Top music writers Pitchfork are notorious for giving harsh reviews, however in the case of Suede’s reissued albums ‘Suede’ and ‘Dog Man Star’ they fair VERY well indeed.
Full review below!
There is music on these albums. Obviously. The reason I’m saying that up front is that discussion of the first two Suede albums is invariably framed in a discussion of the bigger picture, both in terms of what was happening in British rock in the early 1990s and in terms of the discord within the band, particularly during 1994. There are good reasons for this. Suede were at the center of the conversation that gave us the Britpop narrative that so dominated the UK in the mid-90s. They were the band on the cover of the issue of Select that invented Britpop as a concept, they were massively hyped before they even released anything, and their debut album was the fastest-selling in British history. They were ignored in the United States and ridiculously had to change their name in this country to the London Suede after a lawsuit by an obscure lounge singer.
This stuff is all important to understanding who Suede were– the music they made, especially on their first three albums, is tied closely to their story as a band– but I really want to make sure that as I make my way through that story, the music doesn’t slip to the side of the conversation. Stories and meta-cultural narratives aside, the music is what we have to listen to now, and there is a lot of great music spread over these elaborate reissues. The whole band, including once-estranged original guitarist Bernard Butler, was involved in putting together these packages, each of them a 2xCD/DVD featuring the original album, demos, unreleased outtakes, every contemporary B-side (plus one non-album A-side), music videos, interviews and live performances. The band’s entire output, with the notable exception of three early unreleased tracks, “Be My God”, “Art”, and “Wonderful Sometimes”, is now available on five very well-done reissues that include all of the original artwork for both the albums and the singles. They have curated their past well.
Consider the arena this band was entering when it debuted in May, 1992 with The Drowners. The British rock world was dominated by two waning trends, shoegaze and Madchester, both of which emphasized sound and vibe over personality and pomp. And here Suede were, with a very bold, direct, and sexually charged song that had the swagger of glam rock and was focused on the voice of Brett Anderson, who was powerful and distinctive. Anderson’s vocals had a little of Bowie and a little of Morrissey, but there was a lot more there than a simple swirling of influences. Here was a guy who could sing frankly about drug abuse and rough sex without plasticizing it or stylizing it– actions had consequences in the world he created, and wild nights had mornings after, but he was careful not to tell you the moral of the story.
It wouldn’t always be like that, but during the brief years Butler was still in the band, Anderson was at his best as both lyricist and vocalist. The band had a good rhythm section, too. Bassist Mat Osman is a subtle force in the band, playing melodic lines that keep the songs light on their feet, even when Simon Gilbert’s drumming locks in on a stomping and otherwise heavy beat. When they matched up with Butler’s guitar, they were nearly as charismatic as a trio as the guy who was singing for them. “The Drowners”– which for all the early hype around the band (they were on the cover of Melody Maker a month before its release under the headline “The Best New Band in Britain”) only charted at #49– has a destructive energy to it that I can understand hearing as a clarion call in the musical climate of Britain in the early 90s. The opening drum stomp, soon joined by Butler’s crunching, metallic riff, seems to announce the band as something different and exciting. It drips with sex before Anderson even opens his mouth.
“The Drowners” is joined by three other excellent singles on the band’s self-titled debut. Metal Mickey was the band’s only song to chart in the U.S. top 10, and it is one of their best– Butler didn’t play much conventional rhythm guitar, and this song is a good early example of how his shifting lead style complemented Anderson’s vocal melodies. The singles reinforced the idea that Suede were a breath of fresh air, and even though they are fairly basic rock, the band still didn’t sound quite like any of their contemporaries. And there are the album tracks as well, which showed them to be a band with considerable range. The interplay between Anderson’s vocal and Butler’s lead guitar on Sleeping Pills is like some sort of dance, and the band makes a convincing modern murder ballad on She’s Not Dead, And Mat Osman’s bass does as much to drive the quieter songs as Butler’s guitar.
