We kiss in his room to popular tunes.
Anyway, lately I've been listening to their self-titled debut quite a bit. This is something I do once every few years, going all the way back to 1993 when I bought a used cassette copy and proceeded to spend months driving around aimlessly, playing it in my car cassette player at top volume. That was how I spent a lot of my time back when I was a senior in high school; there wasn't much else to do in the tiny rural county where I went to high school, and I didn't have many friends to speak of anyway, so driving around aimlessly by myself seemed like a worthwhile way to spend the times when I absolutely had to get out of the house. If I'd been born 15 years later and was in high school right now, with gas prices as high as they are, I have to wonder whether I would have lost my mind without that particular way to blow off steam.
The first song that drew me to Suede was "Metal Mickey", the first American single, which had a video that played quite often on MTV's alternative rock video program, "120 Minutes". I wasn't allowed to stay up until midnight on Sundays (my parents strictly imposed a bedtime all the way up to the very day I moved out of their house), so I would set our VCR to record the show and then watch it the next afternoon after getting out of school. Suede caught my attention immediately with a sound that struck me as somewhat similar to what Morrissey was doing at that point; his most recent album at the time, "Your Arsenal", had been produced by former Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, and had a harder-edged sound than anything he'd done previously, both solo and with the Smiths. Suede's music took that same sort of harder edge from the glam rock sound of the 70s, bearing casual resemblance to "Ziggy Stardust" era Bowie and to T-Rex's classic albums "Electric Warrior" and "The Slider", and then added to it the flamboyant dandyism of singer Brett Anderson, whose very voice betrayed him both as indisputably British (generally considered commercial suicide in the American market) and defiantly un-masculine. While guitarist Bernard Butler wore leather jackets onstage and slashed at his guitar, sneering at the audience insouciantly, Anderson flounced around in women's blouses, striking the sort of poses that led to inevitable questions about his sexuality. He answered them in inimitable fashion, telling an interviewer early in Suede's career that he thought of himself as "a bisexual man who has never had a homosexual experience". This struck home with me, a 17 year old boy living in the middle of nowhere and only starting to wake up to feelings of attraction sometimes felt towards atypical, unapproved targets--including men. Despite Suede's relative lack of international fame, this quote made it onto "120 Minutes", and in fact, I think I saw it listed as "Quote of the Week" before I'd even heard "Metal Mickey" or of Suede at all. It was only a couple of months later that I even figured out who Brett Anderson actually was.
I liked "Metal Mickey" pretty well; it was a good rocking tune with an original sound, and I was listening to a lot of Britpop at the time anyway, so it was right up my alley. Second single "Animal Nitrate" did a bit less for me, although I do really like it now. But the Suede song that really hit home for me, that made me decide that I absolutely had to have their album, was "The Drowners". Released as the third single in America, it had been their debut single in Britain, and had only been held back in America, one assumes, due to the subject matter. Looking back, they were almost certainly right not to lead with this song in America; in fact, I'm still kind of amazed it was ever released as a single here.
"The Drowners" is a song driven by hesitance contrasted with desire, and this emotional dilemma is captured just as well by the music as by the lyrics. The main riff of the song is, in fact, based on hesitance--every time the band plays through it, it stops with four beats left and lets the final chord ring, at which point drummer Simon Gilbert has to count the band back in with four hits on his hi-hat. It's the sound of a reluctant lover having to be coaxed through an initial experience that he is hesitant about, and contrasts nicely with the song's chorus. The verse riff is a grinding, distorted affair, cranking out that sort of macho toughness that your average Ziggy-era Bowie song always had in its guitars. Bowie would proceed to subvert those overdriven guitar lines with his anti-macho vocal style and overall presence, and Brett Anderson does plenty of that on the verses of "The Drowners", but even ignoring Anderson's vocal, the chorus of "The Drowners" is subversive on its own. On it, swelling keyboards and what might be Mellotron effects rise out of the mix to steal the guitar's musical dominance and create a beautiful, euphoric feel that totally subverts the harsher sound of the verses. If the verses are the sound of hesitance, the chorus is the sound of at least momentary release, and by the end of the song, when the chorus is repeated several times before the fade and the keyboard/Mellotron effects grow louder and more intense, it's obvious that release, surrender, has won the day.
