The Manics' lyrics were something special

Following the official declaration of his death and the obituary, Manics fan Paul Owen celebrates the life and lyrics of Richey Edwards

The Guardian's obituary of Richey Edwards, the guitarist and co-lyricist of the Manic Street Preachers, evidently stirred up memories for a surprising number of people when it was published yesterday. By lunchtime it was the day's most-read story on the Guardian website.

Edwards – who performed under the name Richey James – went missing in 1995, but his family have now officially declared him dead, prompting yesterday's memorial piece. It's clear from the numbers reading and commenting on the article that, 13 years since his disappearance, James still means something to a large number of people, even if many read the piece because they assumed his body had finally been found.

I was a big fan of the Manics during the 90s, when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I loved their combination of unashamed intellectualism, nihilism, glamour and political posturing. All were borrowed – from the writers the band admired and quoted liberally, from other groups such as the New York Dolls and the Clash and from militant rappers Public Enemy, respectively – but the combination was new, or seemed so to me.

The Manics' music varied in quality during his time in the band, peaking with the ferocious, angular Holy Bible in 1994, but it was the lyrics – written by James and Nicky Wire, the bass player – that really attracted me. References to Albert Camus or the invasion of Grenada sent me – and many other fans, I'm sure – rushing to the library to find out more (no internet in those days).

But reading the obituary made me wonder how well the lyrics hold up today. I was a teenager when James disappeared and gradually lost interest in the band during my 20s. Did the Manics' words mean a lot to me because they were adolescent and so was I? Or was there anything longer lasting, anything that would put James and Wire up there with the heroes they claimed to usurp in the song Faster: "I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer/ I spat out Plath and Pinter."

Some of the Manics fans who commented on the article yesterday seemed to think so. RedZebra called James "an amazing lyricist, a poet". Lonelywreckage said: "I consider him to have been one of the most enigmatic and thought-provoking lyricists Britain has ever produced." Others simply quoted their favourite lines.

Garth Cartwright, who wrote the obituary, was criticised by one commenter for quoting only one Manics lyric to illustrate James's talent: "I laughed when Lennon got shot." Yet this line – from early single Motown Junk – does reflect an important part of their appeal: their insistence on expressing outrageous, taboo-breaking ideas. Wire reportedly expanded on this view of Lennon by telling a New York audience "the only good thing this town ever did was shoot John fucking Lennon". Similar, if less iconoclastic, was a later vow (in You Love Us) to "throw some acid on the Mona Lisa's face".

The rest of Motown Junk is less memorable, and its lyrics are typical of the debut album that followed it, Generation Terrorists, full of vague slogans such as "All you ever gave me was the boredom I suffocate in" and "We live in urban hell, we destroy rock and roll". Its chorus hints at greater things to come, however, making a comparison between the contracts of Motown recording artists and the slaves their ancestors might have been. Far from fighting against this condition, the songwriters instead collude in it by creating songs which "stop your brain thinking for 168 seconds", numbing, or enslaving, the minds of the listeners, too. But it's so vaguely written that this interpretation could well be wide of the mark.

Generation Terrorists is similarly frustrating. The lyrics book bulges with memorable, evocative, nihilistic slogans such as "There's nothing I wanna see/ There's nowhere I wanna go" and "Daylight bores the sunshine out of me", but few songs hang together individually – lines could easily be transposed from one to another without any loss of meaning. Heavy-handed references to methadone and heroin have not worn well, either.

An exception is Little Baby Nothing, recorded with the porn star Traci Lords. The song is a reasonably coherent look at the love-hate relationship between users and performers of pornography, or perhaps customers and prostitutes, told from both the male and the female perspective. Some of the lines are clumsy, and the coda returns to the Manics default of "culture, alienation, boredom and despair", but the song deals with a complicated subject with some insight.

The band's second album, Gold Against the Soul, was criticised for its chart-friendly sound, which the post-Richey band eventually adopted more-or-less permanently. The songs' lyrics are less interchangeable than those of Generation Terrorists and some scan well. From Despair to Where, for example, describes a protagonist coming to terms with depression and largely eschews flashy sloganeering for more poetic imagery: "Outside, open-mouthed crowds/ Pass each other as if they're drugged."

La Tristesse Durera is also interesting. Here James and Wire look at the treatment of war veterans, "wheeled out once a year, a cenotaph souvenir", and track the bathetic progress of a former soldier's war medal: "It sells at market stalls/ Parades Milan catwalks." Even the slogans had become sadder and more poetic: the title Life Becoming a Landslide, for example, or the repeated refrain of "forever delayed" in Roses in the Hospital.

James wrote most of the lyrics for the band's next record, The Holy Bible, and they show a marked progression. One of the album's best tracks is Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart, a dense, furious list of American misdeeds which probably does bear comparison with Harold Pinter, although it's less a poem, more a litany of evidence for the prosecution:

Vital stats - how white was their skin
Unimportant - just another inner-city drive-by thing

The song's chorus audaciously subverts the racial slur "there ain't no black in the union jack" and must have taken some nerve to sing live. It ends by arguing against the 1993 Brady Handgun Prevention Act, presumably on the grounds that the oppressed need guns if they are ever going to stop being oppressed.

Almost as good is Faster, which, from its opening lines - "I am an architect, they call me a butcher" - recalls the confessional poetry of Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath. Here James refines the band's consistently nihilistic message into something more defiant, almost proud – "I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing" (which is where the "I am Miller and Mailer" line comes in).

4st 7lbs is similar, a haunting, gruesome description of anorexia, written from a female perspective. It ends on a rare note of black humour: "I've finally come to understand life/ Through staring blankly at my navel."

Songs attacking political correctness (PCP, which cites exaggerated examples that would make David Cameron blush) and backing the death penalty (Archives of Pain) prove that James's politics reflected more than just leftwing orthodoxy. Meanwhile, in the opening track, Yes, he returns to the subject matter of Little Baby Nothing, his imagery now more arresting and original: "In these plagued streets of pity you can buy anything/ For 200 anyone can conceive a God on video."

Richey was gone by the time the band gained their biggest commercial success with Everything Must Go in 1996, but several of the songs on that album feature his lyrics. Of these only Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky, a probably symbolic description of a caged animal, seems like more than a sketch.

The Manics recently announced that the lyrics for their next album would be made up entirely of lines "left to us" by James. "Finally it feels like the right time to use them … It's a record that celebrates the genius of his words, full of love, anger, intelligence and respect."

James was not an "amazing poet" when the band started out – far from it – but there was a clear progression and growing maturity in his work. The lyrics for The Holy Bible – whether or not they amount to poetry – stand out in popular music as unusually thought-provoking and distinctive. Whether these new Manics songs will enhance or tarnish his reputation remains to be seen.

Originally written for The Guardian by Paul Owen, Thursday 27 November 2008