Suede - Suede

BY THIS time, of course, you've already made up your mind. So relentless and all-encompassing has been Suede's presence in this little looking glass world of pop over the past 12 months that even the only casually concerned onlookers have marked their card one way or t'other. Or rather, they've been told to. One of Suede's many achievements has been to inspire some of the most outrageous examples of self-aggrandising tommyrot the British music press has ever seen fit to print, and right from the start here was a band set up to provoke love or loathing. Blighty or Yankee, sweat or suave, pop or punk. Bullshit, the staple of classic cultural debate, is back in town and he smells much the same as ever.

So why? Why Suede? Why has it fallen to four blokes touting what seems like little more than a tarted up resume of Brit-pop's finest few hours to bear such potentially ruinous levels of expectation?

Firstly, because someone always has to. This is a small country, bedevilled with delusions of grandeur - not least of which that we invented pop music. Thus, ever since The Beatles were successfully marketed into the world's biggest pop phenomenon - before inconveniently deciding this was not something they particularly wanted to be - our fast-food media circus is forever on the search for the next likely stars/cash cows. There's also the recurring demand for a bedsit icon, someone to which our hordes of depressed suburban adolescents can voice their cries for help. When twinned, these strands have produced some prodigious stars, but the last bunch that really fitted the bill were The Stone Roses, who, unfortunately for the preying vultures, stepped off the rollercoaster and are taking as long to make their second album as they did to make their first. The British record industry looks for a Suede every week, and frequently tries to invent one. Just imagine, then, how chuffed everyone was when this bunch swaggered into town. Suede, see, have the grace to be pretty good - a bonus in these benighted times.

At this point, please excuse a slight diversion into tedious personal reminiscence. My first encounter with Suede was inadvertent, sat as I was last April in the office of their publicist when four young men walk in. Each carried a plastic bag stuffed with what appeared to be the spoils of a fruitful trip to the nearest secondhand chemiserie. It was Suede, clearly, but not the dolled up dandies then being feverishly discussed in the, err, pubs and clubs up and down the nation.

The arrival of an NME photographer made everything click - here were Brett and Bernard, Mat and Simon, our brightest stars-in-waiting carrying their imperial new clothes in poly bags! Having changed into said garb, they promptly 'became' Suede.

Cheats! Fiends! Imposters! Yes, yes, but then let's be clear that this is all about fantasy. Brett Anderson tantalises a nation's pop kids not via what he obviously is (a raffish good-looking youngish man) but what he might be - a dilettantish hedonist of indeterminate sexual persuasion. What's it all about? It's about things perhaps not being quite what they seem. Suede are part of that long and cherished tradition whereby our put-upon outsiders can bluff their way out of nine-to-five drudgery by hitching a bit of artifice to whatever talent lurks in their genes.

In so doing, they bond with a similarly frustrated and alienated audience. This band have been accused of being poised, cool and not a little calculating; but then, in a way, that's inevitable, for what have they ever had to hit against other than their own existential foibles, the bane of sanitised middle-class suburban existence? In many ways, this is an odious tradition - only so much wan introspection is good for you - but Suede succeed because, like their spiritual predecessors, they've found a few irresistible songs to sing.

The songs. Remember them? 'Suede' has 11 of the chaps, almost doubling the band's previously released canon of work. OK, so all three singles are present and there won't be too many surprises for anyone with a basic grasp of last year's live set, but the overwhelming feeling towards the debut album by Suede is one of relief that it finally made it here. In the wake of the media froth, anticlimax hangs heavy in the air, very much the same as when, getting on for ten years ago, the first Smiths album appeared.

Let's not be coy about this. Suede share The Smiths' glossy-eyed reference points and betray an obviously deep love of that band's imperious gift for immaculate misconception. 'The Smiths', too, had been trailed, to steadily increasing hysteria by three singles, and once arrived flew from the shops before fans sat down, listened and began to realise that it was good, but maybe not as good as they'd hoped. 'Suede' faces the same problems and similarly fails to deliver on a few, admittedly trifling, levels.

It begins, jaw-jarringly enough, with what sounds like the identical drumbeat to 'Reel Around The Fountain' - stop it, please! - before Brett yelps something only vaguely intelligible in his most wilful falsetto. It's not transcribed in the helpfully provided lyric sheet, but sounds like it might be "Seek a star", which would at least fit with what follows.

