Suede Turns 20
Suede’s self-titled debut has a few big, important historical distinctions. For one thing, it’s generally acknowledged as the birth of Britpop — possibly the last moment that guitar-rock has been bright and hard and fashionable and, at least in its homeland, hugely popular — even if the members of the band didn’t much like being lumped in with the rest of the wave. For another, while Suede certainly weren’t the first popular band whose two leaders (in this case, singer Brett Anderson and guitarist Bernard Butler) publicly hated each other, they may have been the first who started publicly hating each other almost immediately, to the point where they barely eked out two albums before going their separate ways and staying apart forever. But for my money, the most important thing about Suede was that it was essentially an internet-rock album that had its moment before the internet existed in any significant way. Nearly a decade before the Strokes debuted, Suede became a lightning-rod for hype and argument, to the extent that conversations about their hype tended to overwhelm talk of their (actually great) music. This probably happened with other bands before Suede, but they’re definitely the first band I can remember whose buzz threatened to drown out their songs.
This happens all the time now, but as a 13-year-old, I don’t think I’d ever developed an idea of how a band’s music might sound before actually hearing that band. But that was how a whole lot of people first experienced Suede; NME famously gave them a cover and anointed them the best new band in Britain a month before they released their first single. I got my whole idea idea of the band from reading Spin and Raygun and Alternative Press, which was an entirely different magazine before the invention of MySpace emo. And at that point, if memory serves, the American writers covering Suede were mostly devoting ink to the way their British peers were covering Suede. That happens all the time now; it’s central to the conversation around Chief Keef or Foxygen or whoever. It never happened then. There were a few factors at work there. The British press was built on weekly magazines instead of monthlies, so it moved with a speed and voracity that seemed nuts pre-internet. And the band, Anderson especially, were great at giving soundbite-heavy interviews, hinting at androgyny and bisexuality and Bowie-sized aspirations, presenting themselves as larger-than-life figures from jump. And as a child developing music-obsessive tendencies, it was pretty fascinating to watch the whole thing play out. Things changed, though, when I actually heard the music contained therein.
From reading about them, I’d formulated this idea that Suede would sound just like the Smiths, and that wasn’t remotely accurate. There were similarities between the two bands on the level of persona and the cultural space both occupied, and both boasted haughtily self-impressed frontmen and slyly understated guitar heroes. Maybe that’s why Suede still draw Smiths comparisons puzzlingly often despite sounding basically nothing whatsoever like them. Suede’s music, I eventually figured out, was big and bold and brash and snarly. But I can still remember the moment of disconnect when I figured out that a severely catchy, riff-stomp of a song, one that I’d heard a few times in light alt-rock radio rotation, was actually “Metal Mickey,” Suede’s big single. These guys I’d been reading about were the same guys I was hearing, and for the longest time, it just didn’t scan.
“Metal Mickey” remains the band’s biggest and possibly best song, and easily its most immediate, too. It’s a total sunburst, all shimmies and handclaps and preening Anderson falsetto-yips. Butler’s guitar solo has all the power-pop vigor of Matthew Sweet’s solo on “Girlfriend.” It actually rocks, and in retrospect, its hard brightness might’ve been what endeared itself to the British press after years of miasmic dream-rock float. And while the rest of the album tends toward mood and sweep, that hardness remains. Suede wrote simply gigantic choruses, and even when they were about romantic desperation and sung with bitchy verve, they came out sounding like soccer chants. The way Anderson phrases the “ooooon, ooooon” on “Animal Nitrate,” for instance, he’s practically begging for a giant field full of people to yell it right back at him. And he got his wish.
Many of Anderson’s most despondent lyrics were about his ex Justine Frischmann, the future Elastica leader who was still in Suede when he was writing them but who was, at the time, dating Damon Albarn. But Anderson did so much playing around with gendered pronouns that you were never sure whether he was singing about a man or a woman, or if it even mattered. “We kissed in his room to a popular tune,” he sang on “The Drowners,” before launching into an absolutely titanic hook about losing yourself in somebody. “Have you ever tried it like that?” he asked over and over near the end of “Pantomime Horse.” Even when he was singing about heartbreak, he mostly just sounded omnivorously horny. Plenty of bands copped that sense of gender-play from Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, but I can’t think of any others who also brought Bowie’s grand sense of drama and his brutally stomping hooks.
Today, many years after the album’s hype has died down and many years after the entire idea of hype has mutated and metastasized, that first Suede album holds up remarkably well, its hooks still sharp and its grandeur undiminished. Much of the album is about being bored and young and horny, but it treats all those states of being with the seriousness that they deserve, since they are, after all, real things. On their sophomore album Dog Man Star, recorded when Butler and Anderson weren’t on speaking terms, the band widened their focus and went for something more sweeping and expansive; its most critics’ favorite Suede album. But I prefer the Suede of Suede, the band of derivative and hyped-up glam-muppets who, it turned out, deserved all that attention after all. Now that we listeners are frequently writing off bands for getting too much attention, their lesson is an important one: Sometimes, that attention is justified.