Suede (Album) – Classic Music Review – Britpop Series

Although this may seem incredible to the inhabitants of the United Kingdom, I never heard Suede until 1998. Shit, I don’t think I knew they even existed.

Unlike Oasis, whose entry into the United States was facilitated by promotion strong enough to overcome the bizarre behavior of the Gallagher brothers, Suede’s first two American tours went pffft due to a combination of internal conflicts and an early cancellation due to the death of Bernard Butler’s father. In the end, the band most often credited with igniting the Britpop movement wound up playing second fiddle to The Cranberries. This first album “never even grazed the Top 200,” a bit of information contained in a back-pages article by the second-tier Los Angeles Daily News reprinted in the second-tier Orlando Sentinel entitled “Suede on Top in Britain, Invisible in America.” Reaching out to American audiences became even more problematic when the band was forced to accept a name change to The London Suede (WTF?) because a relatively minor cabaret artist in the United States had already trademarked the Suede moniker for her own use.

With the Internet still in its infancy, iTunes five years away and YouTube seven, awareness of “foreign” music in the United States depended on promotion through the more traditional channels—radio augmented by MTV and VH1. When I was sweet sixteen, beautiful and yours for the taking, my musical universe was pretty much limited to punk, Oasis and anything that got my rocks off; virtually all of it was music I heard on the radio or in the local clubs. What led me to Suede was the release of Oasis’ Be Here Now, a perfectly horrid production that suffered from a lack of imagination, too much coke and an onslaught of overdubs. Feeling suddenly deprived of the balance provided by British rock, I headed over to Tower Records (they had everything) and asked one of the guys there if Oasis had any competition in the mother country. I left the store with copies of Parklife, Different Class and Suede.

In retrospect, that was a pretty good haul!

My emerging androgynous sexual orientation was far more attracted to non-specific gender kissing than racing greyhounds or a wedding party, so I began my expanded exploration of Britpop by removing the annoying shrink-wrap from the Suede CD. My first reaction was one of disappointment, as I found the production sub-standard. My next impression was, “Oh, I’ll bet the boys in the Castro would like this,” as some of Brett Anderson’s vocals called up images of the locally popular drag queens who entertained audiences with their tributes to Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland. My final initial impression was, “Damn, that is one hot guitarist.” Curiously, hyper-horny teenager that I was, I didn’t get much of a sexual buzz, but hey, I was still in explorer mode, learning about various forms of erotic expression. When I put down my headphones, I wasn’t really sure whether I liked the album or not.

As I learned over the years, ambivalence as a first impression is a very good sign. It usually means that there’s more to the music than a single run-through can reveal.

For a début album, Suede features unusually well-crafted songs with strong lyrics, first-class guitar performances from Bernard Butler and a set of marvelous melodies that invite listener participation. I still don’t care for the production; Ed Buller applied an updated version of the Wall of Sound style to virtually all the recordings, and while it worked fine on the singles, it weakened the ballads, which could have benefited from more clarity. Brett Anderson remarked that he would have preferred a “beefier sound,” and there’s no question that the bass levels are inadequate. He also commented in the joint interview he and Bernard Butler held with Val Jennings (available on the 2011 deluxe reissue) that he wished some of his vocals could have been “smoother,” and we’ll consider that blessed example of self-awareness as we go through the songs. From a thematic standpoint, those expecting something cheerful due to the lightweight connotation of that “horrible word” Britpop will be disappointed by the emphasis on the dangers of drug abuse, while others may feel uncomfortable with the overt expressions of sexuality combined with fluid gender identity. As far as the latter is concerned, I suggest you get the fuck over it; in regards to substance abuse, accept the fact that it remains a significant human problem, sadly making the album forever relevant. Stylistically speaking, I don’t think it’s their most representative Britpop album (Coming Up wins that award), as some of the songs reflect the dramatic, emotional expressiveness of artists whose music Brett Anderson and Mat Osman played in their formative years (Bowie, The Cure, The Smiths). Whether or not Suede really did ignite the Britpop scene or was just the first breakthrough of an already-developing trend towards a uniquely British style of music can never be proven or unproven, but the album’s durability makes it a good starting point to explore a most fascinating and rewarding era in popular music history.

