The Lead Review: Luke Turner On Suede's Night Thoughts
, January 21st, 2016 09:13
"Everything is always going to be with a sense of drama." Brett Anderson's swapped crack for nappies, but the uncynical passion of years gone by is still present, argues Luke Turner. But is this the best Suede album yet?
For a band so resolutely showy as Suede, their decision to launch seventh album Night Thoughts last November by playing behind a screen that took over the entire width of the Camden Roundhouse was a bold one. As strings and gigantic drums thundered around the venue, footage blinked into life of a man striding, despairing and defiant, into the sea from a British beach. Then, in a beautiful underwater shot, he drowned. A single spotlight picked out Brett Anderson behind the screen, singing and oddly present in the footage as the bubbles whirled around him.
This was the start to a remarkable evening that saw Suede thundering through their new album, seamless and in order, as the companion film (shot by Roger Sergeant) played in front of them, telling a tale of suicide, child death, crime, mental illness, breakdown, guilt and grief. It was the most exciting show I've seen them play since their emphatic comeback at the 100 Club in March 2010, and in the intermission the atmosphere in the crowd fizzed, many confessing to tears. The second half of the set, made up of belters from the near-25-years of their history, couldn't come close. There are few groups who can pull this off and, as a Suede fan, it made for a blessed relief. After all, they're a band who made their name by dealing with the heady passions of youth and I probably wasn't the only one worried what might happen were Brett Anderson to run out of gasoline. Or diesel, for that matter.
I needn't have been concerned, even if "night thoughts" are not what they were. Once in Suede world they'd probably have referred to drugged-up excursions across the city or been a euphemism for complicated sex. Instead, Suede's seventh album sees Brett Anderson taking inspiration from the anxieties of parenthood and how that has made him reassess his relationship with his own dad. In a recent Guardian interview, Anderson said of his new work/life balance, "I’m a full-time father. [Suede] feels like I’m putting on clothes – the other thing feels like the real thing."
Superficially this might seem like a remarkable transformation from a frontman whose band for years felt like a uniform and way of life, for him and the devoted alike. Yet Anderson has always been an acute observer of the world around him - if he could turn this skill to dole queues and druggy urban netherworlds, why not this? Night Thoughts is surely the record that Suede must have had brewing since they returned, still part of Anderson's single-minded focus, despite the changing subject matter. As he put it when I interviewed him in 2013, "I got utterly obsessed with my family instead of being obsessed with crack".
Dirty nappies are clearly a superior muse to the singed pipe. The twelve songs on Night Thoughts flow effortlessly into one another, just as they did at the Roundhouse. While Chief Rock of the Telegraph was rather over-egging the pudding when he wrote that that in the combination of film and music Suede are "reinventing" the album, it's certainly exciting to have the option of listening to them as accompaniment as well as on their own merit. Similarly, Sergeant's own narrative and eloquently-shot film suggests he's on the way to becoming a talent outside the music work he's known for - Suede picked him for the job after loving his pleasingly sleazy video for Fat White Family's 'Touch The Leather'. His footage compliments Suede's music in 2016 just as perfectly as did Derek Jarman's work with the tour videos to Dog Man Star tracks that Suede commissioned in the mid-1990s. In a world that fits within the Suede aesthetic without ever relying on its past staples of a grimy London at the centre of a vortex reeling in lives from dull suburbia, Sergeant doesn't create a literal cinematic interpretation of Anderson's lyrics as if they were a script, but tells his own story that touches on the same themes of family, worry, and loss.
Musically, Night Thoughts is the most solid and focussed-sounding album Suede have ever realised. If Bloodsports was a consolidation for the band that saw them asserting that not only could Suede MK III could not only be utterly vicious live but could also record a brilliant record, compared to this it sounds a little thin, too indebted to their frayed leather jacket, spidery glam rock past.
For starters, Richard Oakes is on absolutely terrific form, on arguably the first record where he sounds entirely comfortable in his own skin. I'm not really one to get excited about guitar solos, but the spiralling light he twists out on the epic melancholy of 'I Don't Know How To Reach You' is quite something. As well as Oakes' superlative playing, Mat Osman and Simon Gilbert's bass and drums have a propulsive quality perhaps not heard from them before. On top of it all, Anderson's voice continues to go from strength to strength - when the note lingers as he sings "falling like leaves" at the end of 'Learning To Be' it's proper goosebump stuff. Yes, as Anderson will readily admit, he has something of a marmite voice, but for those who get it, this is luxurious. Lurking in the background of all of it is Neil Codling who, as well as not ageing a day since about 1999, has worked with producer Ed Buller to create a richly arranged whole. If on Dog Man Star certain songs didn't quite mesh with the overall ambition, that's never the case here - the segueing of the tracks creates a heady, effervescent rush. Within that are some of the strongest songs Suede have written. 'Outsiders' and 'Like Kids' are classic Suede stompers, the latter a breezy number which sees the film element cleverly introducing visual elements from Suede's past - the Dog Man Star bare arse cover art becomes a hungover on his bed. Final track 'The Fur & The Feathers' is utterly dramatic, with cymbals crashing around all over the shop, orchestral pomp in perfect unison with the band.
In 1993, the writer Max Bell accompanied Suede on an early tour, focussing his article on the devotion of their already fanatical fans. "There is nothing really peculiar about any of these people, except their dedication," he wrote; "They aren't fair-weather friends, jumping on the bandwagon. They're not along for the ride. These people are here for the duration." He wasn't wrong. In July last year, Suede played the modernist surroundings of Bexhill Pavillion, a sleek venue in a dilapidated seaside town that couldn't be more Suede. It was fascinating to watch the crowd, drawn largely from the stalwart who'd made the duration - a still good-looking bunch, now lived-in, one eye on the kids at home. Everyone lost it, still shook their meat to the beat, as Suede's 'Beautiful Ones' had it. Many of those original fans, who first connected with Suede's naughty wide-eyed dreaming, are now of an age where Anderson's most personal lyricism yet will connect in a new, very different, way. Their times and lives have changed too, but the uncynical passion is still there, just as it is with the band onstage.
There's also clearly more than enough here to win the hearts of the younger fans who increasingly pack the front rows of Suede gigs. Anderson has been keen, after all, to ensure that this isn't a smug record, a musical equivalent of a broadsheet column about being a superdad. 'No Tomorrow', for instance, is what I think might be his first lyrical exploration of the impact that the depression suffered by his Frank Lizst-loving taxi driver had on their relationship. It's still a belting pop song, of course, and this being Suede everything is always going to be with a sense of drama. I remember visiting Anderson's West London house a few years ago for an interview and being amused that he'd removed the heads of his stepson's Harry Potter lego figures, and put them on plastic spikes above the castle gates. You can take the man out of the North London, Highgate mansion gothic, but you can't take the gothic out of the man.
Night Thoughts is a record that deals poetically and bravely with the shadows that start to grow as we age and life's responsibilities weigh heavier on our shoulders. Brett Anderson seems as comfortable writing about the aging process as he did chemical smiles in the backs of Volvos and bored suburban housewives done in on sleeping pills etc, something that bodes well indeed for the future. Is it Suede's best album? They're such a unique group that to compare this to the finest moments of their past seems churlish. It certainly is the sound of a band stepping out of their own shadow to finally be all they can be.