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James Dean Bradfield - Even in Exile (Album Review)

Wednesday, 19 August 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

You’d be forgiven for thinking an album about a Chilean songwriter and activist murdered by the Pinochet regime would be serious, rage-filled and, well, depressing. In less skilled hands that might well have been the case, but when such a record comes from Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield, someone who knows a thing or two about turning polarising, anti-commercial concepts into arena gold, you’d best think again.

Never overly confident in the lyric-writing department, Bradfield has instead excelled at turning his bandmates’ words, predominantly those of Nicky Wire, into deeply textured compositions. ‘Even in Exile’, Bradfield’s first solo venture in 14 years, follows that very blueprint, except this time it’s Wire’s brother, the playwright Patrick Jones, who provided the narrative inspiration.

Based around the life, work and death of Victor Jara, one of the first casualties of  Pinochet’s brutal coup in 1973, this record’s existence is a testament to how the Chilean’s bravery and conviction have garnered worldwide recognition and respect.

Referenced by everyone from the Clash to U2, Jara was a conciliatory singer-songwriter, poet and gentle revolutionary who favoured love and understanding.  

‘Even in Exile’ is a vivid, sometimes harrowing, dreamlike, operatic work that, being sensitively sculpted in Jara’s image, reminds us music doesn’t need to be intensely polemic, nor irate, to inspire conviction, courage and a desire for peaceful resolution. Brought to life with a consistently melodic, atmospheric and often cinematic grace, these songs deftly move between intimate and melancholic one minute, rousing and anthemic the next.  

Recuerda’s Jara-esque fingerpicking swells into a Manics-style stormer full of euphoric instrumental and vocal refrains. The Boy From The Plantation, meanwhile, showcases Bradfield’s unequalled knack for crafting intoxicating choruses from tricky phrases, with the name Victor Lidio Jara Martinez providing the most unlikely earworm hook since If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. 

Filtering exotic sensibilities through his own distinct aesthetic, while integrating touches of everyone from Pink Floyd and Tear For Fears to Johnny Marr and the Cult, Bradfield employs elegant strokes that gift each track the requisite mood. 

Driven by a She Sells Sanctuary lick, Without Knowing The End (Joan’s Song) offers a pulsating tribute to Jara’s widow and her lifelong fight for justice, Thirty Thousand Milk Bottles is a heartfelt harpsichord march that salutes those who were ‘disappeared’ by Pinochet, and There’ll Come A War utilises chiming, mournful piano and an ominous violin to underscore desperately sad phrases like “where we are judged by not what we took, but what we gave.”

Elsewhere, intensely hummable instrumentals add extra colour to the story.  Seeking The Room With Three Windows could be ‘Everything Must Go’-era Manics belting out a soaring Rush cover, while Under The Mimosa Tree paints a picturesque sunset with quietly resolute trumpet and strings. Jara’s La Partida is reborn as an epic Ennio Morricone score.    

Like the Manics and Jara’s best work, ‘Even in Exile’ can be appreciated solely on a musical level without digging deeper. Yet like their respective catalogues, there’s a Trojan horse quality that sucks you in and slowly demands your attention. An exquisitely rendered meditation on the long-lasting importance of artistic expression, ideology, memory and community, its commercial smarts, depth and historical significance could only have been blended by a composer as talented and empathetic as Bradfield.



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