Brett Anderson – ‘Collected Solo Work’ reviewed

❉ The sound of an artist rediscovering his voice and how to make music without compromises.

“…I need to do whatever it takes to get my demon back” – Brett Anderson, 2003.

In the afterglow of Suede’s astonishingly good ‘comeback’ LPs Bloodsports and Night Thoughts Brett Anderson has teamed up with Demon/Edsel, on the ten year anniversary of his debut solo single, to collect together and reissue his four solo LPs released between 2007 and 2011.

Brett worked with Demon/Edsel previously on the reissues of the first-run of Suede’s back catalogue doing a pretty damn definitive job of collecting up the various oddities, and thankfully a similarly thorough job has been done here.

‘Brett Anderson’ (2007)

The path to the first solo LP was not a clear one. When Suede announced their split “based purely on creative reasons” in December 2003, Brett wasted little time and was soon found performing as a solo artist at the Rock’n’Royal in Copenhagen. Of the three songs he performed were two Suede songs and a new song called Love Is Dead, hinting at what might follow. Around then he also appeared as guitarist on Bertine Zetlitz’s LP produced by Fred Ball, a Norwegian art-pop producer and brains behind the band Pleasure. The first Pleasure LP (which is probably where Brett noticed him) features Justine Frischmann and Prince collaborator Dr Fink among others. Meanwhile, in the music press Richard Hawley mentioned a possible collaboration – “it sounds like Johnny Cash” – but we never ended up hearing any of that.

“Brett’s first solo LP has the laidback, melancholic feel that Suede were aiming for with A New Morning, but is a lot more focused, confident and cohesive.”

Brett also approached Bernard Butler to work on songs for the solo LP, the momentum of this partnership soon became a different beast to the solo project and The Tears where born. The solo LP was still mentioned while The Tears promoted their excellent LP Here Come The Tears and after just a year of Tears activity Brett resumed work on the solo album with Fred Ball. The first song they worked on together was for a Pleasure LP (and released as a single shortly before Brett’s LP was released) called Back To You. This Pleasure/Brett single served as a perfect taster of what was to come, the cover of the single looked like a missing piece of Head Music and it felt very much like someone who had got their demon back.

At the end of 2006 a series of acoustic YouTube performances heralded the release of his debut solo album Brett Anderson. The cover (possibly the least stylised cover to have the name Peter Savile attached to it) finds our hero sat on his sofa with his cat, Fluffington. Behind him are various knick-knacks including the Beatles compilation LP Hey Jude and the cover to Suede’s Head Music. It shows Brett comfortable just being himself at home without that fringe and all of the baggage of being in a band. The version of Love Is Dead that opens the album is much more impressive than the sketch he premiered back in 2004. Like Trash it is a simple but effective anthem for the lonely and dispossessed.

Much of Brett Anderson has the laidback, melancholic feel that Suede were aiming for with A New Morning, but unlike that LP it is a lot more focused, confident and cohesive. Instead of guitar riffs we have looped string motifs combined with Prince-esque drum & percussion patterns. For the most part Brett sings of loss and doomed relationships, he joked at the time that the working title for this LP was ‘More Songs About Fucking’.

In the second half, a few different styles are played with: Ebony is a straight-ahead love song, while The More We Posses The Less We Own of Ourselves is an anti-consumerism waltz which musically sounds like something from Nino Rota’s The Godfather score. Colour Of The Night feels like another tale about the protagonist in Suede’s epic My Dark Star (but that’s probably just my take on it). Brett Anderson ends with Song For My Father, obviously a very personal piece for Anderson (his father having passed away while The Tears project was coming to a close) and notably the only track from this LP to be included on the Brett-curated 15 track An Introduction To Brett Anderson playlist/digital-LP also released to coincide with this collection.

‘Wilderness’ (2008)

Fred Ball is once again behind the faders on second solo effort Wilderness. Inspired by his 2007 acoustic shows the lush production is now replaced with a much more intimate affair. Assisted only by Amy Langley on cello, Brett plays all the other instruments. The first track opens with a whisper from Langley and a count-in from Brett, and it’s time to take your seats as Brett takes us to a different place.

I saw Brett on the tour to promote this LP with him switching between guitar and piano accompanied by Langley on cello in a church in Brighton. It was a spellbinding performance which perfectly suited the setting and on listening to that album now I can’t shake the setting out of my head. Such a lonely sound; sparse piano or guitar are the driving force on ballads of love and loss.

“Wilderness is about as far from Coming Up as you can get. Dark songs and stark arrangements, this is an artist working without compromise and without filter.”

Love Is Dead B-side Clowns is revisited in this stripped down setting, as is Back To You (this time as a duet with Emmanuelle Seigner). Near the end, in a break of format, is Funeral Mantra. Sounding like a continuation of Suede’s Introducing The Band with the multi-layered backing vocals similar to a Gregorian chant, Tablas and cello underpinning an acoustic guitar riff Brett sings about the concept of death and rebirth in a blend of catholic and Buddhist imagery.

Wilderness is about as far from Coming Up as you can get: This was Brett Anderson’s first self-released album and you can feel it. Dark songs and stark arrangements, this is an artist working without compromise and without filter. The album ends with Anderson and Langley seemingly putting their instruments down and leaving the room. The performance is over.

‘Slow Attack’ (2009)

The Wilderness mood is taken a step further with Slow Attack. Like Wilderness, it sounds less like a self contained piece to be listened to in one sitting.  The first song is built around a piano part reminiscent of the first track on Eno’s Music For Airports and then, once the vocals come in, takes a completely different turn, culminating an incredibly rich sound palette which continues throughout the album.

