Its aggressive guitar riff stirs up the scattered pixie-dust grains of 1990s grunge; its documentary voice-overs, the grainy echoes of 1960s psychedelia. Then the song gives up, goes out, becomes nothing but musical atmosphere as a Welshman melodically sings “Self worth scatters, self esteem’s a bore /I long since moved to a higher plateau /This discipline’s so rare so please applaud /Just look at the fat scum who pamper me so.”
I had heard all about “4st 7lb” by the Manic Street Preachers long before I actually heard it. From 2001-2003, I was an obsessive reader of Pitchfork Media (now Pitchfork), NME, Stylus Magazine (RIP), and other zines; we even had a print subscription to SPIN. Every now and then I would see the Manics mentioned in passing, and it usually wasn’t but a few lines before That Song was talked about.
The story of “4st 7lb” is impossible to separate from its writer, the departed Richey Edwards. He disappeared more than 20 years ago after having become quasi famous as the lyricist and rhythm guitarist for the Manics. As a writer, he opened a window on issues such as depression, anorexia, and 20th century fascism that is tenuous ground for nearly any rock band, especially ones whose main stylistic reference points are Guns N’ Roses and The Clash.
But he had a literary edge. My favorite art inevitably leaves me with a sentiment or image that I cannot really forget. I’ll never get over the “words in boxes” of Aristophanes’ “Frogs,” the bemoaning of knowing too much about others in Margaret Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye,” the orchestral surges in The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” “4st 7lb,” in addition to the shocking key change in the middle of the song, has one of these moments, with the lyric:
“I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint.”
Gulp. It’s a devastating image: Someone so light as to not exist. Someone who has surrendered to the earth; even if I could make footprints, they would be snowed-over or erased once everything melted, anyway. The song is full of sharp, stunning imagery; my second favorite after the “snow” is the conclusion: “I’ve finally come to understand life by blankly staring at my navel,” which injects real venom into the usual “navel-gazing” cliche leveled as criticism against 1990s grunge in particular and people born during Generation X in general
One of the magic tricks of the Manics’ early music was their unorthodox approach to songwriting. Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire would write the lyrics, while guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore wrote all the music; they did not seem to consult each other along the way. This ended up producing uncanny results, such as the song “Yes,” which is one of the catchiest rock songs I’ve ever heard, chock-full of guitar hooks and soaring vocals, all the while somehow staying remarkably tuneful even with lyrics such as:
“Power produces desire, the weak have none
There’s no lust in this coma even for a fifty
Solitude, solitude, the 11th commandment
The only certain thing that is left about me
There’s no part of my body that has not been used
Pity or pain, to show displeasure’s shame”
It’s as if someone tried to set the writings of Lenin to glam metal – and succeeded! I first cued up “Yes” on a red Sony Discman back in 2003, and it was a special experience – one of those floating moments when you first hear a song that you like, but didn’t expect to, perhaps; it all goes by, intangible but irresistible, and you have to play it again and again to keep teasing out why you liked it, and finding that it’s, well, everything.
But it was “4st 7lb” that stuck with me most then, and in 2006 when I was walking along a snowy sidewalk in Rhode Island, and in 2016 when I was weirdly prompted to listen to “The Holy Bible” (the parent album of both “Yes” and “4st 7lb”) when I was reading about Scott Speicher, the American pilot who disappeared in Iraq in 1991 and was alternately presumed dead and capture for the next 18 years, and thinking that his tragic story (his remains were found by Bedouins in 2009) reminded me of Edwards’, too (Richey was not declared dead until well after anyone had had any contact with him). It calls attention to itself in every way: The lyrics on their own would be eminently memorable, but that tune – not just full of riffs and that crazy transition, but also insane hooks like the “I-I-I-I-I-I” refrain that starts off Bradfield’s reading of the “snow phrase, that would seem silly in theory but somehow work in practice – is also an all-timer, the airy outdo unleashing the minimalistic that the band deserved after its maximalist intro.
I don’t listen to much rock anymore – “Layla,” the odd Beatles or Hendrix album – but I will always have time for the Manics’ incomparable “The Holy Bible” songs.