Suede’s ‘Dog Man Star’ at 20: A Messy, Ill-Advised Tribute to a Messy, Ill-Advised Masterpiece

A dim, decaying room that was once bright and grand. Red brocade wallpaper, the kind you only ever see in cocktail bars and lingerie stores anymore, peeling at the top and fraying at the bottom. A thin mattress extends from the far wall into the center of the room like a lonely dock on a deserted lake. The only source of light is a multi-tiered bronze and glass chandelier with half the panes missing; in lieu of a switch, a grimy length of twine hangs down from above. The scratched wood floor is a collage of empty wine bottles, old books, and dirty clothes. A few records with battered covers lean against a Victrola that somehow still works. A metal ashtray rests on the windowsill. The smell of smoke, more than two kinds, has settled into the cracks and crevices and mouse holes. Every other room in this building is just the same. Down the hall is a bathroom with cracked tiles and a curtained-off clawfoot tub. Outside the window, the world is a blur of radioactive sunset pastels.

Listen to an album you love for long enough while doing absolutely nothing else, give it space to unfold in your imagination, and you’ll start to visualize it. PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? is, for me, a ruined mountaintop church on a windy day; The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed is one of those cartoon stampedes where all you see is arms and legs sticking out of a giant white cloud of bodies. And Suede’s Dog Man Star is that squalid room, a composite image formed out of bits from the album’s cover art and music videos and swelling sounds and heartsick lyrics and, most recently, a photo I found of frontman Brett Anderson’s bedroom in the ‘90s. I couldn’t help but incorporate some of my own memories and visions into that picture, too, over the 15 years or so that Dog Man Star has been part of my life. As familiar as this room might seem to anyone who’s loved this album, some of what goes in it is entirely personal: a box I kept in high school, for example, its stack of illustrated love letters written in black ballpoint pen hiding the tobacco-reeking blue fabric pouch a girl once used to mail me exactly two cigarettes.

andersonBrett Anderson in his bedroom, 1992. Image via Oh, It’s the 90s

It’s significant, I think, that I see Dog Man Star as a room. Only rarely can I listen to the album without having to also inhabit it. In times of uncertainty and restlessness and great, formless desire, I can even get stuck in that room, measuring my own paralysis against its bottomless well of romance, two things that (due in part to the album’s own brand of paralysis) don’t even make for a fair comparison. I’m writing about Dog Man Star because it came out two decades ago this month, but also because I’m in that room again and it’s hard to imagine a way out – or even know whether being back here is a failure or a blessing.

I have trouble writing about Dog Man Star for the same reason that I can’t pass up the opportunity to write about Dog Man Star: I can’t tell you whether it’s one of the best albums of all time – I will readily surrender any claim to “objectivity” here, as though that ever really comes into play with criticism — but it’s certainly on the short list of albums that made me who I am. Which means that when I think about Dog Man Star, I can only ever see it through a filter that it helped to create.

It’s difficult for me to describe the particular magic of Suede’s cockeyed, overblown masterpiece without getting kind of juvenile – but I’ll try, because I’ve never quite seen the album written about in a way I find entirely satisfactory. Reviews around the time of its release were mostly either arch, as though Anderson’s dandy persona demanded criticism with a Wildean flair, or curiously clinical. Critics obsessed over the context surrounding Dog Man Star: the explosion of Britpop, and America’s indifference to all but the most dumbed-down examples of it; guessing games about which songs had been inspired by Anderson’s onetime girlfriend, Justine Frischmann of Elastica; and most of all, the rift between Anderson and guitarist Bernard Butler that caused the latter to leave the band before Dog Man Star was completed. As Alexis Petridis wrote in his Guardian review of a 2011 reissue, “you often find yourself picturing Butler deliberately coming up with music that displayed his considerable skills but was almost impossible for Anderson to turn into workable songs, only for the singer to not only pull it off, but also to ratchet up the music’s sense of overloaded hysteria through his lyrics.” Although critics in 1994 couldn’t know this, Suede’s high-drama aesthetic would turn out to be almost entirely dependent on that tense interplay.

But the gossip surrounding its birth shouldn’t obscure the fact that, in the intervening decades, Dog Man Star has proven both timeless and self-contained. Set in a dystopia that is also the real world of London and its suburbs in the mid-‘90s, each song provides its own form of escape from the nightmare of a capitalist police state: Byron’s poetry and James Dean’s films, drugs that feel less like highs than maintenance measures, one us-against-the world romance after another. Sometimes there is even a literal room. It is a bunker, and it’s the tiny space above the antiques shop where Winston and Julia carry out their love affair in Nineteen Eighty-Four (a book whose influence is most explicit in Suede’s smudgy attempt at a protest song, “We Are the Pigs”).

Suede

The album has more mediocre songs and clunker lyrics than it should be able to get away with: “This Hollywood Life” is so thematically (and, to a lesser extent, sonically) dissonant with the rest of the tracks that it should have been edited out completely, and the clobber-you-over-the-head symbolism of “Heroine” and “We Are the Pigs” can make for an embarrassing sing-along. It barely matters, though, when you listen to Dog Man Star all the way through – and that’s really the only way to properly listen to it. There’s an emotional narrative to the album, one that unspools somewhat in the middle but is pulled tight at each end. The opening track, “Introducing the Band,” is really a reintroduction – Suede using cold drum beats and echoed vocals and woozy guitars to reset expectations after the omnisexual love songs of their self-titled debut album. Its dystopic mise-en-scène is preparation for the rest of the politically minded first side, and particularly “We Are the Pigs” and “The Power.”

Anderson never strays as far from the Romantic poets and matinee idols as he might have wanted to, though, which is very likely the accident that makes Dog Man Star such a great demented masterpiece. “The Wild Ones,” a sun-bleached short-film-in-song about holding on to something fleeting for just a little bit longer, ends up smack in the middle of the first side – perhaps because it makes glancing mentions of “debts” and “suburban graves.” But the album closes with no fewer than four consecutive accounts of all-consuming romance, in flavors ranging from mournful to pleading. This is the point where Dog Man Star becomes totally immersive, the songs swelling past nine minutes or exploding into hysterical strings. By the time “Still Life” gives its last orchestral flourish and fades out into ominous ambient sounds, Suede has dragged you from icy bleakness to a state of longing, an emotion that breaks down to equal parts pain and possibility.

It’s probably unnecessary to explain why this kind of thing would be appealing to a teenager – why Dog Man Star was such a good bad influence on my life at 15 or 16. This is the kind of music that, despite all the wallowing and seclusion, will nudge a person to start living their life. The line “Have you ever tried it that way?” from “Pantomime Horse,” a song off Suede’s first album, becomes a question whose ambiguous-but-not-that-ambiguous meaning will extend to every spectacularly imprudent decision you could make. Still, it’s not like Suede were the only thing pushing me out of the nest. I mean, it’s never just one thing, is it, despite what personal essays about beloved cultural artifacts seem to suggest? Other bands and books and real-life people and something inherently searching in my own personality, I guess, were every bit as important.

So perhaps it’s mysterious that I’ve spent so much time with Suede in particular lately, that I may well have listened to Dog Man Star more times in the months surrounding my 30th birthday than I ever did in high school. Maybe this is my memory distorting itself to bring me back to a place where change and risk are possible, hindsight being not so much 20/20 as hazy and smoky and self-serving, a coded message we send ourselves from the past. But whatever I’m doing back in this room, I’m deciding right now to be optimistic about it. I’m grateful that I haven’t grown too old or too complacent to find the place again.