The easiest thing to do when reviewing an album is to call the subject of your piece “A classic” or “A landmark” and all those other easy to trot out inanities. The fact is, very few albums are classic albums and even that depends on who is defining classic. There are many good and indeed very good albums of course, but few albums are complete works from beginning to end, ebbing and flowing perfectly, balancing light and shade and capturing your attention throughout. Suede’s Dog Man Star (1994) is one of those albums and is very much a classic album. It is their finest work, it is by far and away the best British album to be released during the musical wasteland of the Britpop years and it easily stakes a claim to be one of the best British albums of all time.
Suede’s arrival in 1992 caused Melody Maker to famously proclaim the band “The Best New Band In Britain” before their debut single The Drowners was even released and whilst they were a hugely welcome arrival, their 1993 eponymous debut album’s mix of glam rock, Bowie and tales from the seedy side of council estate life didn’t fully satisfy despite occasional moments of brilliance. Suede were obviously a standout band but their album couldn’t help but stand out given the prevailing musical climate at the time. The concept of Britpop came into being around that time too with Suede lumped in with the likes of Denim, The Auteurs and others as a group of bands ready to challenge the American dominance of the music scene at the time. They were shortly to be joined by Blur with the hugely overrated Parklife and Oasis with Definitely Maybe, both of who were swiftly promoted to the roles of leaders of this new “movement” whilst Suede busied themselves following up Suede. The whole Britpop thing was easy to pigeonhole really. At first it was interesting as you had the likes of Blur with their everyman referencing the UK looking Kinks like tunes facing off with Oasis’ tracksuited songs from the streets of Manchester via The Beatles but it soon quickly descended into a parody of itself with the likes of Menswear, Echobelly et al clogging up the charts with pointlessness. Despite being heralded by Select magazine as the Britpop leaders at its’ outset, Suede ignored the prevailing musical mood and instead opted to produce an album that was out of time yet timeless and one which at the time baffled the masses who had fully expected Suede 2: This Time It’s Britpop.
Before we look at Dog Man Star, it’s important to note Stay Together, the standalone single Suede released between their first two albums. Stay Together came out on 14 February 1994 and was a hugely surprising release that clearly marked where the band was heading. The full version of the song is 8 minutes plus beasts that twists, turns and pouts, highlighting a sound that has obviously progressed from the Suede album era. As good as Stay Together is, however, its’ two b-sides are the real stars here and are songs that would have not sounded out of place at all on Dog Man Star. The Living Dead is a beautiful acoustic track lament looking back on hedonistic times past (ironic given Brett’s hedonistic writing approach for the album) with a stunning chorus and My Dark Star a brooding tale of love. Both are stunning songs and do what so very few bands did at the time and certainly don’t do now – treat singles as whole releases and not an a-side plus one or two half-tracks to pad out a 12″. The Stay Together single showed that Suede was doing something no other British band was doing at the time.
For the main album campaign, the lead single, We Are The Pigs, was released on 14 September 1994 and it was a staggering thing. Bernard Butler had clearly been working his socks off. The song is remarkable – at points pop, at others fiercely spiky guitar parts with some as heavy as you could imagine Suede being. Brett yelps and squawks and they even fit in some dirty sounding brass parts. I still remember hearing it for the first time and being blown away. This surely wasn’t Suede? It was tougher, rougher and far more confident than anything they’d ever done and yet it STILL gives no idea of what awaits you on Dog Man Star. And let’s not forget the b-sides. As with Stay Together (and to be fair all their previous singles), Suede gave us the remarkable bombast of Killing Of A Flash Boy which rightly remains a live favorite to this day and the marvelous Whipsnade. These singles were mini albums in themselves.
And so to the album itself. I’m listening to Dog Man Star and, twenty-five years on from when I first heard it, I’m still, frankly, amazed by it. I can hear Definitely Maybe and remember how much I enjoyed it at University, but now it lacks the punch it had at the time and I don’t really enjoy it anymore. I listen to Dog Man Star and, even though I remember how otherworldly it sounded in 1994, it still sounds that way and never seems to change. No other band was producing music like that at the time, and very few bands have produced anything similar since. The album kicks off with the remarkable Introducing The Band. Built around a throbbing bassline and an Eastern-sounding guitar riff, the song chugs and pulses like a robot sent to kill Britpop with Brett intoning verse after verse of strung out, sinister lines all climaxing with the repetition of a phrase that sounds a lot like “dying-um.” Quite a start. That Brian Eno remixed it for a b-side to The Wild Ones is no surprise; the track comes across very much in the Eno mould of experimentation and repetition. His remix, more of which later, is quite fantastic. We Are The Pigs follows Introducing The Band before we’re blasted into track 3, Heroine. Oh my word, what a song. This is Suede at their very peak. It’s a 3 and half minute explosion of guitars, a chorus that most bands would kill for and lyrics that give a not-at-all-subtle nod to drugs but still contain layer upon layer of doomed romanticism. A logical extension and indeed huge progression on the type of songs that filled their debut, if you’re going to play someone one Suede song to convince them of their genius, play them, Heroine.
