Your debut album shapes a decade and shifts the pop cultural goalposts.
Your second album is one of the greatest records by a British band…ever.
Your third album is a pop hit that turns you into bona fide pop stars and mainstream chart busters.
Your fourth album is a flawed (thanks to drugs and alcohol) pop peculiarity that contains several moments of genuine brilliance.
Then you clean up and release a fifth album.
That fifth album arrives three years after the last one and nearly a decade after the first.
The times have changed.
The scene, the era, the culture that you created and that, ultimately, you rejected (for very good reason) has gone.
This album will make or break you.
By 2002 Britpop was already maligned, ridiculed and derided.
Everyone who had sold any records as part of it, who had appeared on the front of a magazine during it or who had blagged a record deal entirely on the fact it existed was now desperately, and loudly, declaring the whole thing to have been nothing more than a media construct and a load of old rubbish.
Suede were on slightly firmer ground with their rejection of the Britpop label.
Despite their appearance on the front cover of Select magazine that really cemented the notion of Britpop as a “thing” they had always been slightly apart, or aloof, from it. The worst aspects of the entire era were absolutely at odds with who, or what, Suede were…the lad culture, the mockneyisms, “Loaded”, the vulgarity and the insular frame of reference were all alien to Suede.
But there can be no doubt that many records were sold because of Britpop…without the label, no matter how problematic it became, it is highly unlikely that Suede would have come to such a wide audience. While that may well have suited them it would have denied so many kids across housing estates in the UK the opportunity to be exposed to their world view, their vision, their influence…and that can only be seen as a dreadful thing.
It was into a post-Britpop musical landscape that Suede released “A New Morning” as a follow up to the flawed but beautiful, at least in places, “Head Music”. A lot was riding on this record…could Suede find their place, their voice, in this new world and establish themselves as a band who could transcend scenes and labels like a Haywards Heath version of R.E.M or were they about to go the way of so many other bands who can’t escape their own pasts?
For a while it looked like “A New Morning” would be the end of Suede.
For a while.
It was given, at best, a tepid reception from kindly critics and, at worst, a critical mauling from those less well disposed to the band.
The public largely ignored it.
They dismissed it…pretty quickly.
Has enough time passed for us to look at it a little differently?
Opening track “Positivity”does exactly what it says on the tin, delivering a shimmering, pastoral, sliver of upbeat, affirmative pop. “The birds sing for you…”, “The sunshine is free…”, “You could be what you want to be…”, “The world spins for you…” I mean, honestly, it isn’t possible to listen to all of that and feel anything less than confident that all is right in the world.
It’s a great way to open the album, suggesting that everyone in the land of Suede is at peace with themselves and that they are about to blow some sunshine back into the world of pop.
“Obsessions” is a love song, a hymn to the sort of girl who doesn’t read Camus, or even Brett Easton Ellis, and who scratches her skin when she yawns. It’s the song we have all wanted to write for someone we adore but couldn’t. Whenever I look at my wife I run through a similar list of things that serve to feed the fires of my obsession with her; the way she laughs (every day), the way she rubs her nose with the palm of her hand, the way she binge watches nonsense on Netflix, the way she runs her hand across my back as she passes, the way she moves…
Something genuinely lovely follows this, “Lonely Girls”. It feels like an old Suede song in some ways…the vocal wouldn’t have been out of place on some of those darker “Suede” era b-sides but then it transforms itself into a shuffling, groovy (yes really), ode to the sort of nowhere town girls that Brett has always been inspired by. “Sometimes our lives are not what they seem…we see what we want to see…in this miracle of clay”, I mean, come on…you cannot hear that and feel anything other than delighted.
It’s a classic Suede song…clay, loneliness, girls with old fashioned, never in fashion, names.
“Lost in TV” is a bit, well, forgettable. It has the awful feel of something that nobody really cares about…it is, and what a terrible thing to say, a bit half-hearted, maybe even flat? That, for Suede, is awful. They were not a band given to things that were anything less than everything. This is dreamy and woozy at times and their is a nice moment on the organ but it doesn’t seem to say anything or go anywhere.
All is forgiven fairly quickly though because the next song is “Beautiful Loser” and it is the sort of glam stomp that only Suede can do without sounding like they are a Ziggy Stardust tribute act. Brett’s voice is throaty and raw at times then hits those higher notes as if he were still the ingenue who burst onto the scene a decade earlier. This could quite easily have taken its place on “Coming Up” and nobody would have batted an eyelid. Even if wasn’t any good it would be worth listening to just for the line; “Your heart is not a part of your brain.”
I have never felt like anything other than a loser.
A marginal figure.
Somebody but nobody.
But when I listen to certain songs by Suede I feel like none of that matters because even if I was clever, even if I was somebody, even if I was handsome, even if I was popular, even if I was successful…I would still be a marginal figure.
You get it right?
Course you do.
“Streetlife” is another thumper, a stomper, a headshaker…it also manages to incorporate the word “syncopated” into the first verse. You know you are dealing with either a genius or a madman when they use a word like that as an opening gambit.
Another song that could have taken a seat on the “Coming Up” train is “Astrogirl” which has the scope and ambition of the likes of “The Chemistry Between Us”. As I listen to it right now I am struck by the fact that this really is a wonderful song…the sort of thing that if it had been recorded by almost anyone else would be hailed as a moment of genius but, because of their own high standards, is relegated to a forgotten moment on a derided album from Suede. When Brett sings about a strange relationship starting between a girls molecules and him…I’m there and so is anyone else who has ever really been in love. It is all encompassing…love is a strange relationship between all of you and all of them.
I feel awful writing that.
I’m not that kind of person.
Sitting behind a computer keyboard passing judgements on the work of people with infinitely more talent than I could ever even dream of possessing.
But…I have to be able to tell you how I feel.
It sounds like the band are treading water.
Imagine if you suffered from anxiety…or depression…or adjustment disorder…the mornings are never, ever, opportunities to explore the new, to build on the success of yesterday, to find love, to see new people, to experience new things; instead they are simply the start of the next phase of the end. That’s how it feels. You know…if you suffer from those things. Friends have told me.
“Morning” feels like that even though at the heart of the song there is a sort of bleak hope.
“One Hit to the Body” could, easily, have been one of those magnificent early Suede b-sides. Guitars shimmer and chime, drums beat to the beat, the bass pulses and Brett bangs on about cardboard skies, dead end situations and lorries. Again you are struck by the fact that while it may not be the best thing Suede have ever done…it sits several places above the best moments of lots of other bands. Released in 1997 it would have been a top ten single.
“When the Rain Falls” is…here.
I’m going to move on.
I’ve used up my quota of being mean already.
It’s fine…that’s as good as it gets.
Half an idea performed with half a heart.
Things come to a drab and dreary conclusion with “Oceans”, a tragic tale of love that has burned out. Where intimacy once grasped you in a vice-like grip…now there is only distance. This is the moonlight where “Positivity” was the sound of the sunshine breaking through the gap in the curtains. A sad song…and nobody does the sad songs quite like Suede.
There is no doubt that “A New Morning” fails to hit the heights of the first three albums but there is equally no doubt that it is far from the disaster that so many wish to call it…including the band. In truth it is an album with enough moments of splendour to merit repeat listens. It is the sound of a band coming to the end of…something. There is a lack of energy at times and a palpable sense of insecurity and uncertainty at other times. It is the best album you have been told is a worst album ever…?