Outside the UK, Suede never had the widespread appeal of their Britpop contemporaries Oasis, Pulp, and The Verve. But Suede was arguably the most ambitious of the group. While the Gallagher brothers pretended to be The Beatles and Jarvis Cocker took the role of social commentator, Suede and frontman Brett Anderson worshipped personal romanticism and the profundities of sex and intimacy — like Morrissey and David Bowie before him. The band’s debut self-titled album and its follow-up, Dog Man Star, treat these topics with sacred reverence, with Anderson singing of doomed relationships like dirges for the apocalypse. While the characters in his songs might be cowering in bed, strung out, pathetic, clinging to some unrequited feeling, Anderson’s poetry and the grand, theatrical sound of Suede’s music creates the sense that their world is collapsing beautifully. For anyone who’s been so out-of-love, it can certainly feel that way.
After Richard Oakes replaced Bernard Butler on lead guitar in 1994, Suede dialed back the melodrama in favor of less-affected pop songs, but returned to the doomed bedroom anthems with 2013’s excellent comeback album, Bloodsports. Once again, love is depicted through metaphors of violence (“Come on and hit me/ With your majesty”) and we hear Suede at their most conceptual. But timing worked against the band, as Bowie’s own comeback, The Next Day, was released a week earlier and upstaged Bloodsports and Suede’s return.
So, in an ironic twist of fate, Suede’s latest opus, Night Thoughts, comes out in the midst of national mourning for Bowie — who is the most obvious and direct influence on Anderson’s own glam-esque persona and Suede’s sonic aesthetic. This has little to do with the music of Night Thoughts, but it does frame the release in a poignant context, as we again hear Suede in hopeless-romantic mode, Anderson channeling his inner Bowie as he weaves a lovelorn narrative. Produced by Ed Buller, the record acts a spiritual successor to Bloodsports, both sonically and thematically; only this time, Anderson explores the psyche of his tragic heroes and the mental scars left by physical voids.
The album’s lead single, “Outsiders”, recalls “Beautiful Ones” and “Trash”, as it introduces our characters as fringe dwellers. They fall in love because they have nothing else in their lives; no money to buy romance, no careers with which to distract themselves — only one another. Of course, it’s never that easy, and this is a Suede album, so the relationship cracks as Anderson plays novelist to the turmoil. On “I Don’t Know How to Reach You”, “What I’m Trying to Tell You”, and “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants”, the protagonist is lost in his head, answering his questions of insecurity with self-doubt and the blind passion that comes with delusional yearning. Remarkably, Anderson’s hyper-romantic words build into a singular statement, and the breaks in the music between tracks seem independent of the lyrical whole. Topics of age and how perception of love changes over time are also introduced (“When You Are Young”, “When We Were Young”) as Anderson explores every angle of his love story. The metaphor comes full circle on “Like Kids”, the album’s catchiest track: “Like kids, like savages,” Anderson sings, “We’ll run in the playground if you just stay with me.”
Musically, Night Thoughts will satisfy fans of Suede’s classic material, as the album finds a middleground between the guitar pop of the Coming Up era and the moodier textures of Dog Man Star. Remember that Oakes was recruited as a Bernard Butler clone, able to perfectly mimic the original Suede guitarist’s active, grandiose style. The minor scale lead work in “I Don’t Know How to Reach You” accents the melancholy in Anderson’s lyrics, and his riffs (notably on “No Tomorrow” and “Like Kids”) supply the album’s melodic hooks. Buller’s production and mixing steeps everything in a dreamy chorus reverb, and except for an occasionally distracting Auto-Tune on Anderson’s voice, the production aligns well with the songs.
As we continue to celebrate Bowie and his achievements, let us not forget the bands and artists he inspired. Suede drew as much from him as anyone, and Night Thoughts is a fine entry in their already strong discography. Whether it will translate to more stateside recognition is doubtful and moot, really. These are artists doing what they do best and tackling ambitious projects long after anybody expected it. Just like Bowie.
Essential Tracks: “Outsiders”, “Like Kids”