Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: Suede - The Best Of

For a band who were widely considered to have started off the Britpop movement, Suede seemed to get left in the dust somewhat by the other members of the ‘Big Four’ (Pulp, Oasis and Blur). There may have been a few different factors contributing to this: Bernard Butler leaving on the eve of the release of their second album was a hammer blow; said second album, Dog Man Star, was defiantly anti-commercial; while Brett Anderson’s feminised persona was even more at odds with Britpop’s prevailing trends than Jarvis Cocker’s studied intellectualism. Yet the body of work collected on this 2-disc set, released no doubt to promote or cash in on this year’s re-union (however cynically you wish to view it), is more than worthy of standing up to any of their more celebrated peers.

Suede sent the UK media into a bit of a tizzy when they first emerged into 1992’s post-grunge landscape. Taking the ‘love and poison of London’ and infusing it with colourful imagery, flamboyance and blatant gender-bending, they were derided as Bowie copyists by some and hailed as the future of British music by others. The first disc here, more or less a slightly tweaked version of 2003’s Singles, showcases those remarkable early singles - debut ‘The Drowners’, with its irresistible swagger, sexualised imagery and Bernard Butler’s buzzsaw guitar-work remains one of their most well-loved tunes, but it’s ‘Animal Nitrate’ that really demonstrates what set the group apart: during the climax (an appropriate word given the racy subject matter) Butler and Anderson sound like they’re trying to outdo eachother, the axework becoming all the more frenetic and dazzling as Anderson drives home his explicit imagery. It’s a microcosm of one of the more fraught and combustible songwriting partnerships in rock history.

They’d manage to keep it together long enough to write the astounding ‘The Wild Ones’, a grandstanding, poetic ballad that illustrated their range, but it wasn’t enough to stop Butler leaving the group under a cloud of acrimony. The band carried on, adding new guitarist Richard Oakes and multi-instrumentalist Neil Codling, and next album Coming Up was an unlikely triumph, producing an incredible five Top 10 singles, all included here: tracks like ‘Trash’ and ‘The Beautiful Ones’ showcased a more streamlined, accessible but still mightily infectious sound. The decline would set in over the next while though, with latter-day singles such as ‘Electricity’ and ‘Everything Will Flow’ descending into self-parody.

Where this compilation differs from Singles is Disc 2: a collection of B-Sides and lesser-known album tracks that truly makes the case for their greatness. The camp strut of ‘My Insatiable One’ impressed fellow aesthete Morrissey so much he would later cover it; ‘My Dark Star’ is a hauntingly atmospheric ode to a mysterious heroine; ‘The Living Dead’ a poignant acoustic portrayal of a relationship ravaged by drug dependency. Bernard Butler’s guitar playing on ‘To The Birds’ is as transcendent as its lyrical theme (“I wouldn’t give a shit if your bicycle’s in bits/I think I’m going to heaven on it”), while on the epic ‘The Asphalt World’ he matches Anderson’s gleefully spiteful lines (“When you’re there in her arms/And there in her legs/Well I’ll be in her head”) with appropriate malevolence. On top of that there’s the sublime Coming Up-era ballad ‘By The Sea’ and the shouldn’t-work-but-does ‘Still Life’, where the band take a shot at Scott Walker-esque orchestral splendour and pull it off beautifully. That sums up the band at their peak: aiming for nothing less than magnificence, and frequently achieving it.

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