Generally I find it’s wise to disregard 95% of what musicians say in pre-release press. Understandably they are so far down the rabbit hole they have little objectivity over the final product, and initial off-hand comments become cemented into uncrushable breeze blocks with each subsequent interview. (‘it’s going to be a techno trap record with post-industrialist dutch flamenco undertones protesting the environmental crisis!’) The weight of expectation can be a curse as much as a blessing.
And so we come to Autofiction, the new ‘nasty, brutish, punk’ addition to the suede cannon.
The first single ‘She Still Leads Me On’, released back in May, felt slightly underwhelming and lacked the bite a promo single requires to function as a taster of things to come. It created the unwelcome suggestion that in trying to go for a more explicitly rock sound than recent albums (the last two of which could best be described in all their verbose glory as the very antitheses of a short, sharp, shock) that they had perhaps set themselves a brief they were no longer young and angry enough to execute. The suede sound has evolved a lot over the years and their post-reunion resurrection has been nothing short of miraculous. Powered by an energy and hunger that few of their peers exhibit they have defied and redressed the sad demise of the band in the early noughties whilst evolving into a more cerebral and, dare I say it, mature version of themselves. Making a ‘back to basics’ album at this point felt, although perhaps inevitable, somewhat risky.
If 2016’s Night Thoughts was in many ways an echo of Dog Man Star, Autofiction shares some commonality with it’s shiny sibling Coming Up. Not in style or sound, but in the desire to tear down the edifice of pretentiousness and excess and deliver something more immediate and punchy.
So is this a punk record? No. But kind of. The word got thrown around a lot in early pull-quotes but more recent interviews saw Anderson walking it back, framing the record as punk influenced rather than ‘cos-play’ punk. It’s a loaded word, possibly more than any other genre term besides country, and he must have realised the safety pin strewn corner he had backed himself into. The funny thing is, the ‘punkiest’ of the album’s tracks could best be described as exactly that, cos-play – and honestly it’s no bad thing. Once you get over the other side of 25 it’s hard to convincingly deliver snotty nosed adolescent aggro and anything that goes harder tends to land at the door of machismo instead. Suede have always had a tough, ballsy edge to them, even their most romantic moments were rarely as fey as their media image suggested, but they have never been particularly adept at manly man rock. It’s not that collectively they don’t have enough genuine appreciation for the genre, Simon still has the hair, but it’s just a really hard thing to pull off with honest rawness once you are no longer living on pot noodles in a Hackney bedsit. There is something hugely endearing about them rummaging around in the musical dressing-up-box during the shoutier moments of this record, however, and it never quite veers into pure pastiche.
That’s not to say this record is a joke – there is classic suede grit, darkness and gothic melodrama throughout, as well as some surprisingly tender moments too, it just doesn’t feel quite as authentic as it was perhaps intended. Personally, I find this to be its saving grace because although it might not sound entirely believable it also doesn’t sound as horribly earnest as it might have done. There is plenty of snarling bitterness and guttural delivery, but more than anything this album is great fun. Less Never Mind The Bollocks more Lost It To Bostik, yeah.
Thematically, it’s a curious mixed bag. The opening songs, She Still Leads Me On and 15 Again, are most comparable to preceding albums in subject matter, dealing with maternal loss and teenage nostalgia. Kicking off a ‘we can still rock’ album with two tracks yearning for lost youth seems so wilfully counterproductive it’s almost trolling. Having now heard the whole record rather than the songs in isolation I’m veering towards believing it’s so mad it’s genius, but it’s definitely an odd decision. From that point on the lyrical choices are much less jarring with many of them centring around that long standing Anderson obsession of reckless endangerment in a speeding vehicle. If this was a bad album, or I was a mid 90s NME journalist, it would be the perfect opportunity to headline my review with a car crash pun (‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ seems a shoe in) but thankfully that will go to waste.
For the most part the tracks can be split into three categories:
The post-punk punky ones – the best of these for my money being Personality Disorder which sounds a bit like The Fall fronted by Neil Tennant and Black Ice, the only properly nasty track on the record.
The pop-punk punky ones – That Boy on the Stage is the most bangers-out fun I’ve had from a suede track since it’s brother in gum-chewing swagger Can’t Get Enough, whilst Turn off Your Brain and Yell has a dazzlingly sunny chorus that proves no matter how hard you try you can’t keep the good glam down.
The unexpectedly slowy ones – Drive Myself Home is a near perfect exercise in the kind of gentle, affecting, straight to the bones ballad writing I didn’t think I’d hear from them again, but It’s Always The Quiet Ones is, as the title suggests, the sleeper star of the record. Strange, unnerving and not really like anything else in the back catalogue. Bonus track Still Waiting is worth a mention too – a tiny, delicate gem.
There are a few songs which feel as though they have fallen out of the cookie cutter suede-machine but nothing that is pure filler. Some breathing space is no bad thing and for the most part these feel like the kind of tracks that will grow over time. Indeed the aforementioned She Still Leads Me On already works immeasurably better as an album track than a campaign lead.
For listeners less keen on the more theatrical side of suede Autofiction should serve as a welcome salve, for those of us fond of the band at their most overblown and silliest this is still an infectious and mercifully un-embarrassing outing that should blast the cobwebs out of the gothic attics for a while. It might be a costume but they wear it well.
All words by Susan Sloan.