All of this is present in the song even without knowing any of the words, but once the words are known, it only seems ten times more obvious that this is the subject of the song. From the second line of the first verse, Brett Anderson is dropping deliciously deviant hints. "He writes the line that's wrote down my spine", Anderson sings. "It says, 'Oh, do you believe in love there?'" Where? Well, what's at the bottom of the spine? Where, indeed. I think we all know. I surely knew what he was getting at when I was 17 and listening to this record alone in my room, wishing for some company. And then, just in case anyone didn't get it, the second verse removed all doubt. "We kiss in his room," Anderson sings, "to popular tunes." Well, if Brett is a he, and he's kissing someone else in "his room", it seems obvious what's meant, doesn't it? If, as he said in the press, he'd never had a homosexual experience, "The Drowners" makes it obvious that he's at least thought about it. As the lush chorus hits, Brett sings, "Slow down. You're taking me over," but the pleasure in his voice puts the lie to the idea that he really wants it to stop.
I didn't have all that much money back when I was in high school (my parents paid for my gas, ostensibly so I could go back and forth to school. They'd sometimes wonder why I seemed to use so much), so I was always looking for a bargain when I'd hit the record shop. This was how I ended up originally buying an EP by Suede rather than their full-length album. The EP was a combination of the British singles for "The Drowners" and "Metal Mickey", with those two songs starting the disc in that order, and followed by "My Insatiable One" and "To The Birds", as well as one other B-side, the name of which I've forgotten. Unfortunately, I sold this EP sometime in the mid-90s, at a time when anything in my collection deemed "not punk enough" might at any time be sold to finance the purchase of some new 7 inch single. I'd love to have it back now, but I'd be willing to bet that I'll never run across a copy of it again. It's a shame. "My Insatiable One" was easily as good as the two A-sides, a fact acknowledged by Morrissey himself, who was known to cover it on his "Your Arsenal" tour. It's also on the "So I Married An Axe Murderer" soundtrack, which I also owned back then, but don't have anymore either. I can still remember the song's chorus in my mind, and it was really good, but that's about all. I'll have to hunt it down again sometime soon.
Anyway, getting back to the album itself, which I did finally buy once I ran across a used cassette copy that was only $3, it has a good many other amazing songs that weren't singles. In fact, "So Young" and "Animal Nitrate", the other two singles, were definitely good songs, but I still listen to the album and hear other songs that would probably have worked better. "She's Not Dead" is unfortunately taken out of the running by the use of the word "fucking" (which for some reason didn't earn them a "Parental Advisory" sticker). That said, it's an incredibly powerful ballad (no, not a "power ballad", that's something else entirely). The guitars on the song are acoustic rather than electric, and they're backed by Mellotron effects imitating flute and cello sounds. Over all this, Brett Anderson sings, his voice heavily treated with reverb and echo effects. The echoes of his voice combine with indistinct echoing sounds that might be guitar feedback, buried deep in the mix, and it all combines to create a sound that is desolate and empty--even with the entire band playing underneath his vocals. He sounds like he's standing alone on a windswept cliff at night, overlooking the sea.
The story Anderson tells in his lyrics is both bleak and affecting, even as it's mostly told through inference and hints. "She'll come to her end locked in a car somewhere with exhaust in her hair," he begins, as if the entire song is a dark prophecy that hasn't yet come to pass. However, his tense changes from here, first to present in the second line of the first verse--"she's fucking with a slip of a man while the engine ran"--and then to the past tense for the second verse and the rest of the song. "In the car he couldn't afford, they found his made up name on her ankle chain," the second verse begins. These three lines combine to paint a picture of something horrible that is never spelled out. But what is this horrible thing? It's nearly impossible to tell. The easiest conclusion to jump to is that the man in the song has murdered the woman, but on the chorus he insists that "She's not dead, she's just gone away." Can we trust him? Could it be that this is his attempt to deny a crime for which he's responsible? Or has she instead committed suicide? And what about the final chorus, in which our narrator tells us, "She's gone away to someone else's bed." Could this entire song be nothing more than the homicidal fantasy of a jilted lover? The lyrics leave questions, but no answers. One thing's for sure, though--it's a dark, depressing song. Possibly one of the best on the album, but certainly not single material.
