Suede, Head Music at Twenty

suedeheadmusic

Suede decided to reveal the title for their fourth studio album one letter at a time…one week apart.

H.

E.

“It’s going to be “Heroin” isn’t it?” squealed expectant fans and journalists.

Those naughty Suede boys.

Playing fast and loose with the rumours about Brett’s drug use at this time.

Then Matt Osman told the NME that the album would, in fact, be called “Head Music”.

I know that “Heroin” would have been a cliche but it would also have been a nice nod to the Velvet Underground and a call back to “Heroine” from “Dog Man Star”…I was a bit disappointed.

What none of us knew, but many suspected, at that time was that heroin was playing a fairly major role in Suede World in the run up to the recording of “Head Music”.  Once the band decided to step out of the limelight for a bit following the release of “Sci-Fi Lullabies” they all had time on their hands…time on your hands isn’t something a character like the young Brett Anderson could be trusted with.

“More than anything there started to be a whole load of people he was associating with who I just couldn’t stand. They had nothing to do with the band, nothing to do with anything but drugs. They were drug buddies.”

(Matt Osman, “Love and Poison” by David Barnett, 2003)

“Buddies” like this can be poison to a band.

At one point in time I was friends with a well known musician…world tours, stadiums, hit singles and all the rest of it.  Life was good for him.  Then he found some “buddies” who were not part of the music scene…parasites is what they were.  They saw him as a potential cash cow.  To keep him close they drip, drip, dripped poison in his ear about other people in the band…fed his ego…fuelled resentments…that, ultimately, didn’t end well.  I can well imagine the influence of Brett’s drug “buddies”.

Parasites.

In the hinterland between “Sci-Fi Lullabies” and the new album there was a real chance that Suede could simply…end.

“Electricity” was the lead single from the album, released in April of 1999 it sounded like…”Filmstar” and “Trash” and “The Beautiful Ones” from “Coming Up”.  It was resolutely, defiantly, Suede.  Violent homes, lips like pain, AC/DC, kissing all yelped and howled by Brett while Richard’s guitars did something similar.  Was familiarity in danger of breeding contempt?  While “Electricity” is a great pop song it left me feeling…let down?  No.  Not let down, but…looking for, waiting for, something more.  A return to the grandeur of “Dog Man Star” maybe?  A great leap forward of some sort?  This wasn’t either of those things, it was the sound of a band treading water, playing it safe…

The album itself arrived a month later and it was…a mixed bag.

Neither bad nor genius.

There were moments when they sounded better than they ever had and moments when they sounded…finished, bored and creatively dead.  Now two decades have passed, so how has the passing of time impacted on this problematic, confusing, album?  Is it a lost classic or the same mixed up, muddled up, thrilling, challenging and tiring mess?

After the opening surge of “Electricity” the first sign of a problem arrives with “Savoir Faire”.  Musically it is a hazy, glam, reggae, throb of a tune…which sounds like it should be brilliant, but it isn’t, it is, instead, boring.  Things are not helped by a set of lyrics that includes lines like “She live in a house she stupid as a mouse” and “”She got pretty feet”.  To say that this is hardly the dizzying grandeur and gothic high art of “The Asphalt World” is to state the bleedin’ obvious.  This was, maybe for the first time, a Suede song that was teetering on the line between turgid and dreadful.

Thankfully the entire gang wake up for “Can’t Get Enough” which is the sort of dumb, dumb, down, down, deeper and down rock and roll, Glitter Band, stomper that makes you glad to be alive and that Suede deliver with more glitz and glam than any other band could.  This is a shot of adrenaline, a dexys midnight run, a reach for the stars upper that cleanses your palate and your soul after the Ketamine fug of “Savoir Faire”.

A cold, near frosty, doomed, near fatal, bleak, near Dickensian, scent and sense of romance has hung over all of the best moments from Suede.  From “Pantomime Horse” and “He’s Dead” in the earliest, embryonic, moments of their career to “Life is Golden” from “The Blue Hour” last year it has been a core element of the Suede identity.

“Everything Will Flow” is another song that captures that sound and feeling.  A slightly woozy, seasick yet docked, lazy, hazy, heart-breaker of a song.  Something about Brett singing “lullaby” the way he does and the sound of the guitars and the strings soaring as he reassures us all that everything will flow makes my heart stop and beat faster at the same moment.

No, I don’t know what that means either.

