It had never really occurred to me before but I think I’ve always thought of suede as an ‘album band’ but listening to the releases in this way for the first time really hammered home the sheer strength of their singles run across the 20ish years covered in the set – the baseline of quality and immediacy is startling.
And that’s without even taking into account the b-sides. Whilst the completest in me considered going for the CD box set which contains more tracks I was irresistibly drawn to the vinyl and I have to say there is something about the leanness of the 2 track format that also made the listening experience really enjoyable. In a way it felt like an interesting companion to Sci-Fi Lullabies – a sort of whistle stop tour of the band’s career so far. The b-sides, particularly in the Coming Up and Head Music eras, are well chosen to offer literally another side to each release and whilst not always the most obvious choices (to my ear anyway) this in itself makes the set feel slightly more special.
They have always been a band to straddle a strange position between brash, poppy fun and some of the darker recesses of the human psyche (frequently both at once) and whilst listening to their releases in this way understandably tilts towards the former the b-side choices lean pleasingly towards the latter.
Interestingly I also found the two singles I’ve always been a bit iffy about (Electricity and Positivity – two sides of the same rhyming coin in my mind) sounded so much better when listened to in this way removed from their parent albums – both of which I never wholly felt they fitted on.
Rooting through all those little records I also couldn’t help be struck by how great the artwork is across the run. The two A New Morning releases look somewhat odd on vinyl for the obvious reasons but from the DIY feel of the early singles through the Nick Knight / Peter Saville years right up to the Bloodsports singles – my personal favourite set of covers – it’s a pretty wonderful collection of imagery and for the most part hold an emotional coherence both with each other and the music inside.
As frivolous as it seems I’m delighted with this set and look forward to dipping in and out of it in a nonlinear way in the future. Now if only I could get a 7" of Outsiders to pop in the back..
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.
I’m not going to re-review Bloodsports properly since the time since release doesn’t really warrant it but I will add a few thoughts now that I’ve lived with it for a couple of years. You can read my original review here for the full track by track.
When the band reformed I was sceptical and somewhat fearful and (to my now bitter regret) didn’t go to the first set of live shows. They may not have critically and musically ended on a high note but the farewell tour had been fittingly emotional and in the intervening years Brett had produced some extremely satisfying solo work – including most recently Black Rainbows an album which I believe sits comfortably at the top end of his career. I hadn’t been wowed by Here Come The Tears and for many of the reasons that reformations make me nervous – it felt mannered, polite and too much like the sound Brett and Bernard trying not to step on each others toes. At best I expected the reformation to be weak and at worst I feared it would be embarrassing. While the album shows at Brixton certainly disproved any fears I had about their capabilities on stage I was still left with the nagging concern that they would become one of those bands looping around the country playing the old songs to an ever-aging crowd.
When Bloodsports was released I approached it with an optimistic caution and was rewarded with an album that although not instant is excellent. My original review gave it a 9/10 and while some songs have grown on me more (most notably Sabotage and It Starts and Ends With You) I will happily stick by that giving it an easy third place slot in my album rating after Dog Man Star and the debut. The tour and the collection of remarkably good b-sides that came out with the singles sealed the deal and since then I have been more excited by the band than I have been since the mid 90s. How wonderfully surprising.
So, on a final note:
Crib notes: A band flexing their muscles and finding that they can still right hook pretty good. The endless, bloody game.
Listen to it when: Falling in love, falling out of love.
In a fantasy world I would: not do much really. It’s tempting to switch out It Starts and Ends With You for the frankly gorgeous b-side Falling Planes but I suspect that would upset the balance of the album.
A New Morning is, it would appear, unanimously the least liked suede album by both fans and band alike. Least liked is putting it somewhat politely in fact – credited as the reason the band split up for nearly a decade it has been thrown under the bus in recent press with a spectacular vigour and described as, amongst other things, bland, disappointing and most succinctly by Mat ‘shit’.
I’d be lying if I said when this came out it set my world on fire but did I hate it? No, not at all. I actually really rather liked it, and still do. I get a little sad for it every time it’s vilified but I do understand why. It’s a safe record, a comfortable old slippers record – and whatever any of the previous four were they were never that. While there are some definite gems in the b-sides for this era they are also some of the nadir moments of their output (with a couple being indefensibly bad) and it’s hard not to hear the period in retrospect as the sound of a band without much gas left in their tank.
