Suede - Dog Man Star
HISTORICAL ACCOUNTS of the episode will read as follows: "Having played a pivotal role in the creation of a record that confirmed Suede's timeless brilliance, Bernard Butler quit. Friends said his few words on the subject were always tinged with quiet regret..."
Those bullish claims made by three people sitting in the eye of a crisis were true. 'Dog Man Star' is a startling record: an album surrounded by the white heart of something close to genius. Put it down to wild ambition, disdain for the limits that strait-jacket most young people with guitars, a crazed wish to equal the achievements of their forebears...
But first, meet the new Brett Anderson. The old mewling cross-breed - part Notting Hill boho, part dreamy barrow boy - isn't here: there's no "Dad, she's driving me mad", no nocturnal waifs described as "lovely little numbers", relatively little of the shrill yelper who smeared himself over 'Suede'. This Brett has almost everything he sings iced with echo. He frequently lapses into a soft baritone. He speaks, on occasion, with a booming authority. And with that change comes a shift in the songs. The minds that spawned the opening blood-and-glitter trilogy - 'The Drowners', 'Metal Mickey', 'Animal Nitrate' - have steadily become consumed by something bigger: codas, orchestras, music that can be huge. And Brett's stories require nothing less: the proclamations of a lifestyle laced with sordidness, the council homes and broken bones, have been all but lost in a theatrical flurry of traditional tragedy and euphoria. The songs of 'Dog Man Star' are grand designs, enacted against grandiose backdrops.
Naturally, there were portents of all this: 'Sleeping Pills', 'The Next Life', and most recently, the eight-minute thunderstorm that was 'Stay Together'. And what links this record with even its most clipped, trash-strewn predecessors is its over-arching sense of place, the fact that Brett roots the lion's share of his words in the decaying expanse of modern Britain. "England is simultaneously maddening and beautiful, and that's something I want to get across in the songs," he told NME in February. Such is the charm of large swathes of this record.
Its prologue seems to be a sliver of autobiography. 'Introducing The Band' may well be Suede's ascent recounted in an altered state: a throbbing, robotic vignette whose words flip between being too esoteric to translate, and satirically poking at the mythologised take on how they got here. "The tears of suburbia drowned the land," sings Brett, soaking his own history in soft-focus romance - only to sow disquiet when he alludes to the forces that turned him into a garish cut-out. "Steal me a savage, subservient son," goes the third verse. "Get him shacked-up, bloodied-up and sucking on a gun/I want the style of a woman, the kiss of a man..."
This is one of the few obvious Brett-the-star references; by the song's close, he has epochal matters in mind, trailing the blazing visions of 'We Are The Pigs' with a gleeful wish for the late 1990s: "Let the century die to violent hands," he sings, like a public school dorm-boy messing with the Ouija board. Thus - after a looped fade-out roughly translated as "dying-um-dying-um" - begins a stylised riot.
'We Are The Pigs' is the best Suede single to date: the rock'n'roll equivalent of operatic moments of peasants coming down from the hills to lynch the squire. Well, the church bells are calling/Police cars on fire," leers Brett, as the disorder boils over, launching a clarion call for every social deviant. Along with everything else (most notably, Bernard's unfettered, wilfully hamfisted guitar), the horns - knowingly stolen from 'Peter Gunn' - make '...Pigs' an exemplar of the thrilling hybrid of Camp Violence. And like a lot of this album, it's set within yards of your back door. That's why you get the shivers.
The same goes, several tracks later, for 'The 2 Of Us', in which an isolated woman, left alone by a lobotomized husband, gazes out over a loveless townscape. The images are fanciful but beautifully evocative ("Two silhouettes by the cash machine make a lovers' dance/It's a tango for the lonely wives of the business class"); the music - piano alone, mostly - simply soars. You get a similar sense of modern resonance in 'New Generation', a sleek, wide-eyed tale of nocturnal living that pits the new, booming Brett against the old, bump-and-grind Suede. The trick is executed again by 'The Asphalt World', in which all the gritty staples of the Suedeworld are conjured up, and a skewed tale of ecstasy, taxi rides, cruel sex and living with betrayal floats away on an other-wordly endpiece.