One song that could have almost certainly been a single if it weren't for Anderson's bent for twisted lyrics is "Animal Lover". The title carries a double entendre that is never completely spelled out in the lyrics, but boy, is it ever hinted at. Over one of Butler's best uptempo glammed-out guitar rockers, Anderson sings "I see you're moving in with her. You'll pierce your right ear," and then, "This skinny boy is one of the girls." Is he hinting that the boy he's singing to isn't moving in with a "her" at all? It's never made clear, but soon we're distracted from that question by a more pressing one. "I know you've been inside," Anderson sings to end both verses. "But what were you in for?" The chorus provides a possible answer, as he repeats the song's title over and over: "Animal lover." Does he mean it in a Trent Reznor "I wanna fuck you like an animal" sense? Or is it a reference to bestiality? Good question--it's never made clear. There are hints in both directions contained in the second verse: "I see you're moving like wildlife from the waist" could mean either, or even both. There may be nothing all that clear in this rocking, uptempo tune's lyrics, but they hint at enough deviance that their label probably decided not to risk it, especially after having already released "The Drowners" as a single.
"Metal Mickey", which I've mentioned several times before, nonetheless deserves more attention than I've given it. The element of this song that really catches my ear is Bernard Butler's guitar. He plays with a distorted, fiery abandon at many points on the album, but "Metal Mickey" is his real spotlight, and he pushes his guitar to new heights of noise. The song begins with him feeding back and scraping his pick along the strings, and while the verses and chorus are slightly more restrained than this, that edge of noise is always percolating under the surface, waiting to explode. It does so on the song's solo, played through a variety of effects and at times replacing notes with pure distortion. The whole band has to stop for a second and catch its breath when Butler reaches the end of his solo, and when it slams back into the song's final chorus, it both highlights the melody of the song and the wild, unrestrained noise of the guitar. Undoubtedly, this is why it was chosen as the debut American single, and it's just sad that it didn't get more mainstream airplay. It could have been, should have been, a lot more popular than it was.
"Pantomime Horse" is another song that caught my attention in a serious way when I first got this album, and it's still one of my favorites. It begins quietly, with undistorted guitars picking arpeggios and the drummer doing cymbal washes underneath. Brett Anderson begins singing over this almost non-existent musical backing, and gives us a tale of alienation and self-loathing from an autobiographical perspective. "I was born as a pantomime horse," he sings, "ugly as the sun when he falls to the floor." The very idea of the sun being ugly seems paradoxical somehow, but nonetheless I know what he means. I've had days like that myself--where I was so depressed that a bright sunlight just looked like a bare bulb shining down at me from the ceiling of a prison cell. "I was cut from the wreckage one day," Anderson continues, "and this is what I get for being that way." This first verse is followed by a pre-chorus, but instead of reaching a chorus, the song just drops back into a second verse. The music has been building slowly in intensity throughout the song, and by this point, it's much more present than it was during the opening lines. It's still pretty sedate as the second verse starts, although Bernard Butler has switched from the acoustic guitar he played underneath the first verse to an electric guitar. The second verse ends with Anderson declaring, "This is what I get for my beautiful head." He then asks, on the pre-chorus, "Did you ever go round the bend?" It's at this point that Bernard Butler fully unleashes the guitar fury he's held in check throughout the song up to this point, bringing the band into the chorus for the first time and playing the melody line of the chorus in a loud, dark single note pattern. The band returns to a somewhat quieter sound for one final pre-chorus, but then, going into the final chorus, they get even louder than before, Bernard slashing at his guitar as Brett sings, "Have you ever tried it that way?" They're still playing at the slow, restrained tempo of the opening chords, but now, instead of sounding like a ballad, it sounds somewhere between a dirge and a slow-motion freakout. Brett wails and moans, and Bernard lays down several competing tracks of equally loud and distorted guitars. Underneath this, the rhythm section stays simple and solid, keeping the song together as Brett and Bernard go for broke, finally wearing themselves out somewhere past the five-minute mark and allowing the song to slowly drop back down to its quiet beginning point.
It's true that Bernard Butler only played on one other Suede album, and it's further true that, with a lot of what I love from Suede's sound on this album deriving from its raw, dirty guitar sound, I can't really imagine an album without Butler doing as much for me as this one does. That said, I think the time has finally come to listen to the other stuff they recorded. While I question whether they were ever able to be this good again, I can't imagine that the dropoff in quality is anywhere near severe enough to make their later recordings bad. Their first album is just too awesome. I owe it to myself to find out if any of their other records are as well.
Suede - The Drowners
Suede - Pantomime Horse