The last time Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield released a solo album was in 2006. His band were at a strange and somewhat transitional point in their long career, taking a few years off to rediscover the spirit they felt they had lost with albums like (the actually very good) Know Your Enemy and (even better) Lifeblood. During this hiatus, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire crafted his own solo effort, while Bradfield also made an album of his own, The Great Western.
Fast forward 14 years and the Manics find themselves in a stronger position. They continue to endure, having clawed their way back from success and failures many a time to cement their position as one of the most legendary groups in musical history. With their last three albums reaffirming their creative qualities, the band's latest hiatus feels like more of a need to challenge themselves and keep a certain hunger alive. However strictly speaking, is it really such a "hiatus" with a tour, a string of festival shows and at least two reissues already under their belt since 2018's Resistance Is Futile? As well as another reissue, two big live shows lined up in aid of the NHS and a new album planned for release sometime in 2021. It's a great time to be a Manics fan, especially when the hiatus has spawned a second solo album from James.
Sometimes a hiatus would suggest that the creative juices aren't flowing. That's certainly not the case with James Dean Bradfield, who seems to be in great form at the moment. Even In Exile is a fantastic piece of work that works well as a collection of brilliantly written and highly enjoyable songs, and that's even without the fact that this is actually a concept album about the life of Victor Jara, Chilean musician, poet and activist who was killed in the USA-backed coup by Pinochet in 1973. The lyrics for this album were written by Patrick Jones, brother of Nicky Wire and a fine wordsmith in his own right. Clearly inspired and (as always) wanting to bring another slice of history and culture to the attention of a new audience, Bradfield's second solo LP proves to a fascinating sideroad in the Manics remarkable story.
The opening 'Recuerda' alternates between acoustic, low key verses and a dazzling energy rush of a chorus which propels the album immediately. Lead single 'The Boy From The Plantation' takes a more straightforward route, a reflective singalong, a beautifully organic arrangement and bursting with wonderfully instinctive melody.
The cold thud and sombre piano of the glacially majestic 'There'll Come A War' demonstrates an impressive use of space within the arrangement, while a far more dense sound follows on the stunning instrumental 'Seeking The Room With The Three Windows', one of a few wordless tracks on the record placed masterfully to create a room within the flow of the album as a whole. Along with the otherworldly prog-rock synth solos, its guitar lines are a total joy to listen to, capturing the attention to such an extent that you'd be forgiven for not noticing its rather maverick time signature changes. Also providing a genuine feast of intricate fretwork is the infectious march of 'Third Thousand Milk Bottles', another track punctuated with dramatic piano and just the right amount of repetition. Elsewhere, the fine yet humble musical arrangements bring gorgeous South American guitars and captivating strings on 'Under The Mimosa Tree', a melancholy Morricone-like ballad largely played in waltz time.
Bringing to mind the sedate atmospheres of 1998's This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours and 2013's Rewind The Film during its verses, and exploding into elevating anthemic rock for its huge choruses, 'From The Hands Of Violetta' is classic Bradfield. Delivering another memorable moment, 'Without Knowing The End' thrives on jangle pop guitar sounds and a playful energy. While a few words have been said about the riff's resemblance to The Cult's 'She Sells Sanctuary', it's actually a closer relative of 'The Year Of Purification' from 'Know Your Enemy'. The spaghetti western flavours return on a beautifully dynamic version of Jara's powerful 'La Partida', contrasting with the space rock keys and expansive atmospheres of 'The Last Song', a song where James Dean Bradfield's vocal shines evocatively. Dark, mournful curtain closer 'Santiago Sunrise' flows from a familiar melody, growing into what is probably the album's most slow-burning track.
As a concept album and another brilliant piece of education, it works wonderfully. It also shows that the reason James Dean Bradfield remains a legend in the world of British music is that he's simply very good at writing songs. The songwriting on Even In Exile benefits from the freedom of making a solo record in a new context and minus the weight of writing a new Manics album.
Vocals, guitar and melodies all exemplary, the spaghetti western prog excursions a new avenue explored in highly impressive fashion. Repeated listens of this ambitious and rewarding album may be a real possibility for listeners.