HIGHS AND MIGHTY - Coming Up Review
31 August 1996
Submitted by: Inge Klinkers
HIGHS AND MIGHTY
AND SO the endless orgies of mid-'90s hedonism finally came to an end, and afterwards, when everyone had politely disentangled themselves, dressed, and agreed that perhaps they'd better not do this sort of thing again, there was… well, nothing left to dream about.
Or maybe we should put it this way: 18 months is a very long time in pop. In the age since Suede released their last album, Oasis have become the first group to play a stadium gig on Mars (or something); romo has come and gone in the time it takes to apply your mascara, and the all-pervasive search for excess has stormed everything from your local pub, to Radio 1 via Chris Evans, right through to national TV (the Loaded TV series is in the pipeline, apparently).
Success, glamour and excess, then - the three themes Suede reinvented way back in '92 with their opening triptych of guts'n’glitter singles - are finally en vogue, and Suede haven't had a look in. Rather, Brett Anderson has taken on the role of a blighted adversary, always seen to be scowling at the former peers who have outwitted him. But this is no ordinary hedonism we see before us. Rather Britpop (if we must) has provided us with a hedonism ordinaire. Where a voyage of Dionysian self-discovery comes second to a long night's quest for the good times, pure and simple.
Because Suede, as we well know, are made of darker, more grandiose stuff. Lest we forget, Brett Anderson is the man who spent a year in a rambling gothic house in Highgate scrambling his mind on drugs in the quest to write the words to 'Dog Man Star', an album so musically expansive - care of Bernard Butler - that it barely made any sense whatsoever. And certainly not what you needed after a skinful of cigarettes and alcohol. No matter that it included, in 'Asphalt World', probably the decade's most dazzling evocation of the comedown of drug use; a melancholic foil to the cubicle-now-comedown-later ethos of say, 'Champagne Supernova'.
A solemn duty, then, to report that none of such wilful extravagance appears on Suede's new album. We're 'Coming Up', after all; about to receive the rush of good times of drug use rather than wallowing in their downside. The solitary trace of complete madness on the whole album comes in 'Starcrazy', when, amidst a swamp of Moogs, Brett momentarily loses his marbles and hilariously hollers "Violence!" for no apparent reason, but even that's come and gone in a nano-second.
Gone too, blessedly, is the Scott Walker croon which plagued 'The Wild Ones' and 'Still Life', and in its place comes something other. Instead we get choons: the very stuff of these instant party times. It's almost as though, sensing that the world was slipping away from him, Brett has constructed a Beginner's Guide To Suede in keeping with the times. No more dark, claustrophobic aloofness; here Brett's offering the chance to swallow the pill and lose ourselves in the rush of the thing in a flash. No need to dig through ten-minute splurges of sound to understand us, the album seems to be saying. You can have these epic themes packaged in the neatest of three-minute packages. And the thrill; the buzz of 'Coming Up' will feel as good as it ever did.
There's no pissing about. 'Trash', significantly, is the opener. No more fin de siècle proclamations à la 'Introducing The Band', swathed in swirling Egyptian guitars and solipsist gobbledegook. Instead a lyric built on an disarming self-awareness ("But we're trash you and me/We're the litter on the breeze") which zips by into the fade-out while you're still waiting for the weird bit to kick in. Thereafter, we're charging headlong through a series of songs so bullishly verse-chorus friendly you half expect Brett to slap his arse and yelp, "And how about that!" at the close of each one.
'Filmstar' is near-textbook Suede, Brett observing the rattlesnake flash of a sleazy celluloid mover in his "Terylene shirt”over the sort of glitz-krieg shuffle Donovan Leitch would die for; whilst 'Lazy' - one of two Brett originals - is a cheesy slice of Suede-Iite which manages to combine the simplistic structure of 'The Power' with the bubblegum jauntiness of one of those mid-'60s radio hits by the Turtles or someone. Bizarre. 'She', meanwhile, carries all the hallmarks of vintage Suede (brutal, whiplash guitars; a lyric careering between eroticism and the downright perverse ("She, sh-shaking up the karma/She, injecting marid-juana") whilst being choked to a standstill at a mere four minutes.
