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Suede - Discography Hagiography

  by Cila Warncke

published: 30 / 8 / 2023

Suede - Discography Hagiography

In 1998, I walked into a record shop on Philadelphia’s South Street to return a damaged Bush Sixteen Stone CD. No refunds, the proprietor said, pick something in exchange. Crouched on the wooden floor, I scanned the bottom shelf. The London Suede rang a bell. I studied the androgynous/ambiguous nude puddled in ghastly underwater green. On the back, the name ‘New Generation’ popped (it was on a mix CD from my brother). Sold. This was the start of a semi-obsessive love affair, a fact I offer as an excuse for my inability to present a concise career appraisal of Britpop’s most reckless proponents. This will be a true hagiography, with the irrationality and ellipses that veneration of a saint implies. Suede shook my foundations the same way some people have: not love at first sight, exactly, but recognition – an undefinable, undeniable, life-altering entrance into the presence of one who is known and knows in return. Brett Anderson was the first person I heard pronounce ‘mascara’ mass-kah-rah; I had no idea what a pebble-dash grave might be nor, for that matter, an estate car. But Suede stirred my emotions and imagination long before any first-hand experience of strobe-lit nightclubs, ecstasy-blown pupils or the grey lassitude of Home Counties Sunday mornings. It is hard for me to see beyond the moments of delicious chaos to which Suede was the soundtrack to consider its oeuvre. Nevertheless, stepping back so the wheat field emerges from the golden streaks, yields an equal reward. Suede’s motifs are plainer at arm’s length; Brett Anderson’s lyrical fixations and vocal affections more obvious; but they are the beloved particularities of an old friend. Listening to the albums chronologically, it is striking how well Suede wire walks between internal consistency and rote predictability. The Suedeness rarely drifts into play-by-numbers or self-parody. While contemporaries like Blur and Oasis lean on nostalgia or WWF-style public spats to generate attention, Suede stormed into its 30th anniversary year with the irresistible Autofiction and a tour that had the oft-contrarian music press singing from the same hymn sheet: “Brett Anderson is absolutely mesmerising. You can’t take your eyes off him” (Taylor, The Mancunion). “If this really were an unknown new band with no reputation to trade on… you’d tell your friends they’ll go far” (Lynskey, Guardian). “Perhaps it’s possible to will a transcendent experience into existence, but this Suede concert fulfilled 25 years of dreaming” (Harris, Spectrum Culture). “Suede were still as good as it gets, in fact from this crowd’s reaction, they were better than ever” (Cooper, K. UK Music Review). “The really weird thing is… they seem to be getting better. The only other major artist maintaining artistic standards… as he gets older is Nick Cave” (Cooper, T., Louder Than War). “The sheer joy in playing and fantastic music guaranteed a perfect show” (Vorndran, Reflections of Darkness). “They are as lively and captivating as they were 30 years ago” (Chamberlain, Birmingham Mail). Suede (Nude) 1993 That Suede managed to live up to the hype preceding its eponymous debut is impressive; as is the fact that the curse of the Mercury Music Prize has yet to catch the band, three decades on. Suede invited its audience into a claustrophobic, chemical-laced neverland built on the post-Thatcherian ashes of Britain’s social contract. There is no overt politicking; the lyrical bleakness speaks for itself: ‘in your council home/he jumped on your bones’ (‘Animal Nitrate’) to ‘in the car he couldn’t afford/they found his made-up name/on her ankle chain’ (She’s Not Dead’). Brett Anderson embodied a sleazy-sexy interface of frustration and hedonism, offering a Wildean aestheticisation of ennui, deprivation and dead-ends that is as hypnotic – and apropos – in the 2020s as it was in the early ‘90s. ‘The Drowners’ is an apt term for the generation coming of age to Brexit, Covid and Toryism. As a debut single, ‘The Drowners’ is also an effervescent blast of indie power-pop that, for its four-minute duration, erases everything except what matters: sex and music. Like Wilde, Anderson intuited that power aligns against truth, beauty and self-expression. Defiance ain’t much, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got. Hence the avant-garde sexual ambiguity, charity shop-chic shrunken white shirts and midriff-baring pleather and gilt pirate hoops framing diamond-cutter cheekbones. Live performances from 1993 (check out ‘My Insatiable One’ from the Casino de Paris; ‘Animal Nitrate’ from Brixton, London) are fresh and daring. (It is hard to imagine that The 1975’s Matty Healy