The opening track is an ironic anthem to the felt invincibility of youth, a theme that would appear in many Britpop songs, translated through various lenses. In “So Young,” the sense of invincibility is enhanced by drugs, creating an even deeper sense of false bravado. Brett Anderson explained, “I used to eulogize that sense of youth as powerful, vital energy. That’s what ‘So Young’ is. Let’s ride the razor’s edge of youth.” The repetitive imagery of “chasing the dragon” highlights the utter futility of a meaningless quest—I mean, who the fuck in their right mind would chase a fire-breathing mythical animal? And as the fade describes, this quest for escape/higher consciousness/oblivion has severely limited boundaries:

We’re so young and so gone
Let’s chase the dragon
From our home
From our home

I don’t think getting stoned out of one’s mind on the living room sofa constitutes much of a quest, but apparently it was a common form of entertainment in early 90’s London—one that often lead to senseless tragedy. “I could see lives being destroyed,” Brett said, adding he was lucky to have “jumped out their balloon.” He would later un-learn that lesson and become addicted to crack—certainly not the only Britpop star who developed a problem with illegal substances.

Opening with a relaxed drum-and-guitar-noise intro that Oasis would later “emulate” for “Supersonic,” we hear a few deliberately-broken line fragments (“She can/Start/To walk out/When she wants”) before Brett enters with his “un-smooth” vocal. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Anderson’s assessment of his vocal on “So Young”—he rushes his lines a couple of times but more than makes up for it with his gorgeous flights of falsetto and expressive phrasing. What really makes the song for me are Bernard Butler’s responsive, sinuous guitar lines and his perfectly lovely, off-beat piano fills in the bridge. The rhythm section of Osman and Simon Gilbert is solid and unintrusive, giving Anderson and Butler plenty of supporting space.

Of the four singles that appear on the album, “So Young” was the only single released after the album appeared on the shelves. The other three provided the remarkable buzz surrounding this new band, ratcheted up the anticipation for the full album and formed the best evidence for the case that Suede inspired the Britpop movement. “Animal Nitrate” was the coup-de-grâce, the single that immediately preceded the full album and the first to make it to the UK top ten. You’d think that given the quality of the singles and all the hoo-hah generated by the exceptionally clamorous British press that all three singles would have smashed their way to the top; the only explanation I have is that Suede’s potential audience was still busy shoegazing and weren’t ready for music that Brett Anderson described to Val Jennings as music that “went against the grain.”

“Animal Nitrate” (wordplay for the dangerous substance amyl nitrite used to enhance the high from cocaine or esctasy) is an exceptionally subversive piece of pop music. The opening declining guitar riff in a minor key communicates a heaviness, signaling the listener that the content that follows should be taken seriously . . . and it should:

Like his dad you know that he’s had
Animal nitrate in mind
Oh in your council home he jumped on your bones
Now you’re taking it time after time

That doesn’t sound like consensual sex to me, a perception confirmed by the changed third line in the subsequent verse: “So in your broken home he broke all your bones.” Pretty dreary stuff for a pop song, but the entire mood changes with the shift to the major key in the chorus and a line that can easily be taken out of context by the superficial listener and embraced by that listener as an expression of sexual or drug culture bravado, “What does it take to turn you on?” The remaining lines economically and brilliantly express the underlying dichotomy:

Oh, what turns you on, oh?
Now he has gone
Oh, what turns you on, oh?
Now your animal’s gone

This is more than the pain-can-be-pleasurable motif of BDSM (a subject in which I have some expertise); it’s the shocking and unpleasant realization that sometimes a lingering sense of pleasure leads to an inexplicable attraction to the person who abused you. Based on my annual volunteer work in domestic violence centers, I know that many a beating starts out as sexual foreplay (often the guy blames the woman when he can’t get it up). We also have to consider the setting, described by Anderson in a quote mentioned on Songfacts, “To me, it’s set in suburbia, in a council estate in Haywards Heath. I was brought up as a white, working-class English boy, and that’s what I wrote about. If you’re born in a dump you aspire to something better.” This anticipates the Jarvis Cocker observation about common people who “dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do.” Replace “drink” with “snort” or “shoot” and you have “Animal Nitrate.” Part of me hates the fact that the chorus is so damned singable, but I confess I join in nearly every time I hear it. I also love Bernard’s mad guitar work on this piece, especially the solo where he finds all kinds of unexpected musical nooks and crannies in the relatively simple chord structure.