Between albums, the band released a non-album single, Stay Together, that signaled a shift in direction. By this point, Britpop was a real thing, at least as far as the UK music press was concerned, and Suede were being lumped in with Oasis, Blur, Cast, and a host of other bands that were being championed as the saviors of British rock. This horrified Anderson, who felt his band had very little to do with the laddish groups he was being mentioned in the same breath with, and it strengthened his resolve to move the band further away from conventional rock. Butler’s relationship with the rest of the group was deteriorating; on the band’s messy American tour in late 1993, he sometimes left the stage mid-gig, having a member of the Cranberries, who were opening, fill in for him. Anderson sequestered himself to write, and the songs he came up with were much darker and more introverted than anything on their mostly demonstrative debut.
By all accounts, the recording sessions for Dog Man Star, the band’s masterpiece, were fraught with tension, and Butler often recorded separately, ultimately leaving the band before the album was completed. Whether that tension helped or hurt the album is debatable, but what’s not in dispute is that the album is the band’s very best work, completely transcending the Britpop wave they’d supposedly helped launch. In many ways, it’s more like an album that might have been released in the 70s than in the 90s, and not just because of its heavy glam riffs and towering vocals. It does everything to its extreme, is unafraid of excess or bombast, and is well-structured to play as a cohesive work. From its eerily throbbing, weightless opener, “Introducing the Band”, to the orchestral overload of its sweeping closer, Still Life, there’s not a moment on the album that doesn’t feel in danger of breaking down, flying apart, or disappearing entirely.
It’s a thrilling record. I can’t think of anything that’s been released since that has quite the same balance of elements. It was enormously risky, but the risk paid off with big returns. Where Butler did play, he played his most inspired parts. “New Generation”, “We Are the Pigs”, “Heroine”, and “This Hollywood Life” thrash and churn; “The Asphalt World” caps its slow burn with a wild and lengthy instrumental coda; and “The Wild Ones” might be Suede’s best single, its sweeping orchestration, vocals, and guitar parts coming together in fragile but perfect balance. The quieter songs are stunning. “Daddy’s Speeding” ends in a torrent of static and sampled engine noises that sounds like the earth tearing open, and “The 2 of Us” is simply gorgeous, a devastatingly sad song that doesn’t feel forced or morose.
The reissue appends full-length versions of “The Wild Ones” and “The Asphalt World” that are significantly longer, and they’re worth hearing, as are most of the other outtakes. The demos that fill out the first discs after the albums are marginally interesting, but the essential inclusion on these sets is the B-sides, all of them, from every single the band released through early 1994 (some recorded after Butler left are on the Coming Up reissue). Suede made B-sides that a lot of bands would die to release as lead singles– their Sci-Fi Lullabies compilation, now redundant, has long been considered an essential part of their discography, and for good reason. Here, you get the elastic snap of “Whipsnade”, the stomp of “Killing of a Flash Boy”, the breezy swagger of “Modern Boys”, the majesty of “My Dark Star”, the crystalline sadness of “The Living Dead”, and the shimmer of “To the Birds” right alongside the albums, and they alone make these sets worth the price. Anderson even makes alternate tracklists in his liner notes for each album, which often swap out weaker album tracks for B-sides, and I can’t really argue with any of his substitutions (dropping “The Power” for “My Dark Star” and “Black or Blue” for “The Living Dead” might have been the only way to make Dog Man Starbetter).
The DVDs are full of good stuff– Suede comes with all of its charmingly dated music videos, and Dog Man Star has the concert projections for the band’s 1994 tour, though that album’s videos are oddly absent. Each set has two live performances– and strangely, all but one appear to have been shot by audience members rather than professionally, though the sound is acceptable. They were a very good live band, but honestly, as with most bonus DVDs, these are likely to be watched a few times and shelved. It’s not bad to have this stuff available, though. More importantly, the band’s discography has been consolidated, and their first two albums feel more complete with the contemporary B-sides in tow. Suede were an important band, pivotal to what the 90s came to sound like in Britain, even if they distanced themselves from it. But Suede were also a great band, and these records still sound vital all these years later.