(The London) Suede have always gotten something of a raw deal in America — forced to surrender their name to a largely forgotten cabaret singer, lumped in with an artificial movement they loathed, and largely ignored by a public who never really “got” their appeal. There’s certainly something very English about Suede — in the same way that you understand David Lynch’s work better once you’ve spent time in LA, you can’t really appreciate Suede’s particular brand of louche glamour until you’ve lived in the sort of squalid London bedsit or council flat that plays home to the characters in Brett Anderson’s songs. But like Lynch’s films are as universal as they are location-specific, so too does Suede’s music have an emotional pull that transcends geography.
It’s never too late, and if America was ever going to succumb to Suede’s charms, this might just be the time to do it. Night Thoughts — the band’s seventh album, and second since their reunion in 2010 after a decade-long hiatus — is out here this week, a full two weeks after its UK release, and it’s the best thing they’ve released in years, perhaps even since their 1994 masterpiece Dog Man Star.
Both musically and lyrically, it’s not wildly divergent from anything Suede have done before — which is interesting in and of itself, because it proves Anderson’s tales of doomed suburban romances and desperate glamour remain just as effective in the 21st century as they did in the late 20th. The music is widescreen and, dare I say it, cinematic, while the lyrics are kitchen-sink drama, focusing on mundanity and disaffection, and yet remaining romantic and curiously beautiful.
The key, I think, is this: Suede’s particular brand of disaffection has never really been about youth. Or, at least, it didn’t have to be. Sure, the band’s early songs were populated by impossibly beautiful, dissipated ingenues, the sort of people who managed to make nodding out with a cigarette still burning look glamorous. But the feelings that drove those characters — disaffection, boredom, a desire to transcend the quotidian, a longing for meaning in life beyond the nine-to-five grind, the desperate pursuit of pleasure, the crushing reality of Monday morning and the subway to work — all those things are just as relevant in middle age as they are in your early 20s.
In fact, one might argue they’re more so — the particular brand of longing in Suede’s work is, as Anderson said back in 1993, “the Oscar Wilde thing of lying in the gutter and looking at the stars. Life has always been cinema to me, even when I’ve been sitting in the dole office,” and at least being at the dole office in your 20s implies some sort of hope you might eventually get to those stars. For the sad-eyed businessman in the bar at closing time, thumbing through his copy of the Steve Jobs biography in the hope some Silicon Valley stardust might rub off onto him, the stars are very far away indeed.
It’s this feeling that slowly saturates Night Thoughts — Anderson has described the album as being inspired by the experience of parenthood, and it also seems to be about the experience of being parented, in the same way as, say, Pink Floyd’s The Wall dissected, in excruciating detail, Roger Waters’ daddy (and mummy) issues. One of the great fears of parenthood, of course, is that of repeating the same mistakes as your parents. Another, as Anderson explained to Exclaim, is “the terror before you become a parent. It’s explained to you that it will be challenging and life-changing and wonderful, all of these things, but they never say the fucking terror of being responsible for this vulnerable person… Lots of the album is about mortality and that fear of death. Because I don’t give a shit about my death for my own sake. I give a shit about it for the people I’m not going to be there for.”
These fears coalesce into a sort of semi-impressionistic narrative thread that runs through the record. It’s hard to follow exactly what’s happening, but you get the idea — as Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman notes, “Though [he’s] a master of evocative detail, Anderson doesn’t care much for narrative exposition rather than set a scene, he prefers to thrust you into the thick of the moment where it’s all about to fall apart.” At its darkest, it recalls another concept album about doomed lovers, Lou Reed’s Berlin: a line like, “And all that’s left is the ashes of her sorry little notes/ So no one can read the sentences she wrote” could have come straight out of “The Bed,” Berlin‘s most harrowing moment (and that’s saying something).
Interestingly, Night Thoughts takes the idea of cinematic drama to its logical extreme: it comes packaged with an entire feature film. The film is as impressionistic as its accompanying music; we start by watching a young man kill himself by walking into the sea, and as one song bleeds into another, so too the film’s images shift through time and space, unveiling the lead-up to the suicide, piece by piece. I won’t spoil too much here, but suffice it to say that the film captures the album’s themes — parenthood, mortality, the travails of romantic love — just as deftly as the songs themselves. And while the setting is as quintessentially English — the sea into which the protagonist disappears looks freezing — both the story and the ideas are universal. All of which is to say: come on, America, for goodness’ sake, it’s time to take notice of one of the best bands of the last 20 years. Better late than never.