The next song, “She’s Not Dead,” describes the shared suicide of Anderson’s aunt and her secret black lover, which apparently took place as they fucked in a car while the engine was running. Such a story could easily lead to a black comedy treatment, but Anderson wisely focused on the tragedy that preceded the tragedy: the felt need to keep an interracial relationship a deep, dark secret:

In the car he couldn’t afford
They found his made-up name
On her ankle chain

Many of the songs on Suede come from Brett Anderson’s personal experience, and I admire his ability to sing about such experience without crossing the line into the maudlin. Bernard Butler’s guitar work (acoustic and electric on opposite channels) is quite lovely, mirroring the tenderness of the vocal and adding shape to a beautiful if unusual eulogy.

Shifting gears, “Moving” opens with a thumping drum roll soon joined by guitar channeled through a flanger to create a jet engine effect (an effect we’ll also hear used by Supergrass), an appropriate intro for a song marked by fearsome intensity. The lyrics are somewhat elusive, but the imagery seems to be about either a couple or a person with fluid gender identity expressing sexual aggression and the will to dominate (references to the beast within, going “lassoing,” “she just skins the world”). Since I’m a sexually-aggressive dominant, this interpretation may be total horseshit, but I wouldn’t be the first person guilty of translating lyrics to fit my personal reality (I’m just dumb enough to admit it). The intensity of the song is relieved by a shift to half-time in the bridges, a choice that adds variation and makes the return of the intensity all the more satisfying. Bernard’s guitar solo definitely qualifies as “ripping,” and I love the build to the appropriately abrupt ending.

I had no trouble interpreting “Pantomime Horse,” and was somewhat relieved to find support for my take in Ben Hewitt’s piece on the ten best Suede songs that appeared in The Guardian a few years back:

Take “Pantomime Horse”: a brooding, bruised ballad about an outcast tempted by new experiences. It’s personality-crisis-meets-sexual-awakening, and while it’s never clear exactly in what form that rutting takes place, there’s an undeniable tingle of finding someone – or somethingnew. “I was cut from the wreckage one day,” sighs Anderson. “This is what I get for being that way.” And then the chorus: a build-up of lush, pillowy noise into cascades of squalls and squeals, with Anderson demanding “Have you ever tried it that way-aa-aa-aay?”

When I realized I was “that way,” I thought it was pretty cool because I naïvely believed that being able to fuck both genders doubled my sexual opportunities. It took me a while to realize that straight and gay people often view bisexuals as a threat to their own sexual identity and the personal pride they take in their sexual prowess and orientation. The dark period in my life that I’ve mentioned in a couple of other posts had to do with this struggle between manifesting my true self or pretending to be “normal.” I did feel like a pantomime horse, navigating life as two people in a ridiculous costume, unable to coordinate my movements.

The innate vulnerability of the situation is beautifully expressed in the quiet opening instrumental passage with sweet guitar supported by some lovely bass runs from Mat Osman and shimmery cymbal work from Simon Gilbert. When Brett Anderson enters the picture, he strikes a tonal balance that expresses both affirmative acceptance and resignation to his fate. Gradually the song builds into something edgier as the frustration with ignorance and being relegated to “freak” status enters Anderson’s tone and lyrics. After a brief relaxation of tension, the resentment arising from thoughtless rejection manifests itself in the bitter repetition of the line “Have you ever tried it that way?” From a musical perspective, “Pantomime Horse” is one of the stronger compositions on the record, and foreshadows the more complex structures we hear on Dog Man Star.