For many people the high point of the Suede back catalogue remains “Dog Man Star” with all of its grand, grande, baroque, operatic, Berlin Bowie blitz, heartbreak, breaking hearts, show stopping, breath grabbing, eloquent elegance.  It’s not difficult to understand that and it is easy to agree with it.  But sometimes, just sometimes, you can achieve something as thrilling without the need to produce something so intricate.  “Down” is as simple as pop music gets, a slow moving, soul grooving, pulse of melody and romance.  The chorus alone is enough to bag this a spot at the top table of Suede;

Hey you chase the day away 
Hey you draw the blinds and blow your mind away 
There’s a sadness in your eyes 
And there’s a blankness in your smile

At the risk of being an awful over-sharer I can’t really remember the last day I didn’t chase away or the last time I looked in the mirror and saw something other than a blank smile and sadness in my eyes.

There is every chance that you have had days, weeks, months, years or a lifetime of feeling exactly the same way.

It’s good to know you are not alone.

“She’s the shape of a cig-a-rrrrette”

God bless you Brett Anderson.

God bless you.

God bless.

God.

If you could only write one line in pop music history you would want it to be that wouldn’t you?

It’s so silly.

So evocative.

So provocative.

So simple.

So Suede.

The usual things are present and correct in “She’s In Fashion”…the falsetto, references to gasoline, apocalyptic visions of sunshine and sunsets and the wonderful feeling that you are listening to one of the greatest bands in British pop music history.

Anything that was chosen to follow “She’s In Fashion” was always going to be judged harshly and find it difficult to shine in that songs shadow.  Even so one cannot help but feel that there must have been a better song than “Asbestos” lurking in the back of the Suede cupboard or down the back of Brett’s sofa.  The lyrics have a whiff of Adrian Mole at his most earnest.  In the right context, like a West End musical version of “The Secret Diary of…” that wouldn’t be a problem but here it leaves a slightly unpleasant after-taste in your ears.

I’m not deleting that last line.

I know the “…after-taste in your ears.” bit is absolutely appalling.

I know.

Don’t think I don’t know.

Blame the song.

The title track is a mish-mash-melding of “Electricity” and “Can’t Get Enough” but with very little of the charm or wit of either.  It sounds, and this is a terrible thing to think of Suede, like nobody cared.

It’s the closest thing Suede have to a “Parklife” or “Country House”.

Forgive me.

It’s a matter of personal taste right?

I’m not the authority on these things.

I don’t know why you are getting so upset.

Wait until you hear what I think about the next song.

Dumb.

Dumb.

Dumb.

Gloriously so.

Defiantly so.

“Elephant Man” is a blast.

Like the Glitter Band fronted by, well, Brett Anderson.

If it is true that heroin was lurking around every corner of the Suede universe at this point then this must have been written under the influence of something, sometime, someplace else.  It is the sort of cocky, cock-sure, half-cocked, coc-aine, confidence trick that, often, leads to something utterly dreadful or utterly brilliant…

You can have your own opinion.

This crazy cat loves it.

“Hi-Fi” sounds like the electroclash punk delights of The Faint on their “Blank Wave Arcade” album (also released in 1999).  Sleazy, heavy on the synths, light on making any real sense.  It isn’t experimental in any way but it still sounds like the band are trying to do something…else.  Looking backwards for sure but with one eye on where they could be heading…a sonic ambylopia.

Where they actually went next wasn’t headlong into the world of electroclash (which I feel very upset about to this day) but was instead into the malnourished, near accoustic, Britpop-folk and roll of “A New Morning”.  The sound of that album is all over “Indian Strings” which, along with “Savoir Faire” is one of my least favourite Suede songs.  The lyrics barely meet the word count for a haiku and musically it sounds like somebody has scraped up the left-overs from the recording sessions and stuck them together with double-sided tape.

Interestingly something much more worthwhile is to be found in the demo version.

Salvation arrives in the form of “He’s Gone” which is the one song here that could sit comfortably on any Suede album that had come before or that have since arrived.  Brett sounds magnificent, the music shuffles and soars in the background, guitars, strings, noises off stage and a soul baring lyric combine to make it one of their very best moments.

And like the leaves on the trees,
Like the Carpenters song,
Like the planes and the trains
and the lives that were young, he’s gone
And it feels like the words to a song

Biff.

Bang.

Pow.

That really knocks you out.

The album closes with a song that is eerily prophetic.

A dis-united Kingdom with voices raised on all sides.

Nobody listening.

Nobody really saying anything.

Things that matter going ignored.

Lives blighted.

No solutions.

The hope and togetherness that the Union Jack seemed to represent for much of the nineties…stripped of its relationship with the far right thanks to the giddy girl power of the Spice Girls and the rock ‘n’ roll antics of the working class heroes of Oasis as well as the promise of a better life of the New Labour project…has gone.

A crack in the Union Jack indeed.