❉ Suede’s masterpiece of drugged-out decadence, obsession and despair.
Twenty-five years on, it’s time to crank up the fifty-knuckle-shuffle heavy metal machine and open this dark medicine chest of wonders, track by track, writes David Lewis…
“I was doing an awful lot of acid at the time, and I think it was this that gave us the confidence to push boundaries. It kind of shows, doesn’t it?” – Brett Anderson, ‘The Independent’, Saturday 18 October 2003.
The best albums of the Nineties appeared within two months of each other, but hardly anyone noticed. Lauded by the critics, adored by the fans, but mostly ignored by the general public, Suede’s Dog Man Star and The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers were released in the autumn of 1994, only to be drowned out by the growing roar of the Britpoppers as they swaggered out of the music press and into the tabloids. For Suede and the Manics, the mass appeal crossover came two years later, after each had lost a critical component and refined their output for the mainstream.
For the latter, the loss of Richey Edwards meant a broadening of outlook and an easing of the relentless gothic misanthropy that characterised The Holy Bible. For Suede, Bernard Butler’s departure prompted a return to poppier climes after this uncharted voyage into progressive space rock, strung-out symphonic codas and protracted fretboard experimentation. Despite their subsequent chart success and eventual cementing as national musical treasures, neither band was ever quite this good again.
Even in their reincarnated and supercharged 21st century form, Suede can only aspire to match Dog Man Star, a masterpiece of drugged-out decadence, obsession and despair that remains as spectacular and melancholy in 2019 as it did on the day it was released. Twenty-five years on, it’s time to crank up the fifty-knuckle-shuffle heavy metal machine and open this dark medicine chest of wonders, track by track….
The tears of suburbia drowned the land
Gliding into existence on a subaqueous bassline of supreme menace and exploding to life with guitar work from outer space, Introducing the Band is an eerie, unsettling opener, a microdot mixture of I Wanna Be Adored and David Bowie reading aloud from an Allan Ginsberg anthology. Lyrically, it lays out Dog Man Star’s credo of sex and isolation like a free preview on a porn channel, but the music gives no hint of the sweeping, widescreen ballads to come. The cleverest double bluff in pop history.
Let the nuclear wind blow away my sins
While the dichotomy between Bernard Butler and Brett Anderson was the alchemy for the band’s most memorable moments, the clash of ideas and idealism also led to their partnership’s eventual breakup. Musically, the album’s lead-off single is impeccable pop rather than proto-prog: swaggering, ominous and dementedly tuneful. It could have been the greatest 45 of all time … only Brett chose to call it We Are the Pigs. His co-songwriter was horrified at what he felt was a desecration (Johnny Marr, who had suffered similar misery when one of his exquisite sonic masterpieces was encumbered with the title Some Girls Are Bigger than Others probably sympathised) but the call-to-arms lyrics seemed to have some redeemable deeper meaning at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s fair to say they didn’t.
Pornographic and tragic in black-and-white
Kicking off with what sounds like Bernard attacking his Gibson ES-335 with a lump hammer, Heroine is a quintessentially Suede mix of half-inched Byron, spunk-stained sheets and impossible bedsit dreams. Futile wanking has never sounded so attractive.
Sky high in the airwaves on the morning show
1994 was a golden year for British guitar pop singles – Faster, Jailbird, End of a Century, Line Up, Sleep Well Tonight, Do You Remember the First Time?, Live Forever – but none were more glorious than this. A bulletproof anthem of suburban heartbreak that builds from a fragile acoustic guitar intro to an all-strings-blazing epic of desperate, hopeless defiance, The Wild Ones is simply gorgeous: as close to pop perfection as is humanly possible.
With dreams of gasoline drying our eyes
The apogee of the album’s narcotic neurosis is Daddy’s Speeding, in which Brett Anderson – presumably more than a little off his tits – relives the car crash death of James Dean. Claustrophobic, disturbing and unearthly, you’d need a spacecraft to get any further away from the lagered-up, oompah geezerdom of Britpop. When Suede played the whole of Dog Man Star at the Royal Albert Hall in 2014 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its release, this was unexpectedly one of the highlights.
