If Bloodsports is increasingly looking like the album equivalent of a soft launch then Night Thoughts is surely the ‘difficult second album’ and it is immediately tempting, irresistible in fact, to pit it against their second album proper. It’s irresistible not just because in that strangely addictive past-time of ranking albums against each other Dog Man Star is surely the suede album any other hopes to topple but also because from the first few opening strings there is clearly more than a little lineage between the two. Make no mistake, these are very different records but Night Thoughts is peppered with moments and motifs – some elegant, some cheeky – that echo the earlier album and it would be wilful to ignore that.
Musically this is a stronger and more fully formed creature than anyone might have expected and sonically it stands head and shoulders against the majority of their back catalogue. I can’t think of another suede album that could possibly have been presented as a 50 minute instrumental as this is on the deluxe release without sounding like some kind of indie karaoke compilation but this is a lovingly and lushly soundscaped piece of work that holds up remarkably well even in that format.
All of which makes this feel not only like a great record but like the sound of a band who – perhaps for the first time since the debut – are working together as a *band* and bringing experience gained individually in the hiatus years back to the collective table. In many ways this is an archetypal suede record but in others it is also something different – something more refined, more fleshed out and offers the exciting prospect of them stretching into other new and interesting places in the future.
Whilst everyone seems terribly scared to say the words ‘concept album’ out loud these days I’m not sure what else you call 12 songs that flow together, often gaplesly, with an overarching theme and which are presented with a full-length art-movie as visual accompaniment. Perhaps ‘concept album’ suggests too much of a plot or political point to be made and indeed whilst the beautifully brutal film, directed by Roger Sargent, has a clear storyline the album itself is more oblique.
The lyrics, whilst occasionally straying into familiar territory are by and large some of the best Brett Anderson has written. Although they have a general romanticism and an open-endedness that allow for multiple interpretations this is probably the first body of work he has produced since the start of his solo career that doesn’t largely consist of, as one reviewer put it, ‘singing to portraits of women’. Having evolved over the years from a diarist of low-rent suburban glamour into something more akin to a misanthropic and occasionally sinister Byron it never feels like a volte face. But it is certainly, and rightly, an evolution.
As an album that was always intended to be played as one piece, it now seems in retrospect almost butchery to have carved up portions of it for release as singles. The decision to lead with the more tonally upbeat tracks probably also did a disservice to the album, the film and indeed the tracks themselves. If a song like Like Kids feels fun but somewhat lightweight as a single, within the album it bursts through like a desperately needed moment of joy. So much of this album works intrinsically as part of the album that it is hard to listen to without listening to it all – and in that sense it is certainly their most challenging, but rewarding, release.
Bass player Mat Osman recently joked in an interview that “You should always be dangerously close to pretentious” and this album certainly teeters, perhaps even nose dives, over the edge. But for me these are the moments that this band has always been at it’s best – when nosediving over the edge into a delicious, bombastic, histrionic vat of pretension.
When You Are Young
Beginning with a lush and threatening string arrangement before collapsing in on itself through strangled sounding children’s voices into a tribal drum and a soaring vocal, this is an opening track that tells you to sit the fuck down and pay attention. Haunting, nostalgic and intense.
A standout track since it was released as the first single it batters in after the opening number and immediately sets out how well this album has been pieced together. A driving, classic suede chorus with a wonderfully dark sounding verse.
A peppy, glam sounding banger about chronic depression. How suede.
One of the most pleasing transitions on the record for me is the shift from No Tomorrow into this affecting little vignette. At just over two and a half minutes (a chunk of which is ethereal, spacey, synth based instrumental) and with two vocal sections that seem almost unrelated it’s a song that on it’s own makes little sense but as part of the larger piece of the album is a powerful moment.
I Don’t Know How To Reach You
Ostensibly about the generational communication gap viewed from both sides it could as easily be read as a song about any other kind of communication breakdown. There is a pretty spectacular guitar solo in the middle of this and a truly epic end section with Brett wailing in layered vocals over and over on top of squealing guitars, noisy synths and banging drums.
What I’m Trying To Tell You
A very odd, louche, funky, slightly Franz Ferdinand / Roxy Music sounding track – the lyrics of which appear to be mainly a shopping list of self loathing. There is also a spoken bridge where Brett channels Neil Tennant and a tempo that borders worryingly on disco. Everything about this song on paper sounds like a horrible idea but it somehow pulls it off perfectly. It even ends with the snarkiest set of ‘la-la-la’s I’ve heard, tipping right over from self referential to completely taking the piss.
A classic suede ballad in the way that only suede do – complete with that glorious thing of Brett singing right on the edge of his register lending it a wonderfully cracked and desperate feeling.
Learning To Be
Beginning with an eerie and indecipherable sample of a child’s voice this is another delicate bridging piece similar to Pale Snow. Sweet if slightly elegiac it ends with a burst of synths, a young woman singing a lullaby over samples of rain and radio noise, and is finally punctured by a frankly terrifying, distorted child’s cry.
By which point you really need a good old fashioned pop song.
I Can’t Give Her What She Wants
There’s definitely a recurring theme on the album of songs about the inability to communicate with people and this is another seemingly in that vein. It does however have some extremely dark lyrics (most notably ’the keys are falling from her coat, as I weave my fingers round her perfumed throat’) that make the chorus start to sound much less about reaching out to someone than about shutting them up. Indeed it was apparently originally a song more obviously about murder but was dialled back somewhat in the final version. I’m more than a little curious to know what the ‘dialled up’ version was like! Wonderfully sinister.
I suspect that it’s the slightly meandering, vocal led ballads like this that those jumping directly from earlier suede albums will struggle with most but as a continuation of Brett’s solo work and the latter half of Bloodsports it’s a sound they are starting to cement as a new trademark. Sometimes it works more successfully than others and this is possibly the only track on Night Thoughts that I feel could have done with an extra push. Lyrically it’s strong but melodically it doesn’t quite hit it out of the park.
When You Were Young
A brief but tonally darker and more imposing reprise of the opening track that serves as perfect thematic wrapper for the album. Nostalgia is not exactly the word in the end, with all it’s rosy connotations – perhaps more like looking down the wrong end of a telescope at childhood.
The Fur and the Feathers
Whatever you do, life happens. A cynical but oddly optimistic acknowledgement of the inevitability of love, hate, birth, death and everything in between. A song that is at once utterly weary but is also the sound of irrepressible blood pumping. This is a big, bombastic ballad that ends with an absolutely outstanding, epic, High Rise via Pink Floyd, falsetto strewn crescendo.
TITLE: Night Thoughts
MOOD: What keeps Brett Anderson awake at night.