Review Summary: "Have you ever tried it that way?"
I passed Brett Anderson on a west London street a few years ago, a slender man with tight jeans, hooped earring and the cheek bones of a supermodel. I stopped in my tracks and looked back, as he dwindled before my eyes unremarked into the crowd on a cold, grey afternoon. Nobody noticed him. But I did, I remembered him.
Let's go back to 1993. Before they had even released their debut album, Suede (known in the US as The London Suede) had featured on the covers of nineteen magazines. Nineteen! Forget that, before they even released a single, they featured on the front cover of Melody Maker (the UK’s premier music magazine at the time) as the best new band in the UK, a level of hype matched only perhaps by The Smiths and The Sex Pistols before them.
And boy, did they deliver! They punched with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer through the bored walls of suburbia with their testorone fuelled tales full of ambivalent sexuality, drugs and council estate delinquency and no doubt Brett appeared almost overnight on the walls of a million teenage bedrooms.
But their significance was more than this. With Anderson and Butler (the lead guitarist) hailed as the new “Morrissey and Marr”, they didn’t just produce a collection of great songs. Almost at a stroke, their appearance signalled the end of the Madchester acid house music scene. They also re-captured the spotlight from Nirvana and grunge to spark a renewed interest in the UK, with bands like The Verve, Pulp, Blur, Radiohead and Oasis taking advantage; otherwise known as Britpop.
Of course Britpop is nothing if not retro. Whilst Butler’s guitar recalls the glam rock of T-Rex, around him Anderson preens and simpers like an anguished drama queen, often adopting a ridiculous mockney accent ala Bowie. In particular, the top ten singles Animal Nitrate
and Metal Mickey
are standouts, capturing the angst and tension of a decadent, suburban existence.
And yet, and yet. Does it matter if Brett hails from a prosperous south England commuter town and has probably never even set foot in a council estate? Does it matter if he spent his youth studying art at University College London rather than on the mean streets that he sings about? Despite his protestations of heroin and crack cocaine addiction, would I be cynical if I suspected him of confusing the aforesaid drugs with anadin? Does it matter if he is self-admittedly “a bisexual man who has never had a gay experience”? (I think the word you are looking for here Brett is “heterosexual”).
In a way, no. Teenage experience has always been about fantasy and invention, about self projection, about adopting a studied pose. It is authentic enough for music similarly to blur the divide between fact and fiction.
The problem is not that Anderson is a poseur, but that he is a perennial teenager, an egotist too self obsessed to experience the world outside himself. Take the closing ballad The Next Life
. Despite a beautiful piano accompaniment and Anderson’s soaring tragic wail, what is noticeable is how emotionally sterile it all seems. Perhaps it is a matter of empathy. The only time you could conceive Brett ever having his heart broken is when he looks in the mirror and sees a pimple.
As a teenage album about nihilist rebellion and sexual adrenaline, this album deserves the plaudits it has received. But the band are also sowing the seeds of their own destruction. Despite the commercial success of their next two albums, never has a group so quickly lost such critical acclaim. Because behind the glitter and glamour, looking beyond the triumph of style over substance, there is not a lot there. In the end, music like life is not about seeming, but about being.