At some point mid-way through the writing process there was a (now exiled to a forgotten corridor of history) line-up change as Neil left due to illness and Alex Lee joined – and between that, Brett suddenly adopting a Gallagheresque rasp and a distinct mood shift to something somewhat prosaic in tone there is a general feeling that it’s not quite ‘suede’. The era’s imagery included casual clothing, sun-streamed windows, blonde hair (!) and greenery. Combined with a lead single called ‘Positivity’ I suppose it seemed ‘just not cricket’ to a lot of fans. In the liner notes on the re-issue along with saying he basically wishes it hadn’t been released Brett describes it as them trying to ‘destroy their own myth’ and for me, perhaps because of this, while the album without doubt has the general vibe of the recently sober it somehow still manages to come off as not quite happy, not quite sad. A bit like someone telling you they are fine when it’s obvious they’re not.
At the time, after Head Music, I was – I would not go as far as to say to say a casual fan but my passion for the band was definitely coasting a little and it was, ironically, the fact that I *did* like this album a lot that made me go back and revisit Head Music again in the end. A New Morning may not be their best work but it has it’s moments and I am personally glad they released it even if they’re not.
But I never want to hear UFO again as long as I live.
‘and the morning is for you
and the air is free
and the birds sing for you
and your positivity’
Not terrible, not great. Ridiculous video that almost tips into so bad it’s good.
‘Obsession is like sex, it’s simple and complex’
I love this song. Nice chuggy single-worthy track.
Brett is a bit obsessed with obsession, I’m a bit obsessed with Brett’s obsession with obsession…
‘Julia dreams while she’s typing away
Jackie kills time while the company pays
Tracy still hears 808 ringing in her brain’
This one is very reminiscent of some of the Coming Up era b-sides. I like the sound of the song, the melody and instrumentation but the lyrics feel overly familiar and it probably is more of a b-side standard than an album track.
Lost In Tv
‘I see you in my life
I see you on the screen
An ascending socialite
Orbiting the scene’
This song barely sounds like something I recognise as ‘suede’ but I’ve always loved it. A lovely melodic mid-tempo. There are a few tracks on the album where the alarming new Brett-voice (40 a day, bit butch) works well and this is one of them despite, or maybe because of it’s otherwise sweetness.
‘Your brain is drip-connected to the satellite
Your heart is not a part of your brain
Aesthetics and inventions well they pass you by
And complicate your day’
This is another chuggy little rock song in a similar vein to Obsessions but more reminiscent of some of Coming Up. It has some nice staccato rhyming and a bit of bite – maybe the song on the album that gets closest to a more classic suede ‘rock’ song.
‘Street life into the night with the syncopated melodies’
Yeah, this one is pretty terrible. Not so bad I have to run to turn it off but that’s about all I can say for it..
‘A strange experience has started
Between her molecules and me
It’s like disease between us forming
From obsolete technology’
Lovely, romantic little ballad very reminiscent of the Coming up era slowies.
There’s some great lyrics in this song too. A lazy, optimistic songs about the value of human connection.
‘Will you be my lover?
Will you be the one?
Will you be like no other?
For how long?’
There is a group of tracks on this album – this, ‘…Morning’, ‘When The Rain Falls’ and ‘Oceans’ that form the backbone of what I always feel the album should have / could have been. They are the songs that (vocal technique aside) dovetail more obviously into some of Brett’s solo work and are down tempo, sparser and less peppered with the lyrical ticks that haunt some of the later suede and Tears songs. This is not the best of them but it’s a song I enjoy a lot particularly as part of this ‘suite’ of songs.
The demo of this track is also very beautiful with some really lovely vocal harmonies and I think better on the whole than the final album version.
‘Sleepy head get out of bed’
This, to me, is the touchstone for what this album was probably intended to sound like. A sweetly hopeful little vignette – the sound of opening the curtains, letting the light in and stretching into the day..
One Hit to The Body
‘I don’t need you to be sorry
I just wanted you to know
That this is one hit to the body
One hit to the soul
One hit to the body that won’t show’
I’ve always loved this song – it used to be a favourite of mine for putting on playlists for people. Along with Lost In TV it’s another song that sounds very far from a typical suede sound but it’s a great little track with a bitter but defiant spirit.
When The Rain Falls
‘When all the world looks like Atlantis
And cars sit rusting in the drives
Just step outside and hit the concrete pavement
As the rain falls down for you and I’
This perhaps tips slightly into overly-prosaic sounding for my liking and some of the lyrics are best not listened to too closely but it rescues itself from being insufferable and comes out the other side as a pleasant little song. The Stanbridge demo is much better with a darker tone and a sadly missing intro that would have given it at least another 2/10 points from me.
