Pile of SuedeHi.  My name is Phil, and I was a Suedeaholic.

During Suede’s initial run, I was not only a fan of their music, I also embarked on the foolish endeavor of trying to collect their complete discography on CD… not just the albums, but also all the extras. Bear in mind that this was at the height of the era of double or even triple CD singles with different B-sides (and there was often a 7” with another exclusive track).  Because of Suede’s global popularity, there were also limited edition album versions with bonus discs, promo-only mixes, fan club exclusives, and more… attempting to compile a complete collection really was a fool’s errand.  But I gave it a go, and I did pretty well, as you can see in the accompanying pic… I’ve even got the minidisc single for “Electricity” – the UK’s first-ever single in that format.

In spite of this obsessive dedication to discographic madness, I think I was joined by a lot of fans in not feeling too bad when the band called it a day after 2002’s A New Morning.  Yes, it was sad to see them go, but it was clear over the last couple albums that the band’s energy and innovation was being whittled away by the external pressure to maintain the band’s larger-than-life presence and the internal pressures of drug addiction and strained personal relationships.

When news broke a few years ago that the band was getting back together for live dates and had plans to record a new album, I was guardedly optimistic in my expectations for the fruits of the reunion. When the Bloodsports album was released in 2013, my reaction was decidedly mixed.  It was a perfectly competent and well-made album, and with Brett’s voice on top it was clearly a Suede album, but it just felt too… safe.  Particularly for an album with a name like Bloodsports, I was expecting something edgier and more daring.  During my first listen I found my attention wandering, and after that first listen I almost never went back to the album.  If I was in a Suede mood, I’d play their debut or Dog Man Star or Coming Up or Sci-Fi Lullabies instead.

Suede

So my expectations for their recent follow-up, Night Thoughts, were relatively meager. But in this case my first-listen experience was exactly the opposite to what I had during Bloodsports… the album kept my attention throughout, and as soon as the last song ended I wanted to listen to the whole thing again.

It definitely seems like the experience of making Bloodsports and returning to stage as a live act served as a creative catalyst.  Every band member shines more brightly on this album – Brett Anderson seems more comfortable embracing the quirky aspects of his vocals, which felt flattened out on Bloodsports.  Richard Oakes brings back the guitar flair that energized the band after Bernard Butler’s departure.  And the rhythm section of Mat Osman, Simon Gilbert, and Neil Codling drive the songs through a variety of tempos and moods that bring a dynamism that felt lacking from the “comeback” album.

The album has a spaciousness and grandeur that we haven’t heard from Suede in a long time.  Musically and lyrically this album feels much more like the sequel to Dog Man Star than the follow-up to BloodsportsNight Thoughts throws down the gauntlet right from the outset as a submarine sonic thrum, a symphonic string passage, and the burble of distorted children’s voices lead us into the opener, “When We Are Young”, a darkly nostalgic look back at youth that is equal parts wistful and menacing.

I don’t want this review to just sound like a whole lot of Bloodsports bashing – it really wasn’t a bad album, it just felt like an album by a band that hadn’t quite figured out who they were after an 11-year break.  Brett Anderson is no longer the drug-fueled badboy of Britpop… he’s a married father of two.  And Richard Oakes, who joined the band as a 17-year-old guitar prodigy from the Suede fan club, is now on the verge of turning 40.  The themes of youthful passion and disillusionment that drove their earlier work are no longer such a good fit. Night Thoughts sounds like the work of a band that has embraced its age and, as a result, the songs sound more grounded and sincere.  Maybe it’s because Brett and I are almost the same age, but there’s a real emotional resonance in a lot of the lyrics, like his observations on watching life pass by in “No Tomorrow”:

How long will I shun the race
And sit around in my denim shirts?
A cadaver in tracksuit trousers
Connect me to missing persons.

How long will it take to break
The plans that I never make.
Too long have I sat outside and smoked.
I know all the neighbours’ cars.

As a millionaire and worldwide celebrity, I doubt Brett spends a lot of time hanging out on his porch in a tracksuit, but he’s captured a sentiment that I’m sure rings true to a lot of people who are middle aged and find themselves evaluating their lives and futures.

Beyond the strength of the individual songs, Night Thoughts has been carefully crafted and assembled to work as an album.  Songs flow into each other, and “When You Are Young” is reprised in an alternate form as the penultimate track.  It has the feeling of a cohesive statement that’s meant to be listened to as a whole. This impression is reinforced by the fact that the album was released with an accompanying DVD featuring an album-length film in which each song is paired with a vignette from an overall story that starts with a man walking into the sea to drown himself and then flashes back to the series of events that brought him there

All in all, Night Thoughts is a mature and majestic return to form for Suede. If this turns out to be their final album, it is a fitting exit to a prolific and musically impactful career.  But my hope is that it is instead a harbinger of more great music from a band that feels creatively energized and excited to be back.

phil locke