Leo Abrahams (a Brian Eno collaborator whom Brett met through Fred Ball) is now producing and fleshes out the songs with various woodwind instruments, French horn and cello (the latter provided, once again, by Amy Langley). Such is the desire for new sounds that a glass-keyed marimba was even commissioned and built especially for the sessions.

“Slow Attack could well be Brett’s finest solo album – it certainly feels like the most sonically adventurous of the four, and there isn’t a Suede skyscraper or nuclear-sky in sight”

Slow Attack could well be Brett’s finest solo album – it certainly feels like the most sonically adventurous of the four. The lyrics are less direct and more impressionistic, the delicate balance of the many unusual instruments, backwards guitar notes and other strange tones give you the impression of being inside some kind of enchanted forest on a sunny autumn day. There isn’t a Suede skyscraper or nuclear-sky in sight.

For the most part it’s songs of hope, redemption and love; songs like Summer manage to sound joyous without sounding in the least insipid or clichéd, while single The Hunted and the swirling guitar of The Swans manage to make sure the drama of Brett’s other work doesn’t get forgotten. One of the bonus tracks on the CD is called Forest Lullaby, a name I cannot help but compare to Suede’s Sci-Fi Lullabies to illustrate the different perspective Brett seems to be coming from with this album, and that’s where we leave Brett sleeping.

‘Black Rainbows’ (2011)

For Black Rainbows Brett, working with Leo Abrahams once again, made another volte-face.

This LP is the one that listeners most aware of his Suede work will find familiar –  a guitar-based rock record – though it seems that its creation was no less creative than that of Slow Attack.

Under Anderson & Abrahams’ direction the music was improvised by Leo Ross (guitar), Leo Abrahams (guitar, bass, keyboards) and Sebastian Rochford (drums) which Anderson took away, whittled and manipulated into tunes which he then turned into songs.

“Black Rainbows is a pretty slick production which still captures the spontaneity of the band performance… It feels like a natural precursor to Bloodsports.”

On this album, Brett drew inspiration from the ’80s alternative music he liked as a teen (including the Blondie lyrical nod in Brittle Heart), name-checked in interviews as The Cult, PiL and Souxsie & The Banshees. The single Crash About To Happen is almost Simple Minds-esque and wouldn’t be too out of place on a John Hughes brat-pack movie. But this isn’t some kind of homage to those bands, merely a starting point and Brett takes the songs on a different journey entirely. The result is a pretty slick production which still captures the spontaneity of the band performance. Released shortly after the 2010 Suede reunion (but recorded before) with the band dynamic it feels like a natural precursor to Bloodsports, and makes the Suede reunion appear a much more natural career progression.

The vinyl edition includes just the albums (I personally can’t wait to give Wilderness and Slow Attack a spin in this format – the cosy vinyl experience will suit them perfectly), but the 5 CD/1DVD set also includes numerous b-sides and bonus tracks (most are making their CD debut here having previously been download-only). As with Suede and The Tears Brett kept some great original material for these; Clowns,  Forest Lullaby & With You, Within You are particular standouts for me.

There are also 2 tracks from his 2007 Bush Hall shows (previously released as download-only as part of a Love Is Dead single bundle), the acoustic b-sides from the Back To You E.P. (including the previously download-only acoustic version of Back To You) and a selection of tracks from the second of his three live LPs released by Concert Live in 2007.

The fifth disc is a compilation of two further live LPs: Tour 2010: Berlin (only previously available as a download or a memory stick) and Live at Koko from 2011. These were great live LPs from the time when Brett had built up enough material to finally drop the Suede songs from his set. The selection mainly includes tracks from Slow Attack and Black Rainbows (which is a bit of a shame as I think the versions of Back To You, To The Winter & Love Is Dead on the Berlin set were amazing), but then what we do get is still pretty amazing (this fifth disc is also due for a standalone vinyl release for Record Store Day this year).

Bizarrely the only officially released solo track from this period not included in the boxset is the studio single version of Back To You recorded with his 2007 live band (including Suede’s Mat Osman). Another strange omission is the promo films for Scorpio Rising, Love Is Dead, The Hunted and Brittle Heart, these along with the YouTube films would have been perfect extras for the DVD (but these are only minor quibbles of this otherwise wonderful collection).

As Brett says in the interview DVD included in the set, there was no point in making records which sounded like Suede. If you’re a Suede fan who mainly likes things like The Beautiful Ones or Animal Nitrate this collection may not particularly resonate with you, but any Suede fan that can get lost in the more interesting Sci-Fi Lullabies tracks, like High Rising or The Big Time, should find a lot to fall in love with here.

What we have is four very different LPs which show a progression from tentative heavily arranged slick production to confident art-rock improvisation with lots of fascinating side-steps on the journey. It’s the sound of an artist rediscovering his voice and relearning how to make music without compromises. Hopefully this release will see the music Brett Anderson issued during this period finally get the attention it so richly deserves and help fill-out the time until Brett’s recently announced memoir, Coal Black Mornings, and the eighth Suede LP are released in 2018.

Now, all that’s missing from Brett Anderson’s oeuvre on the Demon/Edsel label is The Tears. Could a deluxe version of Here Come The Tears be a possibility at some point?

❉ ‘Brett Anderson – Collected Solo Work’ was released on 17 March 2017 by Demon Music Group as a 5CD+DVD collection (BRETTBOX01) and a four-LP vinyl set (BRETTLPBOX01). Digital sampler ‘An Introduction to Brett Anderson’ (5032698632633) includes 15 tracks hand-picked by Brett himself.

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