The second single on the album, “The Drowners,” was the first single Suede released, and though it didn’t sell particularly well at first (those damned shoegazers again), it was named the year’s best single by both NME and Melody Maker. The 2011 reissue features two live performances from early 1993 where Suede played most of the tracks on the album plus songs from the contemporary EP’s, and my favorite moments involve “The Drowners.” I loved how the crowd demonstrated their mastery of the lyrics and sang along with genuine enthusiasm, but I really got excited when the crowd began to undulate from the hips while grooving to the incredibly sexy “slow down” chorus, as if they were fucking while standing (a very satisfying position when you have the right-sized partner to pull it off). The sexiness of “The Drowners” is off the charts, an erotic synthesis of the blues-tinged bends from Bernard Butler’s guitar, a seductive, slightly kittenish vocal from Brett Anderson and the ahh vocalizations on the fade that capture the orgasmic moment. This is one of those tunes like The Clash’s “Clampdown” that immediately force me to crank up the volume and immerse myself in the sound of great rock ‘n’ roll.

I always feel some disappointment when a hot rock song comes to an end, which may explain why it took me a long time to appreciate “Sleeping Pills.” Another factor in my resistance to the song are the astrological references, as I consider astrology total nonsense. In this context, however, the astrological imagery helps explain the nature of the relationship between the two people depicted in the song. One is a water sign, the other is an air sign, and according to Ann Roberts, who describes herself as a “client-centered astrologer” (!), “Water and air creates tsunamis and hurricanes.” I suppose that’s a roundabout way of saying the relationship is turbulent and/or incompatible, and may reflect a pseudo-therapeutic relationship that is starting to cross the red line (Anderson wrote the song while doing voluntary work at a community center). This instability is more dramatically expressed when the narrator, who is trying to convince “angel” not to take sleeping pills, asks “angel” if he/she could get him some valium—not exactly the kind of person you’d want as your A. A. sponsor. While the storyline has some gaps, I do appreciate the ambient arrangement punctuated with contrasting dissonant bursts and smooth counterpoint from the electric guitar.

By contrast, “Breakdown” is more transparent, a song built around a dialogue between savior and victim, the friend trying to pull the other out of the black hole of depression and the sufferer trying to make sense of it all. According to Songfacts, Brett Anderson wrote this song about a friend on such a descent; eventually, the friend opted for suicide. I think the point of the song is the utter helplessness of the narrator trying to do something, anything to stop the inexorable development of the illness. It’s a sad and lovely piece for the most part, but I really wish Suede had chosen to remain in quiet-reflective mode and not go for the rather jarring shift to all-out bash that disturbingly interrupts the flow for a minute-and-a-half.

“Metal Mickey” completes the triptych of pre-album singles, a solid rocker describing one hot chick who sounds like a worker at one of those gentleman’s clubs but actually refers to KatieJane Garside of Daisy Chainsaw:

Well, she’s show-showing it off, then
The glitter in her lovely eyes
Show-show-showing it off, then
And all the people shake their money in time

She sells heart
She sells meat
Oh dad, she’s driving me mad, come see

I’d love to meet her and test the chemistry, but I still find the song’s meaning difficult to grasp. I get the reference to money, as the closest Daisy Chainsaw came to having a hit was the song, “Love Your Money.” But why “Metal Mickey?” Why the reference to an early 80’s television show about featuring a five-foot-tall robot produced by none other than ex-Monkee Mickey Dolenz? Perhaps my British readers can shed some light on this opaque connection. As for the music, it has been said that Bernard Butler drew inspiration from “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” by Betty Everett, but if true, his reconstruction almost qualifies as cubist—but I love the results.

The buzz concerning “Animal Lover” has to do with the tension arising from ex-Suede member and Anderson girlfriend Justine Frischmann hooking up with Blur frontman Damon Albarn, which falls into the category of “Things About Which I Don’t Give a Shit.” It’s a decent rocker, but I agree with Brett Anderson’s reassessment of the album, expressing the wish that he had replaced “Moving” and “Animal Lover” with the B-sides “My Insatiable One” and “To the Birds” (which do appear on the deluxe edition). I would have gone a step further and replaced the closing number, “The Next Life” with b-side “The Big Time,” as it would have added more sonic diversity to the mix. Though I hate to show disrespect concerning a song that expresses deep feelings about the loss of one’s mother, Anderson’s over-precise vowel splitting (fly-high, sta-hars, fa-har) drives me to distraction, and Bernard Butler’s piano is a bit too stiff and formal for my tastes.

