The place: St George’s Church, Brighton, 2008. The event: a tiny Brett Anderson solo show in support of his then recently released collection for piano and cello, Wilderness. Having stepped out from the vestry door, Anderson immediately slipped in behind the piano and proceeded to play one Wilderness track after another, in quick succession. It was a committed performance but the singer, usually such a dramatic performer, appeared as restrained as I’d ever seen him.
This was also the case with the new songs which were deliberately minimal and full of space, even if they did contain such classically Anderson-esque lyrics as ‘Didn’t I clean her shit?’ and ‘You ride London’s wilderness.’ You started to think that he could have maybe carved a new career for himself as a lo-fi indie solo artist, the kind beloved of the Brighton hipsters who would usually have filled that venue but who were largely conspicuous by their absence that night. And then, after a brief intermission, he was back behind the piano to play a series of Suede songs.
This might ordinarily have been the fan-pleasing section that the serious artist hates. For Anderson, however, it was clearly the main event and it quickly became apparent that he was still as committed to Suede as he ever was. He performed a long set of more or less every fan-favourite ballad Suede ever wrote, from ‘High Rising’ through to underrated New Morning track, ‘Oceans.’ It was a performance of remarkable intensity, bordering on anger. Anger, perhaps, that he had become a forgotten star, more or less written out of history by both the music press and the music-buying-public. And truly he filled the tiny church hall with the same violence a freshly trapped tiger might reserve for a cage.
Indeed, he filled the small space with his voice and his presence in the same way that you imagine his antecedents Bowie or Kate Bush might also have done in similar circumstances. When he flung his head around to face the audience and deliver the final chorus of the night’s penultimate song, ‘He’s Gone’; a previously lacklustre ballad from Head Music; he even resembled Bush a little, his fringe flying, his whole being given over to the performance of the song. And then, as though he physically couldn’t help himself, he asked everyone to leave their pews and come to front of the stage for one last song: a decidedly un-hip, mass sing-along of ‘Trash.’
It seemed to me that Brett Anderson the star was reborn that night and that that elusive Performance-alluding ‘demon’ he had spoken about losing when he disbanded Suede had finally been rediscovered. Afterwards he went on to make his best, most imaginative solo album, Slow Attack, and then, at the request of the Teenage Cancer Trust, he reformed Suede for a one off charity gig at the Albert Hall. The event was characterised by standing ovations that Anderson, again delivering a performance of inspired intensity, wasn’t shy to lap up. Within days it was announced that they would play more shows before, slowly but surely, talk began to grow that they would make another album.
And so, perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a terribly big surprise, now that that album, Bloodsports, is finally here, that it is as intense and downright inspired a record as you are likely to hear all year. ‘Barriers,’ the first track to be lifted from it, while a good enough song, didn’t entirely suggest the creative re-birth that this record represents. Coming in on decidedly ‘80s stadium rock guitars and with lyrics which veer from the ridiculous (‘Aniseed kisses and lipstick traces / Lemonade sipped in Belgian rooms’) to the intriguing (who are the ‘they’ who may or may not love the song’s dedicatee ‘The way, the way I loved you?’), it all ends on the kind of mass whoah-oh-ohs that characterise early U2 and early-U2-pilfering-Coldplay. It’s pretty shameless but when you’ve been out of the limelight for this long maybe it doesn’t hurt to be a little shameless.
What it also does is suggest the album that Bloodsports in one sense most resembles: U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The album they made after the commercially (by their standards) disastrous Zooropa and Pop albums. Those albums had been characterised by varyingly successful attempts at electronic experimentalism (much like Suede’s Head Music) and ATYCLB went back to the sound of their very first records, Boy, October and War; to the whoah-oh-ohs which have so infected today’s tired modern rock scene. But by imbuing the record with emotion, artistry and even a kind of contemporaneity, they managed to make a genuinely inspirational album which focused purely on songwriting rather than gimmicks.
Bloodsports succeeds in repeating this trick by essentially returning to what Suede do best: writing literate, subversive pop songs with unusual key changes and dramatic Lahndahn vocals. Indeed what is perhaps most important about Bloodsports is that the lyrics are by and large fantastic. Part of the problem with the last two Suede albums was that the lyrics were uniformly terrible. With Head Music there was the infamous ‘Savoir Faire’ lyric, ‘She live in a house / She stupid as a mouse,’ but in fact there were far worse offenders than that.
Indeed, to be fair to Anderson, those lines were clearly intended to be of the cat-sat-on-the-mat variety (and ‘Savoir Faire’ remains one of their few successful attempts at electronic experimentation); it was more the dull retreads of ‘nowhere towns’ and ‘shaking the scene obscene’ that really galled. With A New Morning, however, there was more the sense that Anderson had, post-crack addiction, lost all confidence as a writer and was either trying too hard to be literary (‘It’s the way you don’t read Camus or Brett Easton Ellis’), or was just helplessly regurgitating lyrical clichés (‘Your smile is your credit card / And your currency is your love’ etc..)
But while ‘Barriers’ may not completely put to bed the ghosts of the past, ‘Snowblind’ does so with considerable aplomb. Opening with a mammoth Richard Oakes guitar riff, which resembles a faster, grungier take on The Smith’s ‘Girl Afraid,’ Anderson sings of the rush of doomed love with the kind of gusto last seen on Bernard Butler-era songs like ‘Stay Together’ and ‘Heroine’. ‘We are struck like matches / We’re too beautiful to really care what’s right,’ he begins with winning insouciance, before delivering one of the most soaring choruses either incarnation of this band has ever written: ‘This love is lifting her / This love is lifting you / For one snowblind moment too.’