'So Young' is as definitive as debut album opening salvoes get, sliding rapidly into gear along one of many diamond hard Bernard Butler buzz-heavy guitar lines to come, and with Anderson imploring his charges, "Let's chase the dragon, oh!" In a neat piano interlude that confirms the band's widening textural palate, he confides that, From our home high in the city where the skyline stained the snow/I fell for a servant that kept me on the boil."

Both yearning and yet ultimately chaste, this has all the essential Suede elements: sex (of the high temperature, doubtless illicit variety), drugs (do 'em, though the message is ultimately cautionary) and vague homilies to the greatness of being, err, so young. How young Suede themselves actually are, of course, is debatable - and you can bet their publicist is already getting coy about Brett's age - but irrelevant. This is yet another slice of artifice, essential to the self-mythologising process this band have engaged in so vehemently. It's an act, but can they pull it off?

'Animal Nitrate' follows hard and confused, a prefab pop classic. "What does it take to turn you on/Now you're over 21," might not be quite up there with "A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand" but it's certainly getting there. Anderson clearly revels in this popular schizophrenic role of supplicant and dominator, a twisted pied piper for a permanently lost generation. Your mum might like him, but he might like your mum too, and as for dad... 'She's not Dead' is a third-party related kitchen-sink drama set around dubious going's on in a seedy fella's motor. "What's she called? I dunno/She's f(ing with a slip of a man while the engine ran" trills Ando over Butler's delicate acoustic motif.

The turbo-Suede model originally unveiled on 'The Drowners' single makes a brief, but only moderately spectacular, return with 'Moving', a song perhaps most notable for a lulling refrain that's bizarrely reminiscent of XTC's vintage pop farrago 'Generals And Majors' - but hang on, maybe this isn't really so strange: XTC = Ecstasy, right? And Brett has never been shy about the prominence of narcotics on his let's blow the minds of our nation's youth agenda. 'The Drowners' itself appears soon enough to remind us it remains Suede's most perfect instant thrill, a groove nugget so lustrous it dazzles without fail every time.

But before then there's 'Pantomime Horse', perhaps the best-realised of the band's attempts at epic grandeur. It's a snatch from the life of an awkward kid - "Ugly as the sun when he falls to the floor" - with the lilt and repeated pay-off line device of Moz's 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore'. Atop a spiralling, increasingly histrionic Butler guitar wall, Brett is pondering, well, take a wild guess: "Have you ever tried it that way, tried it that way, tried it that way."

Post-'Drowners', 'Suede' takes on a perhaps inevitably becalmed air, but one that testifies to the band's growing confidence to meddle with whatever preconceptions people insist on wielding. 'Sleeping Pills' is a vast orchestral sweep into parts languorous, with Brett once again simultaneously seduced and repelled by the Pandora's Box of substance abuse. "Sweet FA to do today," croons our erstwhile slacker.

Just around the corner from such personal self-absorption, of course, lies mental collapse and here's where the album's apparent keystone 'Breakdown' comes in. Apparently the last song written for the album and clearly from a pretty addled point of view. "Oh, if you were the one," declaims Brett over the prettiest of motifs, "would I even notice now my mind has gone". It drifts then kicks like cold-turkey with a star-spangled axe'n'sax coda. This demonstrable beauty then messes its own pants with Brett's ludicrous falsetto finale: "Does your love only come... does he only come in a Volvo?" Language, young man.

At his point, all of Bedsitland will be sobbing into its collective Pot Noodle, so the subsequent appearance of 'Metal Mickey' is as welcome as the proverbial fart in the spacesuit. A patently ridiculous burst of self-parody, it only manages to jar yet further amidst these exalted bedfellows. The slight 'Animal Lover' follows and reinforces the rather dispiriting sense of ennui, being little more than Suede-by-numbers.

Fortunately, there is a final redemption in the genius, truly affecting (as opposed to affected) 'The Next Life'. With just Butler's poignant piano licks for comfort, Brett manages to eschew the (let's face it) somewhat laboured punnery he is wont to offer up as lyrical insight: "See you in your next life when we'll fly away for good." To Worthing, in fact. "We'll go far away and flog ice creams 'til the company's on its knees."

It's an allegedly true story. Could that really be the record company on its knees, begging Suede not to blow it all away?! Well, Nude/Sony have nothing to worry about here. This is the solid, quality, ring-of-confidence debut they've dreamed the band would produce.

Maybe Suede are as relieved as anybody that this record is finally here, at last with the chance to get it out of their system, to put behind them all the stuff and nonsense of the past 12 months and to move on to whatever the future holds. It's there that these most artful of dodgers will have to prove their mettle. For now, we've got 'Suede'. Dream on.


Keith Cameron