It’s the English Disease
Subsequently condemned by the band for its controversial conception (Bernard quit before the recording was complete; his parts were completed by an anonymous session musician and possibly Brett, who later admitted they should have ditched it in favour of Killing of a Flashboy or The Living Dead), The Power is both timely and timeless: profoundly redolent of late 1994 without losing any of its … um … power a quarter of a century on. Perhaps it would have been better with Bernard’s full participation, but it’s difficult to see how.
We take the pills to find each other
Although its propulsive, irresistibly fruggable rhythm and young-outsiders-take-drugs-to-escape-the-boredom-of-life-in-a-nowhere-town lyrics provide a template that Suede would flog to death during the post-Butler era, New Generation makes a pleasing change of pace to the stately languor of Dog Man Star’s skag ballads.
A hand job is all the butchery brings
Nothing truly great is immaculate; beauty is defined by contrast; the combination of flaws and faultlessness create wonder. In other words, even the finest albums have a shit song – and on Dog Man Star, this is it. Built around a mid-paced glam riff that tries vainly to join the dots between the ragged, sex-with-a-glue-sniffer glamour of the first Suede record and the more expansive desolation of the second, This Hollywood Life crawls aimlessly along like a bulldozer with chiffon caught in its gears before juddering to a merciful halt. Brett’s shrieking is tiresome and painful. A clumping misstep.
I heard you call from across the city through the stereo sound
If Dog Man Star is an album conceived, recorded and best experienced in a state of advanced refreshment, The 2 of Us is the comedown after a lengthy period of chemical excess: paranoid, skint and alone. Stripped of symphonic bombast and axe derangement to leave just a piano and a voice, this is a naked plea for comfort, forgiveness, even acceptance – and what makes it doubly affecting is the utter lack of hope. The song’s late switch from funereal dirge to major key finale is brought about not by redemption or love but the arrival of a dealer with a fresh fix: ‘Alone, but loaded …’
I don’t care for the UK tonight
Black or Blue is Dog Man Star’s moral compass: a straightforward love story about a foreign girl studying in London and a British boy enraged by the racial prejudice she suffers – or perhaps by the way he is condemned for having a relationship with someone from a different culture. Although the song meanders to a conclusion along with the affair it describes, its heart is in the right place to the end. Virtuous social anger with a specific, identifiable target isn’t something one ordinarily associates with Suede, but there’s no denying the strength of feeling on display.
It’s in the blood stream, it’s in the liver
Despite representing the apotheosis of Bernard’s insular prog extravagance – Pink Floyd’s Echoes played by Mick Ronson, basically – The Asphalt World is also the song that most encapsulates Brett’s lyrical obsessions: shagging, drugs, London, alienation, betrayal … the full gamut of Andersonisms. Although the two men’s artistic visions were clearly veering off in different directions, they weren’t always incompatible – and the synthesis is never more potent than here. In fact, the whole band is in seamless harmony: Simon Gilbert’s drums and Matt Osman’s bass provide a flawless backdrop for Bernard’s multiple-guitar melting pot and Brett’s heartfelt psychedelic angst.
They think they don’t know me, they hired a car for you
The Asphalt World is such a monster that it’s difficult to imagine anything following it. Certainly, the idea of it being succeeded by a song of even more opulent ambition is almost laughable – yet that’s precisely what Suede pull off here. Still Life is a different kettle of Rumblefish to its immediate predecessor, a cleaner, more elegant tale of doomed grand passion with a cinematic orchestral showiness worthy of Dean, Monroe, Brando, Bacall and all the album’s other Hollywood references and allusions. If Dog Man Star is a soundtrack looking for a film, Still Life represents the closing image, the final flash of emotion before the screen fades to black and the credits roll.
❉ David Lewis is a writer and occasional contributor to We Are Cult.