doesn’t owe at least some of his hyper-emotional, dissolute, sexually fluid stage persona to Anderson.) Track after track, Suede rings true, powered by Bernard Butler’s starry guitar, bassist Mat Osman, drummer Simon Gilbert and keyboardist Neil Codling. From the wistful ‘Breakdown’ (‘if you were the one/would I even notice, now my mind is gone?’) to the menacing glam stomp of ‘Metal Mickey’ – a song that deserves to be danced to in gold DeHavillands if ever one did – it retains a zest and urgency that belies its age. Dog Man Star (Nude) 1994 This was my gateway Suede album; ‘New Generation’ on repeat, chasing the dopamine rush of its glittering opening riff (cherish those riffs – this was Butler’s last proper album with Suede; nobody did it better). ‘New Generation’ is the highlight of a record that suits melancholic adolescence but, to my adult ears, could do with rigorous editing. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate (fairer) to say that the range of situations in which Dog Man Star’s emotional tenor feels relevant and urgent has narrowed with age. The excellent ‘Heroine’ is more than a track, it’s an atmosphere. Anderson’s drug use has been chronicled ad nauseam, so I shan’t bother, but chaos and indulgence cast distorting shadows over tracks like ‘Daddy’s Speeding’, ‘This Hollywood Life’ and ‘Asphalt World’ – the latter a sublime four-minute ballad that meanders for more than nine minutes. (Nick Duerden called the album, ‘the most pompous, overblown British rock record of the decade.) When restraint is exercised, the results are timeless: the raw snarl of ‘Introducing the Band’, whose Winterland reference introduced me to a seminal moment in punk history; ‘The Wild Ones’, a downbeat beauty that sound-tracked a number of my heartbreaks; and the hauntingly sweet piano lament ‘The 2 of Us’, which makes you want a broken heart, just to enjoy it properly. Considering it appeared just 18 months after Suede’s debut, Dog Man Star attests to the raw brilliance of a band that was driving with both feet on the accelerator and only the occasional hand on the wheel. Coming Up (Nude) 1996 Suede’s third album in as many years rediscovers the brighter side of the pharmaceutical palette. From the title’s unambiguous drug reference to the garish-bright cover art, Coming Up is a shift in tone, a stimulant counterpoint to its predecessor. Anderson’s archetypal suburban protagonist has put on a face, kicked down their council house bedroom door and is necking pills at the local disco. Nothing has changed for the better, but they are done waiting and – significantly – done apologising. ‘We’re trash, you and me/ we’re the litter on the breeze’… ‘barking mad kids/lonely dads who drug it up/ to give it some meaning’… ‘no education, it’s the arse of the nation’… ‘class A, class B/ maybe that’s the only chemistry between us’. Lyrically, no quarter is asked or given, neon washes of guitar deployed to adorn and celebrate, rather than obscure, the dullness of circumscribed lives. The ebullient, even joyous trio of ‘Trash’, ‘Filmstar’ and ‘Lazy’ is arguably equalled only by ‘Mis-Shapes’, ‘Pencil Skirt’ and ‘Common People’ on Different Class as an opening triumvirate to a 90s album, and shares DNA with Pulp’s acerbic vision of British life. Politics are an undertone, an unarticulated question infusing the whole seedy-glam enterprise: what becomes of a society where the best many can hope for is a few hours’ holiday from higher-order thinking? Coming Up implies coming down, and there are plenty of moments where reality rends the glitter curtain: ‘Picnic by the Motorway’ offers rubbernecking a literal car crash as entertainment; while on half-speed getaway anthem ‘Europe is our Playground’ Anderson sounds like he’s about to collapse even as he pleads ‘run with me baby/ let’s make a stand from peep show to disco/ from Spain to Camber Sands’ – neither ‘our town’ (London) nor Europe offer much beyond fleeting distraction. Sci-Fi Lullabies (Nude) 1997 Though a compilation, Sci-Fi Lullabies deserves a place in this account because it was A) effectively a new album featuring Bernard Butler and B) it contains some of Suede’s finest moments – including the track that lent its superfans their nickname: The Insatiable Ones. In the summer of 2001, I was living in Oregon. My friend Scott, a delicate boy with spiderish fingers and a prescription drug habit he maintained with cross-border road trips to Mexico, gave me a copy of Sci-Fi Lullabies. I was transfixed by the bleak cover image (‘Hidden’, courtesy of the Photographer’s Gallery, London, according to Discogs), and the sour dreaminess of ‘The Living Dead’, ‘Where the Pigs Don’t Fly’ and ‘To the Birds’; then there was the propulsive ‘Killing of a Flash Boy’ and the epic ‘My Insatiable One’. These tracks, plus a