‘We sit and rot here
resenting each year
Will you go,
Will you go?’
A haunting, classic suede weepy and the very definition of a hidden gem. One of my favourite suede songs which never fails to make me tearful relegated to the arse end of the album no-one likes. SADFACE.
Ostensibly about the protracted, incremental disintegration of a relationship neither party wants to call quits on, it’s hard not to imagine it as metaphor for the band itself at the time now.
‘We sing the old songs, the beat box plays on..’
Overall Score: 7/10
Crib notes: neither as good as it should have been or as bad as everyone thinks. Not the end in the end.
Listen to it when: Saturday morning with coffee and the paper.
In a fantasy world I would: Change When The Rain Falls and Untitled for their demos, ditch Positivity, Lonely Girls and Streetlife and switch in b-sides Simon, Cheap and Campfire Song.
Also, final word – I have to give a shoutout for Attitude / Golden Gun the great little standalone single release that came out to to promote them er.. splitting up.. (!) Poor ‘Attitude’ :/
I *hated* this album when it came out, to the point that I gave my copy away after all of about two listens. However reviewing it again now there is a lot to like – it’s got it’s flaws but Head Music is by no means a bad album.
I think there were a few different things that contributed to my visceral reaction at the time but primarily it suffered from the weight of expectation. Coming Up had been a huge success for the band and the pre release campaign for Head Music was insane, including things like all HMV stores being renamed for launch day. The album also has a sonic pallet that no one was quite ready for from them at that time (reggae dub electro suede?).
The other notable factor was that the fact that the further into the Head Music campaign it got the less the band seemed to want to be there either. I won’t rake over it here because we all know now in hindsight why that was but even at the time I was aware that while he brushed up well for the videos Brett was beginning to look seriously out of it. I found it increasingly unsettling watching interviews and live performances from that period and in many cases still do now.
I did see them live twice during the era – once was as good as usual but once was the only time I’ve ever not enjoyed them live. I weirdly bought all the singles (you can’t keep a good fangirl down I guess) so it wasn’t a full on ‘I’m done with you’ moment – not like that time I tore down all my Bros posters in one day. But this was definitely the period in which I felt least engaged with the band in general.
There were a few tracks I listened to in the intervening time but it wasn’t until several years later after the release of A New Morning that I gave it a proper go again and found to my surprise that I really liked it. At a different point in my life and all of the surrounding mess out of the way I felt very differently about it. I now listen to it (or almost all of it at least) on a fairly regular basis. It’s a bit of a game of two halves and there is some less than stellar stuff on it but far from the ‘difficult’ listen I pigeon holed it as at the time it’s also brimming with some of their best songs. There a few criminally neglected b-sides (I feel like every fan has their own fantasy version of Head Music swapping in some of the b-sides) and it was a divisive album for fans and the press at the time so I’m guessing I’m not the only one who bristled at this unexpected version of suede. But all in I think history has been kind to this record and it stands up surprisingly well today.
‘We got a love like AC/DC’
I can’t really get excited about this track I’m afraid. It’s a very specific kind of suede song that I’ve never been so keen on (and that ironically peppered the Tears album) and while it’s not terrible it’s just very ‘whatever’.
‘And she got everything she needs
Harmony and ecstasy
And she got pretty, pretty feet
Painted toes and soft, soft soles
And she got flowers in her hair
Daffodils from windowsills’
I love this track. I swear I’m not just trying to be obtuse since it tends to be at the epicenter of any criticisms of the album – mainly due to that opening lyric which people are weirdly fixated on. Much like Madonna’s Soy Latte I’m a bit baffled as to how anyone could take it seriously but it’s also frustrating because I actually love the lyrics in the song in general. It has a dreamy, sweet, trippy-hippy vibe and never fails to put a smile on my face.
Can’t Get Enough
‘I feel real now walking like a woman and talking like a stone age man’
This is for me probably their best pure pop single. A perfect example of the thuggish swagger that only suede do so well. ‘Talking like sugar and shaking that stuff.’
Everything Will Flow
‘Life is just a lullaby’
Another glorious single. I understand why a lot of people don’t like this since it’s so insanely radio-friendly and .. *gasp* .. optimistic but I think it’s beautiful. The woozy guitar line in the instrumental section particularly just transports me to a warm sunny place where everything will be ok.
