Whisper it quietly but Word Gets Around is 20 years old this coming August. Released on the 25th August 1997 - the day before my 27th birthday and therefore an obvious and gratuitously received gift from my fiancé at the time - amidst a slurry of Britpop more content with rehashing the past than looking towards the future, it's a genuinely flawless collection that stood head and shoulders above the Casts and Ocean Colour Scenes of this world that along with Feeder's Polythene and Three Colors Red's Pure - also released that very same year - seemed to herald a bright new dawn for British rock music.
It was after a gig at Nottingham Rock City's then-sister venue The Rig two months after the album came out that yours truly compared them as natural successors to the Manic Street Preachers. Not only on account of their Welsh heritage, but also on account of the band's mostly topical lyrical content and riffs borne out of a love for eighties metal. From the band's first single 'Looks Like Chaplin' released the previous November and the ensuing 45s through to the flawless long player and incendiary live performances, the world was theirs for the taking.
So where exactly did it all go wrong for Stereophonics? When did they become little more than just another mainstream commodity with zero credibility? While 1999's follow-up album Performance And Cocktails certainly hinted at a more commercial sound with its sales catapulting them into arena territories, 2001's Just Enough Education To Perform undoubtedly represented the band's nadir. The clumsily orchestrated riposte to the music press 'Mr Writer' and Kelly Jones' ill-advised spat with reality TV poppets Hear'Say - the easiest targets of mirth for "real music for real people" bores back then - being two unnecessary occurrences that spring to mind. Indeed, within just four years of releasing Word Gets Around they'd become a band most people associated with BBC TV sitcom 'The Office' (even though it was Big George's version rather than theirs that became the theme tune), having scored their biggest hit with a cover of Mike D'Abo's 'Handbags And Gladrags', a song covered by over 20 artists since its first release in 1967.
However, throughout 1997 they were more or less untouchable, releasing a string of great singles in the build up to Word Gets Around - the third of which 'More Life In A Tramp's Vest' reached number 33 in the official UK singles chart. It was something of an achievement for one of "our bands" (see also Bis with 'Kandy Pop', Kenickie's 'In Your Car' and White Town's improbable number one hit from nowhere 'Your Woman'). That each of the first five songs on Word Gets Around were all released as singles either before or directly after the album's release demonstrates both its creators and the label V2's undue confidence in the strength of the material at their disposal. Of the other seven songs on the record, three had also appeared as b-sides or bonus tracks on various formats of those aforementioned 45s, none of which could be described as filler.
It wasn't every day that songs about a friend's suicide ('Local Boy In The Photograph') or a teacher's affair with a pupil ('A Thousand Trees') would make the top twenty. Likewise the melancholic 'Traffic', a song written about observing other motorists in a slow moving traffic jam that manages to turn the most mundane situation into a fascinating kitchen sink drama across its four-and-a-half minutes. While some of the album's lesser celebrated moments tackle infidelity ('Same Sized Feet'), small town mentalities ('Goldfish Bowl') and a typical day at a wedding ('Too Many Sandwiches'). The album gets its title from the closing track 'Billy Davey's Daughter', which tells the story of two sisters that jumped off the Severn Bridge. In many ways, Word Gets Around documented the banality of everyday life yet thanks to Kelly Jones' lyrical asides and the musicianship of he and his bandmates Richard Jones and the late Stuart Cable, it set out their stall in impeccable fashion.
The simplistic production of Steve Bush and Marshall Bird - despite only undertaking their first formative roles behind the desk just over a year earlier having initially recorded Stereophonics first demos - fits perfectly with what they were trying to achieve. Opting to replicate the rawness of the band's live sound rather than over-egg it beyond all recognition, their no nonsense approach compliments both the energy and intensity of the compositions contained within. More importantly, unlike many records from the same era, Word Gets Around hasn't dated at all badly, its twelve pieces sounding as breathtakingly poignant as they did back in the summer of 1997.
If the band had never made another record this would have been their perfect epitaph. A record Stereophonics have never bettered in two decades of trying, and one they're unlikely to in however many years it takes more.