Next up is first single proper, ‘It Starts and Ends with You’, one of the few songs to shamelessly echo Butler’s playing style. Despite, or perhaps because of this, it is tremendous fun and disregarding the weird lyrical clanger, ‘like a hairline crack in a radiator /leaking life,’ it neatly sums up the sheer helplessness of falling in love: ‘I shout out but it just spins faster / I’d crawl up but my knees are water / …Spit in the wind because too much is not enough / It starts and ends with you.’ Indeed, one of the refreshing aspects of this album is the total absence of machismo or misogyny in Anderson’s lyrics, something which twenty years on from the era of Riot Grrrl and the androgynous stylings of Suede’s debut album, has hardly been eradicated from the indie rock world in the way that it might have been (let alone eradicated from the Chris Brown / Rihanna-troubled world of mainstream pop). Who else would describe falling in love with a woman in such a supposedly womanly way? So that it makes it hard for him to breathe? So that it makes it impossible for him to leave because his knees are like water?
‘Sabotage’ and ‘For the Strangers’ were debuted live last year but it is only upon hearing the recorded versions that it becomes clear that these are the two songs that most successfully fulfill that All That You Can’t Leave Behind blueprint and, as such, represent instant additions to the classic Suede canon. ‘Sabotage’ begins with heavy – admittedly rather goth – bass and drums but quickly reveals itself to be a spiritual cousin of ‘Pantomime Horse’, with all of the undulating guitars and windswept romanticism that that comparison implies. Lyrically it takes the Bloodsports of the album’s title to its logical conclusion, as the song appears to be about a sadomasochistic relationship (again, with the woman being the dominating force). When I first heard the live version of the song, the line ‘her touch is like a raven’s shadow’, almost made me flinch, it seemed so gauche. But in the context of lyrics like, ‘No barriers, no boundaries for her,’ and ‘I smile as the rope cuts through me,’ in fact, it makes quite a lot of delightfully sleazy sense. As the song reaches its crescendo with what is easily the most luminous guitar part Richard Oakes has ever committed to tape, Anderson repeatedly sings ‘her will is done’ with a quite deliberately prayer-like reverence, before concluding with the sly wink of ‘and I will be done’.
‘For the Strangers’, as the title suggests, is essentially Suede doing Bowie but when you can write a Bowie song better than anything on The Next Day, then you have to ask, does this really matter? Anderson has spoken about the decision to do what they do best on this album, and in a way, sounding like a grungey Bowie-Smiths hybrid is what Suede have always done best. Over a lovely insistent melody, the simplest lyrics on the album – ‘And it’s ever so clear / And it’s ever so plain / For the strangers’ – document that moment in a relationship when there can be no doubt, either to yourselves, or to anybody else, that you are completely demented about one another.
Track six pulls off the same trick that Coming Up did with ‘Beautiful Ones’, by reserving the albums catchiest, most radio friendly song for the second half of the record. ‘Hit Me’ contains la-la-las, guitars that recall both Brian May and The Edge, and a sing-a-long chorus that, once again, appears to extol the virtues of S&M. ‘You feel the scratches and scars, you feel the parts of me we call ours’, sings Anderson. ‘Come on and hit me….’ Along with ‘Sabotage’ it’s the kind of subversive single he hasn’t really written since ‘Animal Nitrate’, or well, ‘Beautiful Ones.’
If the sequencing of the first six songs of Bloodsports resembles that of Coming Up in that it is an all-out assault of pop hooks and colossal choruses, then the final four songs deliberately resemble the closing sequence of Dog Man Star. That sequence which started with ‘Black or Blue’ and culminated in ‘The Asphalt World’ and ‘Still Life.’ Considering these are some of the greatest songs Anderson and original guitarist Butler ever wrote it’s a pretty brave move and certainly, on the first couple of listens, it feels as though they may have bitten off more than they can chew, because the album’s pace drops alarmingly and without any immediate reward.
However these songs repay repeated listens. ‘Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away’ and ‘What are you not telling me?’ chart the beginning of the demise of a relationship, the former detailing the beginning of obsessive co-dependency, the latter jealousy and unfaithfulness. Both songs successfully recall the theatrics of Dog Man Star but also Kate Bush at her most psychedelic. ‘I count to ten as the race begins round your hairpin bends,’ sings Anderson, as the album rushes to its tragic conclusion: the end of the relationship that began with such romantic fervour on ‘Snowblind’ and ‘It Starts and Ends….’ With its Doors-y organ and midsection rock wig-out, penultimate track ‘Always’, perhaps buckles under the weight of its ‘Asphalt World’ leanings (not to mention the fleeting return of clichéd Anderson to the lyrical fold.) However, for all that it serves its function structurally: as the final demise of the relationship that the album charts, and as the storm before the calm of ‘Faultlines’; the album’s exquisite, Scott Walker-esque coda.
‘Is it birdsong or is it just the car alarms / Making us feel so young?’ sings Anderson over a rippling piano melody that recalls Walker’s cover of ‘The Windows of the World.’ If this were to be the last Suede album, as the band have occasionally suggested that it might be, then you really do feel that, in echoing the lyrics to the first song on their first record (‘So Young’), he has found the right way with which to put things to rest. However, considering how rejuvenated the band sound on this album it would really be a great pity if this was to be their last hurrah. And considering how much Anderson appears to live, breathe and exude Suede from every fibre of his being, it is extremely unlikely too.