I’ve referred to the deluxe edition a few times, and though most deluxe editions are little more than rip-offs, Suede is a clear exception. The inclusion of B-sides gives you a clearer picture of the band’s capabilities in their nascent stage, and the demos are fascinating examples of how their songs evolved in the rehearsal room. Best of all are the inclusion of live performances, where you can experience Suede’s intensity and crowd impact. In nearly every instance, I prefer the live versions of the songs to those on the album, because without the visuals you miss out on Suede’s essential kinetic energy.

I’d need to do a lot more research to conclusively prove that Suede launched Britpop, but assuming they did, I love the template they created on Suede: melodically memorable, thoughtful compositions focused on the real world as manifested in the daily lives of the British people. That’s a pretty big space to play in, and as we’ll see in our upcoming reviews of the era, a group of equally motivated artists took full advantage of the opening Suede gave them to further explore that experience and produce some of the best and most insightful music of the time.

3 responses

  1. With your review in mind, I gave this album a listen yesterday morning while driving through northern Minnesota in sub-zero temperatures. I understand why you were ambivalent about it on first listen. Although the songs all fit together, this album is not as cohesive as Dog Man Star or Coming Up. Both of those albums have a beginning, a middle, and an end, while this one is not so well-shaped. The four singles stand out from the rest, along with “Pantomime Horse.” None of the songs are bad, but I agree that the album would have been stronger with a few different song selections. In fact, the B-sides compilation Sci-Fi Lullabies was the first Suede CD I purchased, after a friend had loaned me his copy. I was amazed by how good it was. The quality does not fade until about halfway through disc two, and even then it’s still pretty good for just being a bunch of B-sides. Much of the earlier material is easily good enough for albums and some songs could have been singles!

    Because the debut was not the first album I heard by Suede, it did not have the shock value that it must have had for so many people. You can see that if you watch the Brit Awards performance of “Animal Nitrate” on youtube, where in the brief glimpse of the audience after the song ends, a lot of people are just sitting there, either not liking it or not being sure how to react. Suede celebrated trashiness, and they had the musical chops to make it work. Bernard Butler had a nice, thick guitar tone, and he had a way of twisting a note to get the most expression out of it. Brett Anderson had one of those immediately recognizable voices, with that grating quality that makes it impossible to ignore. Aside from the obvious Bowie influence, the overall sound is quite unique rather than just sounding retro. And they were not afraid to go into very dark places with their lyrics. Brett Anderson seems to be singing about a depraved, druggy underworld that I never knew existed. As your explanations of some of the lyrics make clear, he did not just make up all of that stuff.

    Although to me this is Suede’s third best album, their personality was already fully formed by this point, and they did not appear to be making too many concessions, if any, to their record company. It’s a wonderful thing when a young band has this much confidence and originality and is able to capture it on their debut album.

    (Typo alert: In the “Metal Mickey” section, you refer to Bernard Butler as Bernard Barker. Also, you wrote “Animal Nitrite” instead of “Nitrate.”)

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    1. Thank you for pointing out the typos! All better now.

      Except for some early sampling I’ve never been a part of the drug culture, so the songs on this album were revelatory for me, too. And in reading the biographical information on the Big Four, they were all impacted by heavy drug use. I have a hard time getting my head around why rock stars and jazz musicians frequently go there, assuming naively that immersion in one’s art is the most effective way to deal with existential angst.

      I agree with your overall assessment of Suede’s albums; after I’m done establishing the narrative of the era I’ll probably go back and flesh it out with more reviews of Suede, Blur and Pulp along with some of Albarn’s and Cocker’s offshoot work and other interesting stuff I stumble into along the way.

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