Other songs are more sneakingly rooted in the urban expanse: play them with the curtains open and their setting is revealed; introduce them to someone in a Californian meadow, and they'd simply luxuriate in their sheer quality. Take 'The Wild Ones', possibly the best song here. It opens with a bizarrely clumsy guitar part, and an opening verse in which the radio blares out the soundtrack to two lovers' last morning together - and then strides quietly into excellence.
It's the kind of song quietly sung by saucer-eyed undergraduates on Sunday mornings: a modern cousin of 'Here, There And Everywhere', Dylan's 'I Want You' and every other member of the love song aristocracy.
'Black And Blue' is up there, too. A snapshot of besieged black and white lovers, it manages to dramatise the everyday to a heartbreaking extent. "There was a girl who fled the world from a lonely shore," sings Brett, in supernatural falsetto. "Through southern snow... to... Heathrow". It's as if the pauses are there to remind us that, yes, he's singing about something as mundane as an airport; that - as when 'The Wild Ones' mentions "the bungalows where the debts still grow" - parochial normality can be shot through with heart-stopping significance.
There are exceptions, of course, 'Heroine' is a strident, steely song, redolent of 'So Young' - and though it sounds marvellous, it's centred on the kind of half-idea around which pseudo-intellectual prefects base school musicals. A callow lad sits in a must-smelling loft, visited nightly by the spectre of Marilyn Monroe... it's too trite to be convincing, so the song works despite its theme. Just.
The same fate would befall 'Daddy's Speeding' (introducing James Dean) and 'The Hollywood Life' (the burn-out of an LA victim), were the former not so delightfully understated and beguilingly worded; and the latter, in which Brett reverts to the yelping trash-queen stereotype, not hurled out with such force. That's probably in Suede's favour: a record so couched in earth-shaking drama probably needs at least one spittle-flecked tantrum.
Besides, everything - even the uncomfortably inconsequential 'The Power' (written with Bernard but devoid of his guitar) - is forgiven within the opening bars of 'Still Life'. The woman from 'The 2 Of Us' is still at the window, "quietly killed" - and this time, the wretched dormitory town she lives in becomes Wyoming or Oklahoma. A 40-piece orchestra takes its place, there's a classic pause before it all explodes into a final chorus... and another wondrous coda demands 'The End' to be etched on to the wide screen that suddenly juts out of the speakers.
Like much of 'Dog Man Star', such a finale looks laughable preposterous in print. It isn't: it's affecting enough to prompt tears, to momentarily propel the questions (What next? How do they play whole chunks of this live?) that are begged by Suede's current predicament into the ether. And why?
Well, look at this sad, expiring island: the endless acres of crumbling '70s planning, the hard-faced joyriders and their blighted parents, the omnipresent underclass...
Precious few people who've witnessed its 15-year slide into squalid tragedy have ever sought to lend it its own doomed romance. Suede have brilliantly sent up modern life as an endless comic opera, a seaside postcard dipped in cheap lager and Coca-Cola. They've given up trying to root themselves in it, and wrapped themselves in alien robes - icy European futurism, lank-haired American cool.
So be it. But each age needs to feel its own worth, to behold something more than post-modern giggling and the frantic exploration of other people's myths. It needs a dramatic soundtrack made by people who want to romanticise their time who, in this instance (bar the Hollywood songs), look around them and see some terrible, aching beauty, riddles with traces of the humanity that should have been crushed as things began to crumble.
And sure, in times when sincerity and echo-laden drama are so out of kilter with a culture whose abiding motto is 'irony or death', anyone who does this, and makes Great Art out of it, will be ridiculed.
So scoff, chatterers. Suede Mark 1 have made an album that will relegate your laughter to trifling background noise. You're a fool, Bernard Butler. You really are.