[Album] Know Your Enemy

Album: #6
Released: Epic Records, 19 March 2001
Peak UK Chart Position: #2

Once more the Manics were to make a major shift in their approach for their sixth album, Know Your Enemy, released in March 2001. Their dramatic alteration in focus had been strongly hinted at with their 2000 UK #1 single ‘The Masses Against the Classes’; responding to criticisms that This Is My Truth had been too soft and melodic, it was an electrifying return to back-to-basics, politicised rock, bookended with the kind of quotes that had been rife on The Holy Bible. But while Know Your Enemy would follow in these footsteps, the full story of the album is significantly more complex.

On closer inspection, the sixth LP has two broad focuses or modes. On the one hand, it is – like ‘Masses’ – a determined return to political songwriting in a heavy rock style that was back-to-basics and yet very different to early years Manics. On the other hand, Know Your Enemy feels like the Manics’ effort at a genre-shifting, lengthy magnum opus in the vein of The Beatles or particularly The Clash’s London Calling. The combination of these two approaches produces something which, despite KYE‘s muted commercial success and fan recognition, is actually quite remarkable. Deeply personal lyrics rub shoulders with aggressive politics, raw, stripped-down rock is mixed with elaborate genre experiments which at times border on pastiche. And the result is an album which is inherently, perhaps necessarily, inconsistent and spread across a huge sixteen songs and 75 minutes (indeed, it was originally planned as a double album).

Further adding to the atmosphere of change is the fact that the record was made at the unfamiliar location of El Cortijo (“the farmhouse”) studios in Malaga, Spain. Dave Eringa primarily handled production duties once more, but Mike Hedges also returned to work on some tracks, and Northern Irish DJ and musician (plus frequent Manics remixer) David Holmes and Greg Haver were also involved. More oddness abounded everywhere – the artwork by Neale Howells was much more eccentric than anything the band had previous used, messy and fractured like the album itself. In advance of the album’s release the band even released two singles on the same day in February 2001, with both reaching respectable chart positions – although their inherent strangeness meant that repeating past commercial successes was never likely.

The songs themselves were, outside of the new default pattern of fuzzy, aggressive rock, eccentric and ambitious in all kinds of new ways. ‘So Why So Sad’ remains one of the strangest Manics tracks ever recorded, full of sleighbells and Beach Boys influence and yet released as one of the first singles. ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’ was an all-out and shockingly successful effort by the band to play disco. Elsewhere, ‘Epicentre’ and ‘The Convalescent’ were minor epics, stretching to over and just under six minutes respectively, making them extremely long by Manics standards. In this period, Manics creativity was running rampant, as if the commercial success of the last two albums had freed them to simply run wild.

As it turned out, the legacy of KYE would go on to have some similarities to that of the previous album. While reviews were understandably mixed in some quarters – a major difference – both albums produced a large number of album tracks which have never achieved the level of acclaim or interest they deserve and have rarely if ever been played live. In this way the album is packed with a great many songs which, while not all things to all people, have potential to become major cult favourites among Manics fans even as they languish in obscurity for everyone else.

Know Your Enemy is perhaps best seen as a rite of passage for Manic Street Preachers, one which many bands have passed through before them. It was never intended to be a major commercial success, but rather a vent for artistic energy and in this aim it succeeds spectacularly. It is perhaps the least coherent Manics album, arguably the least consistent, but in some respects it is one of the most fascinating exactly because of its creative recklessness. It is a unique entry in the Manics catalogue and not to be missed.

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