In between, we get the quite marvellous 'By The Sea', built around a gorgeously loveless piano motif over which Brett explains the tale of a couple fleeing the city for a life at the seaside (the opposite of his usual theme, ironically), where they finally find some form of contentment: "It's by the sea we'll breed/ Into the sea well bleed...". But no matter. We're soon breezing airily into 'The Beautiful Ones`, where Brett's eternal fascination for the seamier side of life takes on new heights when, in his excitement he decides to start listing the individuals who populate it: "Shaved heads, rave heads, on the pill, got too much time to kill/Get into bands and gangs". Quite how Brett, a long-term member of the W11 boho beau monde, gets to mix with these characters ("Cracked up, stacked up, 22/Psycho for sex and glue") one can't imagine, but never mind.
See, the prickly exterior Brett has maintained in interviews ever since Bernard's departure appears to have manifested itself physically in the songs he and Richard Oakes have written. You can't help but come to the conclusion that having lost easily the most imaginative guitarist of his generation, Brett's refocused the group by providing it with an Orwellian overhaul, Bernard doesn't exist. He never existed. The killing of the flash boy, in short. To wit: radio friendly tunefulness, Suedeish themes at all times, and total inter-band unity are in, and individual brilliance is most definitely out. Just check the sleeve photos: there the five of them are, in identikit black, perched gloomily on stools like some sort of Suede-ultra. Brett gets to smoke a fag, of course, but then he's the leader. There'll be no more prima donnas here, seems to be the underlying theme. Which begs the question, how long will this newly austere Suede wash?
Perhaps 21-year-old Neil Codling holds the key. Drafted in discreetly whilst no-one was really looking a few months ago, he manages to co-write two of the album's finest songs. 'Starcrazy', snagged around an electric eel of a tune, prompts Brett's best vocal of the whole 40 minutes (his singing is vastly improved throughout), whilst 'The Chemistry Between Us' has just the hint of a 'Still Life' about it, despite the "Oh Class A, Class 8, Is that the only chemistry between us?" kiss off. Still, that's one less cliché for Jake Shillingford to get his larynx round.
In between them we get the album's greatest moment. 'Picnic By The Motorway', shorn of the syrupy layers of Richard Oakes' guitars, spirals along the iciest of synth progressions, whilst effortlessly capturing the claustrophobia of love affairs and car travel on sick, summer afternoons. A true gem, and the only real evidence of the strung-out weirdness of 'Dog Man Star'. After which comes a final 'Saturday Night', which sees no reason why it shouldn't base itself around the tune of Elton John's 'Song For Guy'. But y'know, anything goes, right?
Essentially then, 'Coming Up', ends up as a stickily fine mid-'90s post-Britpop album, and one that's miles ahead of 90 per cent of their successors. Hear it blasting out of the in-house radio stations in the local Megastore and it will make perfect sense. In any case, it will sell infinitely more copies than 'Dog Man Star' ever did, and at this stage in the game that's probably all that matters, in the Nude camp, at least.
In years to come, Brett may even refer to it as the masterpiece which cured the band of the freakishly wayward element provided by their old guitarist: like Pink Floyd after Syd Barrett, rather than being say a one-off pop thrill like Bowie's 'Let's Dance'. But let's hope not. Because if 'Coming Up' signals the dawn of Suede's pop period, then let's hope it merely serves as a stop-gap in their, erm, musical progression.
Because, let's face it, it's gonna be pretty hard to believe they're the living embodiment of Ziggy, The Doors and JG Ballard rolled into one, eternally trawling London's late-night drug underworld if they never do another number over eight minutes. Hard to see them as the spectral outsiders Brett's always eulogising when their music's becoming so, obvious.
But let's break open the Moët Et Chandon, anyhow. Because 'Coming Up' serves as concrete proof that Suede are back from their self-imposed exile as big and brash as ever and thank Christ for that. We've missed them terribly. And while the party's still raging of course, everything's fine and dandy.
Let's just wait until the hangover's really kicking in before we dare to suggest that, for all Brett's marvellous lyricism, musically at least, Suede might be running right out of dreams.