Friday 15 March 2013

Suede - Bloodsports

Album review by

I was 13 when Suede's Mercury-winning, Britpop-starting debut album was released. I heard a short clip of 'So Young' on ITV's 'The Chart Show' and was blown away. I waited until the next birthday/Christmas and the obligatory tenner in a card from my Gran and went and bought the album on tape. It was a bit disappointing at first, but I played 'So Young' so many times that that section of the tape is worn out and no longer plays properly. It wasn't long before the rest of the album captured me. 'Breakdown', 'Metal Mickey'... they became my favourite band. Needless to say the excitement leading up to the release of second effort 'Dog Man Star' was palpable. I bought it, again on cassette and was disappointed at first. A month later I was stunned. To this day I regard that album as one of the finest made by any band, ever. Be it the upbeat guitar-pop of 'New Generation', the warped love and drugs epic 'The Asphalt World', or, frankly, any of it. And then there were the B-sides. Wow. No band released B-sides that were better than some album tracks.

At this point the news broke that Bernard Butler had left (different versions of events have been reported), but it was OK as they'd recruited a replacement. 17-year-old Richard Oakes. Would he be up to scratch? The first I saw of him was performing 'The Wild Ones' on Top Of The Pops; he looked the part, I was happy. I waited with more anticipation than ever for new material, and then it arrived in single 'Trash'. A decent track, one that was Suede at their more poppy, but it sounded like Suede. A sigh of relief was breathed. Its parent album arrived soon after. 'Coming Up' catapulted them to greater success and more top 10 hits, but something wasn't quite right. There were a few amazing songs; 'The Chemistry Between Us, 'By The Sea'... but it was a pop album as much as anything. The lyrics were ones we'd heard before and some of the songs were below par. Worse followed with next album 'Head Music'. I didn't bother buying an album by what were my favourite band. Sadly this is now how people remember them; for atrocious singles like 'Filmstar' and 'She's In Fashion'. The mighty had fallen. The band who took British guitar music to the top 10 for the first time in years were a parody. Back then songs rarely entered the chart at number one or even in the top ten. Certainly not an indie band. 'Stay Together' crash-landed straight into the top 5. This would soon become the norm but it was a mini-revelation at the time.

Even the public lost interest by the time they put out 'A New Morning'. I only heard the singles; they were good. Apparently the rest of the album was, to quote one of their singles, trash. I met the news of a reformation with some trepidation; there was no Bernard Butler - and this isn't to say Richard Oakes is a bad guitarist, he's an amazing player and a decent songwriter, but Bernard Butler is on a different level to most people. The shows went well. Could they hold it together and banish the overriding memories people have of their chart/cocaine period? Then came the comeback single, 'Barriers'. It sounded like a band refreshed, whatever had taken that magic away had returned. A month or so on and it's sounding like one of the truly great comeback singles; that spark that Brett had lost had been reignited, now we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best from new album 'Bloodsports'. It's make or break for their reputation; most people forget, or never knew, just how important they were pre-1995. I've spent over a decade trying to explain that the real Suede isn't that horrible band with those second-rate Britpop hits. They opened the door, they were vital to British music in the 1990s, if only for a few years. Without them things would have been different.

They promptly proved 'Barriers' was no one-off by giving the public another taste in the wonderful 'It Starts And Ends With You'. There's more to come: 'Snowblind' has that typical Suede guitar sound that both Butler and Oakes used, as well as a huge chorus. Brett's odd lyrics crop up from time to time which is good to hear ("her touch is like a raven's shadow..." " ...lips like semaphore"). Those tales of twisted love are still here, they're still lying in the gutter looking at the stars. 'The Strangers' exemplifies this like a mini-epic and captures the essence of the band at their peak. There's a future single in the gritty 'Hit Me', another mysterious tale of love with lyrics that could be (and are almost certainly supposed to be) ambiguous, even capturing a few of Brett's trademark "la la las". Pretty much every song here stands out in some way, even the initially routine sounding 'Sometimes I Feel I'll Float Away' ends up as a stately piece, and then it's followed by the haunting and broken-hearted 'What Are You Not Telling Me', a familiar feeling from their early albums returns, but with a whole new production technique. It's spine-tinglingly forlorn, as is 'Always' which captures that sense of loss almost as well as they did 20 years ago and the second half of the song bleeds desperation. They save some powerful emotion for the album's closing piece, 'Faultlines', is it a reflective contemplation of life as a whole? Or just an important yet hollow and desolate moment in time being captured?

Let's be clear, Suede were never going to repeat the first two albums, they're older. Singing about teenage life and council estates would just be plain wrong now, they're detached from that, and no one wants to see a middle aged man in a tatty charity shop blouse spanking his arse anymore. This was never going to be a seminal album and it isn't. They had to make an album of top quality guitar songs. Basically they needed to aim for the 'Coming Up'-era sound but not mention nuclear skies and getting high on diesel. They've done that on 'Bloodsports' and had this album been released in place of 'Head Music' the public's attitude to the band would be different, they'd be considered the greats that they were before it all went wrong. I can safely say that the band have made the album I'd hoped, their third best after 'Dog Man Star' and 'Suede' (in that order) and more importantly have shown that there's still fire in their bellies and desire pumping through their veins. 'Bloodsports' may be the last album they make, and that would be fine; a fitting epitaph and a correction made to music's history books. But can we also hope that this will give them the confidence to use as a springboard to something even better? Let's hope so. So many comeback albums are abominations (anyone still listening to 'Forth' by The Verve? Thought not), but not this one. 'Bloodsports' is one of the best comeback albums in recent memory.

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Suede's website

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