few (11 in total) were co-written by Butler; if released as a stand-alone album, it would rank among Suede’s finest. What’s remarkable is that the rest isn’t filler. Richard Oakes, who took up guitar duties at the tender age of 17, acquits himself beautifully as a co-writer on tracks including ‘Together’, ‘Bentswood Boys’ and ‘Every Monday Morning Comes’. Head Music (Nude) 1999 If Coming Up is the party album, Head Music is the after-hours where people are licking the corners of wraps in pursuit of a final boost (which, given this was peak-drug era for Anderson, may well have been the case). The highlights are muscular, electro-infused tracks like ‘Electricity’, ‘Savoir Faire’ and ‘Hi Fi’, which have the musical chutzpah to carry off lyrical atrocities like ‘she live in a house/she stupid as a mouse.’ On a softer note, ‘Everything Will Flow’ is rather pretty, while ‘He’s Gone’ might be Anderson’s elegy to himself. The cracks in the music revel a weakness in the lyrics: they tend to archetype (or even caricature). ‘She’s in Fashion’ is basically ‘Lip Gloss and Cigarettes’ without the edge. In neither tone nor turn of phrase does Anderson attain the menacing specificity which Jarvis Cocker (his only plausible contemporary song-writing rival) conveys. Cocker’s laser-etched details (‘thousands of tiny dryness lines beating a path to the corners of your eyes) conjure unforgettable characters; Anderson’s stock images (‘shaking it out on the scene’) feel interchangeable. If Different Class is Raymond Carver (fiction crafted from a tooth-cracking kernel of reality) then Head Music is Bret Easton Ellis’s broad-stroke social signalling. Yet part of Suede’s appeal is this democratic bent: anyone who wants can join the party and dance through the boredom, frustration, lust, eagerness, foolishness, grandiosity and insecurity. A New Morning (Epic) 2002 Danny Eccleston, writing for MOJO in 2016, called A New Morning ‘malformed’ but the snideline does a disservice to a clear inflection point in the band’s catalogue. Such moments are not, by nature, a place to spend much time, but they must be passed through. Two major changes mark A New Morning: Anderson cleaned up and Codling departed due to health issues. Though well-received on its release, the album’s second single ‘Obsessions’ (which name-checks Bret Easton Ellis) is a bemusing word stew that rhymes ‘floor’ with ‘air force’. Less uplifting still, ‘Lonely Girls’ sounds like a piss-take theme to Lovely Girls beauty pageant on Father Ted. Lead single ‘Positivity’ has weathered better, with its gentle mood and restrained strings. Elsewhere, Anderson pours petrol on the David Bowie comparisons with ‘Astrogirl’ – the sound of Major Tom’s blind date killing time at the galactic bar until he arrives. What works, throughout, is Anderson’s voice, showcased on tracks like ‘When the Rain Falls’; it is warm, replenished, evidence that quitting the drugs does work. This album was followed by a decade of silence. It would do Suede no justice as a farewell, but stands as a respectable au revoir. Bloodsports (Warner Music) 2013 When Suede waved goodbye in 2002, I was a quasi-legal immigrant blundering around the Q office, unsure of who this John Lydon fellow was they were all excited about. Waistbands lurked beneath hipbones, The Strokes and The Libertines duelled for hipster hearts, Kate Moss and Jefferson Hack had a baby. By the time the Bloodsports arrived I had a British passport. Metallic leggings were big, Kayne declared himself Yeezus, Kate Moss was married to Jamie Hince, Lorde – in what may have been a nod – released an album called Pure Heroine. If Brett Anderson, Mat Osman, Simon Gilbert, Richard Oakes and a rejuvenated Neil Codling had any trepidation about shaking it on a scene 10 years on from their last outing, and 20 from their triumphal entry, they disguised it well. The full-blooded intro to ‘Barriers’ is bracingly non-tentative; hard on its heels, ‘Snowblind’ and ‘It Starts and Ends With You’ attest to their knack for opening sequences. Musically, Bloodsports is Suede with a Suede makeover; everything the band does well is done better, from spiky glam guitars to chugging baselines to taut arrangements. This would be enough, but it doesn’t have to be because Anderson has leapt a lyrical light-year. Rhymes of convenience are replaced with lines like ‘the rumours burn like Roman candles/ in the broken lights’ (‘Snowblind’), ‘like a hairline crack in a radiator/ leaking life’ (‘It Starts and Ends With You’) and ‘the telephone emits a brittle sigh/ only one of us will reach it in time’ (‘What are You Not Telling Me?’). Comeback is the wrong word. This album is the joyful sound of much-loved strengths distilled into something fresh and authentic; it is Suede asserting its right to be here now. Night Thoughts (Warner Music) 2016 Though Anderson is never short of a tune that can be described as ‘a good Suede song’, with time and age, the challenge of writing a good song increases. Creativity does not have an axiomatic shelf life but a songwriter, however gifted, has to contend with changing tastes, new sounds, contemporary dilemmas and the burden of history, aka their back catalogue. All of which makes Anderson’s handiwork on Night Thoughts doubly impressive. Like its predecessor, this is a good record, not just a good Suede record. Again, the LP is front loaded with stellar cuts: moody Eno-esque opener ‘When You Were Young’; festival-sing-along friendly ‘Outsiders’; and indie guitar anthem ‘No Tomorrow’. Then the masterful ‘What I’m Trying to Tell You’ drops midpoint, lest one’s attention wander. Lyrically and musically, the album builds on the maturity, poise and energy of Bloodsports with tracks such as ‘Like Kids’ and ‘I Don’t Know How to Reach You’, and offers fans a 21st century parallel to the excellent Suede/ Dog Man Star pairing. The Blue Hour (Warner Music) 2018 This has the distinction of being the only Suede album which fails to elicit a substantive emotional reaction. Part of the band’s charm is its ability to face life’s gloom with hip flick and curled lip. Unrelieved by this attitude, these tracks creep by like crepe-decked cars in a funeral procession. Judging by the motifs of death (melancholic spoken-word interludes ‘Roadkill’ and ‘Dead Birds’) and destruction (‘Wastelands’, anaemic closer ‘Flytipping’) Anderson might not take that as criticism, nor should he. Everyone is entitled to a blue hour, I’m just not sure it needed to be converted into The Blue Hour. Autofiction (BMG) 2022 The image of a nude with back turned to the viewer is a throwback to Dog Man Star but there are important differences: the lens is closer so the body fills the frame; the lines of muscle and bone are clear and vigorous; instead of awkwardly bent, the arms hug the torso in a gesture of comfort or reassurance. Instead of disaffection and despair, the black-and-white shot evokes vulnerability tempered with strength; containment rather than dissolution. Suede’s ninth studio album delivers on the implicit promise of its striking cover: intimate, strong, self-contained, vulnerable, bold. Opener and first single ‘She Still Leads Me On’ took a few listens to worm into my neurons; it is now embedded there and generates the same dopaminergic kick as vintage favourites like ‘New Generation’ or ‘Killing of a Flash Boy.’ True to form, the next two tracks keep the intensity at a killing pitch: ‘Personality Disorder’ is a cocky, raucous snarl that pulls off the not-easy feat of wedding spoken-word verses with an arena-sized chorus. Then Anderson snaps into ‘15 Again’ with the whip-crack lyric: ‘Nothing is as bad as the time we kill/ sitting in the bathroom in kitten heels’. Praise be. The band is back, as and how and when we need it most: dripping sweat, spitting defiance, yielding and pushing, feeling with us how it feels ‘on the black ice with no headlights/ with our hands off the wheel’ (‘Black Ice’). From the soaring ‘Shadow Self’ to the full-throated stomper ‘That Boy on the Stage’ to the pensive ‘Drive Myself Home’ the album flows between moods and moments with cohesion and conviction. If the first act of adulthood is renouncing childish ways, the second is realising that the kid inside never goes away; maturity is integrating all the aspects of self without apology. Anderson and co. have done so and created a truly mature album, buoyant with the shimmer and swagger of youth yet sober with the wisdom of years. ‘I’m not the kind of person who never feels uncertain/ so many ways to do what I do wrong’, Anderson muses (‘The Only Way I Can Love You…’) but – however many ways there are to do what he does wrong – he does none of them here. Autofiction is, quite simply, a triumph. *** After spending several weeks immersed in Suede, two things remain to say: 1) if Autofiction were the last album, it would be the pièce de résistance of a luminous career; 2) I’m pretty sure it won’t be. And that is good news.

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In the our series ‘Discography Hagiography’, in which we provide a disc-by-disc evolution of music’s greats, Cila Warncke reflects on the career of Suede.

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Albert Hall, Manchester, 8/2/2016
Suede - Albert Hall, Manchester, 8/2/2016
Mary O’Meara explores the nocturnal pondering and passions of Suede as they take over the shadowy interior of Manchester’s Albert Hall
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Autofiction (2022)
Aggressive and electrifying new punk record from seminal Britpop outfit Suede

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