Heroine is followed by the second single the band released from the album, The Wild Ones. Released on 7 November 1994, the song features four b-sides over its’ three formats – Modern Boys, This World Needs a Father, Asda Town and Eno’s Introducing The Band. The stand out b-side is the Eno remix which takes Introducing The Band to places it never dreamed existed over the course of 16 plus minutes of ambient noodling. The main event, however, is The Wild Ones which is one of the most beautiful songs Suede has ever recorded. Starting out acoustically, the song builds to a thrilling electric peak with Brett singing yet more words of longing and love; a truly magical song. As with the rest of the album, Suede manages to get the sonic balance just right. Tender lyrics are underpinned perfectly by waves of noise which give the song the intensity it needs to strike you right in the heart. The next track on the album is Daddy’s Speeding, a haunting track centered around a fantasy about James Dean and again, it’s a track the likes of which only Suede was attempting at the time. It’s then followed by The Power, another quieter track that still contains a great chorus and a wonderful singalong “la la la” part at the end. The mellow midsection of the album is then abruptly ended by the huge, marvelous, pop sound of third single New Generation.
New Generation is another glam stomper that sings of satellite towns, techno sounds and pills and it comes across like a call to arms for disenchanted music fans everywhere. The fact that yet again Brett and Bernard effortlessly master a remarkable pop chorus shouldn’t be overlooked either. It’s a swaggering monster of a song and deserved a far higher UK chart placing than the number 21 it received. The two b-sides (Together and Bentswood Boys) are the first collaborations between Brett and Richard Oakes. (There’s a cd single with live versions of Animal Nitrate, The Wild Ones and Pantomime Horse which is worth hearing too.) Back to the album, New Generation is followed by the heaviest track on the record This Hollywood Life. It’s an absolute triumph of fuzzy feedback-laden guitar, another horn section and a frantic Brett demanding that someone come and “take this Hollywood life.” All in all, it’s a pretty good representation of the mental state of the band at the time. The pace slows again with the ballad The 2 Of Us which is a wonderful track that acts as a comedown following the hedonism of New Generation and This Hollywood Life. Black and Blue follows and it’s another slower song and , if there is a weak link to be found here, this is it, It’s fine and works in the context of the album but when you consider some of the songs that were released as b-sides, you can’t help but wonder if the album could have benefitted from having a different song at this point. That really is nitpicking though.
The album ends with two majestic songs. The penultimate track is the epic The Asphalt World which twists and turns for over 9 minutes and shows Bernard Butler at his best. The song flows from quieter guitar parts to louder ones through musical passages that still amaze today. Suede was thinking along different lines to their contemporaries. Take Oasis laughable All Around The World, the 9-minute nonsense that appears on Be Here Now. Instead of looking at The Asphalt World as an example of how to make a lengthy track mesmerizing, they instead redid All You Need Is love and Hey Jude and did so badly. In 1994, Suede displayed a spirit of adventure that no other band even considered and they deserve endless credit for that. Without The Asphalt World, there would have been no Paranoid Android or even Ok Computer and that would have been a very bad thing. The album ends with the beautiful Still Life, a heartbreaking song that is initially built acoustically before it explodes into a string-laden finale that takes the breath away. You can picture the credits rolling over the last section of the music and as it fades, you find yourself at the end of Dog Man Star.
As I said at the outset, the use of the word “classic” when describing an album is as overused as the word “legend” is when describing footballers. It’s easy to say but very hard to back up. Dog Man Star is, however, nothing short of a classic album. Despite the chaos they were enveloped in, Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler wrote a masterpiece; the bleak outlook of the time give birth to pure beauty. Sadly, Bernard quit before the band even toured the album and was replaced by 17-year-old Richard Oakes who, on the live dates, proved himself to be an able deputy, but with Butler’s departure, the magic that brought Dog Man Star to life faded. Subsequent Suede albums are still well worth hearing but they tend to focus on a poppier sound as 1996’s Coming Up amply demonstrates. They still have plenty of fight in them, however. 2013’s Bloodsports was a brilliant comeback album that was followed by Night Thoughts and the epic The Blue Hour last year. Hopefully, we haven’t heard the last of Suede as they are as energized and as brilliant live now as they ever were. Dog Man Star will forever remain their peak however and what a peak it is. It deserves recognition as one of the greatest albums of all time; a classic in fact.