The 90s were a great decade for music over in jolly old England. Britpop bands such as Blur
and were forging new paths, using the palette provided by forerunners such as The Smiths
, The Jam
, among others. Older groups, Pulp
for instance, were finally receiving due commercial success. While it’s no secret that the UK has played host to many of the greatest musical acts of the 20th century, there was no denying that the 1990s were a fitting end to a revolutionary century. However, of all of these acts, one stood tall as the most popular and successful, and as the least well-receipted in North America: Suede.
Originally known as The London Suede, Suede helped to define Britpop as what it is today, inspiring countless artists through their music and accolades. From their early management at the hands of comedian Ricky Gervais (who would go on to fame with The Office
), to the guest drumming of Mike Joyce (formerly of The Smiths), to their various line-up changes, Suede were constantly evolving. Throughout the course of their career, each successive release would showcase new songwriting influence from the revolving cast of members’ inspirations. Of these, their third album, 1996’s Coming Up
, features the best mix of Suede’s talent and their creativity. Coming Up
, the group’s second of three number one debuts in the UK, injected more 70s glam rock elements into their sound, resulting in an album that was two parts David Bowie
and one part The Smiths. Coming Up
was the first album to feature guitarist Richard Oakes (a seventeen year-old prodigy of sorts, nicknamed “Little Dickie” by the press), who replaced Bernard Butler, and keyboardist Neil Codling. Suede employed many new songwriting techniques into Coming Up
, infusing them with new instrumental sounds. The result was a diversified piece of pop, with a hint of sleaziness, that would spawn five hit singles.
Of these, the most popular was the first released “Trash,” the album’s opener. It’s easy to hear just from the harmoniously discordant guitar lines that lead the song in that Coming Up
was a new direction for Suede’s music. The traditional sounds of the group were further accentuated by Codling’s ethereal keyboard sounds, which made “Trash” (and most of Coming Up
in general) sound like something out of a lighthearted video game for the Sega Genesis console. By contrast, the album’s fifth and final single, “Filmstar” (the second song on the track list), is a much more straightforward effort, combining all the elements that made Suede such a unique group in an alchemist’s pot of pop-laden magic. One constant throughout the album is the strained wail of front man Brett Anderson. His typically simple vocal style is masked with an echoing quality on Coming Up
, which only served to give the album an even more progressive sense than the music alone would tell. Not that Coming Up
didn’t speak volumes musically. On the contrary, as it was Suede’s most experimental album of the time, Coming Up
displays all the qualities that would be a seemingly perfect fusion of their influences. From the slashing guitar riffs of ‘Crazy,” to the elegant piano of “By the Sea,” to the percussionist heaven of “Starcrazy,” Coming Up
represents the culmination of Suede’s songwriting talents as a whole.
Suede don’t always appeal simply to their pop aspirations, though. Coming Up
features several oftentimes mournful and downright odd ballads, such as the aforementioned “By the Sea,” “Picnic By the Motorway,” and the album’s closer “Saturday Night.” While the first of that trio may well be Suede’s greatest compositional moment, the other two are decidedly more enigmatic. It’s this fact, along with several other reasons, that make Coming Up
a little too inconsistent for its own good. While it’s a great thing for an album to surprise the listener, as not to induce boredom, Suede seem to have taken that doctrine a little too far this time around. What begins as a happy-go-lucky glam-pop fusion, quickly slows to a forlorn epoch that rebounds upon itself, only to fall over once again. While you can hardly fault the musicianship on the album, it’s hard to deny that Anderson’s voice can leave an awful lot to be desired at times. Compared to his peers in other bands, he neither has enjoyable range nor does he have a certain sense of charisma. It’s very easy to find his vocals grating on your last nerve only a few minutes into the album’s first song. While some can easily tolerate it, many will wish that he would borrow more from Morrissey and less from Bowie.
For all of it’s shortcoming, however, Coming Up
is still a great record. At it’s best, it’d energetic pop-filled fun, with progressive and glam undertones. At it’s worst it simply tries to overachieve. Suede’s greatest moment? Commercially, yes. Artistically, no. Someone who’s curious about Suede’s music would be better served by their spectacular self-titled debut. It’s easier to start from scratch and build up the almost acquired taste necessary to enjoy Coming Up
at its finest. For anyone else, this is just another fine brick in the wall of pop music’s continuum. Give it a listen if you’re ever curious about what The Smiths might have sounded like had they been fronted by David Bowie. Now that’s
certainly an interesting prospect…