning. This beauty here dipping neophobia." Though always dark, the lost verses are sprinkled with humour, too: "The Levi Jean has always been stronger than the Uzi" ("Peeled Apples").

Nicky Wire has said of the band's decision to use Edwards' lyrics after all this time: "The brilliance and intelligence of the lyrics dictated that we had to finally use them. The use of language is stunning and topics include La Grande Odalisque by Ingres, Marlon Brando, Giant Haystacks, celebrity, consumerism and dysmorphia, all reiterating the genius and intellect of Richard James Edwards".

Alongside Wire, Edwards created and represented the band's visual image: their striking, liberal use of eyeliner and spray-painted clothes, calling to mind punk bands the Clash and New York Dolls. It was this overtly attention-grabbing appearance that led journalist Steve Lamacq to question their commitment to their craft in an interview for the NME. In response, Edwards whipped out a razor blade and famously carved the words "4 Real" into his arm. The subsequent gory image of blood streaming down Edwards' forearm from the deep cuts, which required 17 stitches, went on to become one of the most iconic images in rock'n'roll. The band's early fans who bought their single "Suicide Is Painless", a version of the theme tune to television show M*A*S*H, were privy to the discussion as to whether the NME should publish the picture – the recorded conversation ended up as the single's B-side.

Of course, the interest generated by this public display of self-harm enhanced their career. But it was after Edwards' mysterious disappearance that Manic Street Preachers saw their greatest commercial successes – their 1996 album, Everything Must Go, with its five songs co-written by Edwards, reached No 2, and their next, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, was their first chart-topping album. Although they also stepped up their productivity, creating five albums since, Edwards' spirit has always remained at their side. Never forgotten, at gigs today they still conjure up his memory, dedicating songs in tribute to the legend.

Most poignant of all are the lyrics to the new album's 13th and final song, "William's Last Words": "Dreams, they leave and die"; "Cos I am really tired/ I'd love to go to sleep/ And wake up happy". Paired with gentle guitars, it's a sad and emotive farewell. It's the suicide note Richey Edwards never left behind.

'Journal for Plague Lovers' is released on 18 May on Columbia Records