Review Summary: Wondrously and agonizingly lovelorn; 'The Asphalt World' alone justifies the price of admission.
What exactly are you supposed to do when following up on one of the seminal albums of British music in the 1990s? Such was the conundrum facing Suede in 1994 as the critical acclaim of their out-of-nowhere debut and the subsequent burden of expectations regarding the sophomore record was taking its toll on the group. Relations between the wispy, effeminate, and at the time, unbearably egotistic vocalist Brett Anderson and lead guitarist Bernard Butler had soured to the point where Butler eventually left the band before completing the record.
Anderson ended up recruiting the seventeen year-old Richard Oakes to replace him on the tour, and was forced to complete some of the guitar parts on his own. And, if things weren’t bad enough, Suede’s star was beginning to fall as a little-known band called Blur was running away with the Britpop crown with their smash 1994 record, Parklife. It was especially damaging as Anderson’s girlfriend, Justine Frischmann of Elastica fame had recently left him for Blur’s Damon Albarn.
When the record was eventually released, it caused barely a ripple on the music scene; Blur and Oasis were already sharing the spotlight with Pulp. The only enthusiastic group seemed to be the critics, having found an excuse to write ‘sophomore slump’ on yet another review.
And on its surface, that’s what it is. Where their self-titled 1993 debut was packed with hit singles celebrating working-class fantasies of decadent excess, the oddly named Dog Man Star was intensely cold and reclusive. Where 1993's Suede explored the seedy side of England’s drug-addled, sex-obsessed youth in the glam-rock tradition of Bowie and T. Rex, the follow-up lacked Anderson’s trademark androgynous swagger, and Butler’s infectious, hip-shaking, Smiths-influenced riffs.
‘Introducing the Band’ captures the new sound best; Within two-and-a-half minutes, they manage to stuff in Anderson’s new overdubbed, layered vocal style, the heavily reverbed, distant-sounding Eastern-tinged guitars, and the strange, almost hallucinatory lyrics: I want the style of a woman/ The kiss of a man/ Introducing the band. ‘Daddy’s Speeding’ is equally unsettling, with minimal guitar arrangements and a somber piano rhythm. Anderson’s voice, almost childlike here, give the song, ostensibly about James Dean, a powerful, impending sense of dread. Seemingly a million miles away, Butler’s guitar drones away in the background before a sudden, forceful strike of the piano keys ends the song abruptly, while keys plink quietly before fading out.
‘The Wild Ones’ presents far more accessible territory; the radio single. Though it’s far from the dance floor-ready effervescence of ‘Animal Nitrate’ or ‘Metal Mickey’ off their debut, it is a pitch-perfect ballad, where Butler’s trademark layered guitar work is toned down to a shimmering, mid-tempo, and supremely effective rhythm. Anderson’s extraordinary voice and lyrics add volumes to the song, making it wholly undeserving of the indifference it received upon release. All the more confusing when you consider the wealth of single-material songs on the record. ‘Heroine’ boasts remarkable guitar work and use of sly double-entendres on its otherwise sincere, and brilliant sing-along chorus. ‘New Generation’ finds Brett Anderson in the arms of drug-induced love, and its pounding drums, upbeat vocals make it perfect once again for broadcast audiences.
It’s a shame that so much focus was placed on the darker material on the album, and a bigger shame that the scrutiny failed to uncover gems like the pounding ‘This Hollywood Life’, abrasive even when it isn’t preceded by Anderson screaming ‘***ing kick it! as it is in concert. The heartbreaking piano ballad ‘The 2 of Us’ may similarly have gone unnoticed as the album drew to a close. The baroque finale ‘The Still Life’ is heavy on strings, and gets better with repeated listens, though Anderson’s marvelous, soaring vocal work here certainly expedites the process. The American version of the record features the non-LP track ‘Modern Boys’ as the albums’ thirteenth song; it would show up again on the 1998 B-sides release Sci-Fi Lullabies. It’s an OK track, but seems out of place with the rest of the record.
As difficult a listen as this album is purported to be, there are a couple of songs that few could have missed. The defiantly political ‘We are the Pigs’ trades the typical Britpop tales of bank holidays, slacker life, and low-rent love espoused by Blur and Pulp for the relatively less chirpy images of civil unrest, burning police vehicles, and Anderson mocking public announcements to ‘stay at home tonight’. Butler delivers a searing solo, after the chorus, as the song ends with Anderson’s cry of ‘We’ll watch them burn’, followed by a fading coda of children’s voices echoing his words. While not thematically parallel with the rest of the record, it’s possibly the most defining statement of Suede’s new style, and the most recognizable song on the record.
The other exceptional track on Dog Man Star is its centerpiece; the massive, sprawling ‘The Asphalt World’. One of several songs on the record possibly about Justine Frischmann, it’s a far cry from the comparatively jovial poke at Frischmann/Albarn that was ‘Animal Lover’ off the first album. Written and recorded while Anderson had isolated himself in a Victorian mansion and in a state of drug-induced fear, loneliness and paranoia, it’s sincere, yet vitriolic, endearing yet unsettling. At nearly ten minutes long, it’s also Suede’s most carefully thought out, and brilliantly fleshed out accomplishment.
Admittedly, DMS is not the ideal starting point for a listener new to Suede. It’s somewhat similar to how OK Computer might not be the right Radiohead album for people to start with. That said, if OK Computer was the first album you started out with, and liked it enough to listen to the band’s other material, then by all means, grab a copy of Dog Man Star.