‘And the ambulances sigh that you’re down
And the traffic speeding by says you’re down
And the people in your mind, they say you’re down
and you’re down’
This truly is an underrated gem. Heartbreakingly melancholic and one of the most elegant expressions of the mental disconnect that can happen when, as Dolly once put it, ‘sometimes without knowing it I touch my face and find it wet’. This is one of those songs that if I play it at the wrong time will never fail to make me weepy.
She’s In Fashion
‘And if she tells you two is one
Then two is one my love
And if she tells you you should know
Then you should know my love’
For me this track is basically Coming Up without the annoying production. It’s arguably edging towards the wrong side of radio-friendly (and was never off the TV as incidental music at the time) but it rescues itself from the brink for me and I do enjoy it. I also adore the lyric ‘she’s the colour of a magazine’.
‘Scheming like a schoolboy
watching you boy
come in and lets be friends’
Head Music is a bit of a ‘bops up top’ affair and this is the point that it left turns into the stuff that people most commonly think of when they recall the album. I was completely ambivalent to this at the time but I really like it now, It’s got a nice mellow groove. There’s definitely a feeling on this album of Brett playing with the way words sound rather than just what they mean and there’s some lovely examples on this like ‘listening to Lulu, Amazulu’. Some lovely bluesy brass towards the end too.
‘Give me head, give me head, give me head music instead’
Once you get over the awfulness/brilliance of the fact that this entire song is wrapped around a ridiculous innuendo it’s a pleasant if not earth shattering little number.
‘We love that satisfying rattling crash
The sound of registers full of cash
We’ll be all over your town like a rash
We’ll steal your children and smoke all your hash’
The most hated suede album track? It certainly seems to be the butt of the most jokes. I really like it personally – sort of agro-pop Fall-lite. But then I’m a sucker for bands writing songs about their own egos.
‘She and me together speed through space and time’
This one gets a bit lost along the way I think. It has potential but ends up a bit sludgy and doesn’t really go anywhere. Not awful or annoying but not much of anything.
‘Images of violence fill up my mind
And you see the silence, feel it inside
And you’ll see my heart is broke in two
Cos I’ve seen the real you’
I hated this at the time, I love it now. A beautiful, sad little song and another hidden gem. I find it quite moving and those wonderful woozy instrumentals make it feel like a sort of moody bookend to Everything Will Flow in my mind.
‘Tears on a pillow
Eyes on the phone
You pour all the love that you keep inside
Into a song
Like ‘He’s Gone’’
A classic suede ballad easily as good as many of the more cherished tracks from the earlier albums. Live versions always make my eyes water a wee bit.
Crack In The Union Jack
‘Another day, another low
Another midday TV show’
The only song on the album I can’t listen to. The melody is pleasant enough but the lyrics make me want to crawl into a foetal ball and not come out until it’s stopped. Sorry Brett.
Overall score: an 8/10 with a 9/10 desperately trying to get out
Crib notes: When it’s good it’s very, very good but when it’s bad it’s awful. Not actually as stupid as a mouse.
Listen to it when: Optimistic but prone to melancholy.
In a fantasy world I would: Swap out Electricity, Hi-Fi and Crack In The Union Jack for b-sides Heroin (why that song was a b-side I will never understand) Popstar and the beautiful instrumental track Seascape.
So, with just over two weeks before Night Thoughts is released I’ve decided to go back and review each of the previous albums as I feel about them now – which in some cases has changed quite a bit over the years.
I am however not going to write full reviews for the first two because a) I’m not sure I have much to say that hasn’t been said before a million times over by many other people and b) quite honestly no one wants to read that kind of sycophancy! So instead as a brief summation I’ll say that whilst there are arguments to be made for certain b-sides (Painted People and Killing of a Flashboy most notably for each album for me) both albums as they stand are damn near perfect to my ear. Everyone has those one or two albums that have a profound impact on them at a young age and these were mine. How can you ever be truly objective about the first great love of your life? 😉
All in however I would rate the debut a brash but beautiful 9/10 and Dog Man Star an *insert hyperbolic phrase here* 10/10.
My reviews for the other albums should hopefully be more interesting though as I do have more ups and downs and thoughts to share! I will go in chronological order starting with Coming Up at some point in the next few days and if I have time I may take a look and Sci-Fi Lullabies and the b-sides featured on the re-issues too..
There will be some pot holes along the way but it will be a marvelous journey all the same..