Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 13)
Bernard Butler stabs at his guitar as he grits his teeth from one side of the arena. Across from his own stage, Brett Anderson stands on his own preening for the gathered masses in the center. Brett flashes a sly smile in his direction before leaning back and unleashing a mighty falsetto wail that sends bolts of electricity crackling in Bernard’s direction, he manages to deflect the attack just in time. The crowd goes wild. Bernard recovers just in time to smash his foot down on an orange distortion pedal and send his fingers flying up the fret board in a devastating guitar solo. Rippling spikes of lightning dart the wall just above Brett’s head. The two exchange menacing glares from across the arena before tearing into their instruments again.
Callow fan fiction or an apt description of “This Hollywood Life” off of Suede’s Dog Man Star
? Tensions between singer Brett Anderson and guitarist Bernard Butler had gotten so bad by 1994 that they basically use the entirety of Dog Man Star
as a battleground to wage war against each others egos. Maybe not to the fantastical degree above but for every swooping vocal line unleashed by Anderson a barbed wire guitar line is being planted by Butler just around the corner. But what makes Dog Man Star
the defining Suede album isn’t the conflict between its leaders, it’s the way this conflict is channeled into something overwhelmingly grand.
When the recording for Dog Man Star
commenced in March 1994, Suede had become disenchanted with Britpop and wanted nothing to do with it. “We were never really at the party, and Britpop was like a big party,” Anderson told The Guiardian in 2008, “People slapping one another on the back and getting beery and jingoistic.” Trouble was, Butler and Anderson couldn’t agree on anything. Butler wanted absurd song lengths and improvisation while Anderson, despite his resistance to Britpop, wanted to ensure radio play was still possible. Like their archrivals Blur, Suede had been eaten alive by America. Two days after commencing their tour in support of Suede
, Butler’s father died. Instead of cancelling the tour, he was flown back to London for the funeral and flown back to America to finish the tour. He became despondent and spent most of his down time wandering about in a stoned daze. The rest of the band was making it by on the carnal pleasures an eager American audience could provide, but they to would become increasingly miserable as their opening act The Cranberries wound up more famous than them over the course of the tour and ended up becoming the tours main draw.
When Suede finally commenced recording in March 1994, things had gotten strange. Anderson had shut himself up in a castle, took loads of acid and listened to the neighboring cults chants and hymns. If that wasn’t enough he became obsessed with the number 16, deciding every aspect of his life had to involve the number 16 in some way. By the time Suede finally got into the studio, Butler proceeded to fight with everyone. The only way anything got done was by having Anderson and Butler record separately. Finally, two days after Butler’s wedding in which only himself and his wife were present, Butler was kicked out of the band via studio intercom.
The music produced by their limited time together is the sound of two band members viciously snapping at each others throats.
After the tense “Introducing the Band” (Which bares the clearest influence of Anderson’s days living next to a cult) comes lead single “We Are The Pigs”. If earlier singles “Animal Nitrate” and “The Drowners” were invitations to flood the streets and riot, “We Are The Pigs” sounds like the riot is already happening and you weren’t invited, and now we’re coming for you
. “As the smack cracks at your window/You wake up with a gun in your mouth!” whoops Anderson, “Oh let the nuclear wind blow away my sins/And I'll stay at home in my house.” Meanwhile Butler is striking back with a tornado guitar attack that culminates in a solo that sends flames shooting up the walls. Even on a ballad like “The Wild Ones” – Which Bret Anderson thinks is the best song Suede ever made and he might be right – Anderson’s swooning melody and breathy falsetto are constantly being accompanied by guitar riffing so dense that if it were given its own section it could easily be a solo.
Dog Man Star
also marks the moment when heroin started creeping into the Britpop scene. “I’m aching, to see my heroine,” Brett sings ever so subtly on “Heroine”. Indeed Anderson and Butler were deeply mired in the junk during its recording and the claustrophobia presses in on the sides of the record. Quiet piano lament “The 2 of Us” sounds birthed from heroin’s frozen high as Anderson lays stricken in bed. “I heard you call from across the city through the stereo sound/And so I crawled there sickeningly pretty as the money went round.” Sometimes the smack induced bombast gets the better of him, “Still Life” is a bit silly, but everything works on the album’s 9 minute centerpiece, “The Asphalt World”.
”I know a girl/She walks the asphalt world”
Bernard Butler appeared on the July 1994 cover of Vox Magazine with the headline “Brett Drives Me Insane”. Inside were some of the most damning comments leveled against Anderson to date, “If I’m pissed off at Brett for some reason, which is quite often, a lot of the aggression between the two of us pours out” “I’m desperate to do things outside of Suede” “When [Brett] gets bored he simply puts the microphone down and ends the song.” “I’m going to do far more, just watch me.” Brett read this interview the same day he laid down the vocal for “The Asphalt World” and the venom between the two flows with ease.
Well how does she feel when she's in your bed?/When you're there in her arms/And there in her legs/Well I'll be in her head”
Butler gets his fair say too, as the song climaxes with a burn it all to the ground guitar solo that sounds like the epic finale of a guitarist about to get the boot. Perhaps the most incredible thing about all this rage swirling about Dog Man Star
is how the songs still hold together. Granted, they’re bursting at the seams but they just barely manage to keep from flying off the rails comepletely. As the end of a partnership, its one hell of a way to burn out. But Suede was far from finished, once Brett got ahold of the band he decided to take the band in a very different direction.
Next: “You sure you wanna be with me? I’ve nothing to give.”