Album: Manic Street Preachers, Journal For Plague Lovers, (Columbia)

Manics rise to a challenge from across the decades

The album of 2009 – hands down, no contest – contains words by a man nobody's seen since he disappeared 14 years ago, set to music by three men who've been playing together for more than 20 years.

Prior to his still-unsolved disappearance in 1995, Richey Edwards bequeathed to his fellow Manic Street Preachers a folder of lyrics, prose, pictures and ideas. For years, its contents were closely guarded. For a while, there was talk of publishing them in book form (but, when Bloc Party stole one leaked line for their own inadequate purposes, the error of that plan became plain).

At last, James Dean Bradfield, Sean Moore and Nicky Wire have answered the challenge from across the decades, and have done Edwards proud. Journal for Plague Lovers – the band's ninth album echoes their 1994 masterpiece The Holy Bible both visually (controversial and highly symbolic artwork, showing a beautiful but bloodied child, by Jenny Saville; that Simple Minds backwards font) and sonically, with Steve Albini (chosen chiefly for his work on Nirvana's In Utero, an Edwards obsession) capturing Bradfield's guitars at their harshest and most ear-scouring.

It isn't 100 per cent punishing and pitiless: "Facing Page, Top Left" uses twinkling Welsh harps, and the closing "William's Last Words", featuring Lou Reed-like anti-singing from Wire, will break hearts.

Like the best Bill Hicks routines, Edwards' words resonate with spooky truth ("The Levi jean has always been stronger than the Uzi" and "Falcons attack the pigeons in the West Wing at night", both from opener "Peeled Apples") and often make you laugh out loud.

Not that they're funny ha-ha (the sole shard of humour being the Larkin-derived couplet on "Me and Stephen Hawking": "Oh the joy, me and Stephen Hawking we laugh/We missed the sex revolution when we failed the physical"), but as an involuntary awestruck response to his genius.

Wanna know what's really scary? On this evidence, Richey Edwards was actually improving.

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