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Ultra Suede

Suede: Alienating one generation and transfixing another

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Suede is a new band from England that sounds nothing like the Smiths but couldn't be understood without their having come before. The Smiths' sound was the fusion of the agonies of a sarcastically self-deprecating fallen romantic (Morrissey) and the furious neotraditionalism of Johnny Marr's lacerating guitar. Eschewing the political themes and keyboard-based instrumentation of English pop at the time, the band survived--and repeatedly assaulted the British singles chart--through the audacity of Morrissey's fatalism and the uncompromising assault of Marr's recombinant guitar playing. The group weren't part of a movement or a sound, they just were. They carried no weight, disappeared, and left, in one sense, virtually no footprint. But rock exists on at least two levels. Most people hear a song they like--from "Suffragette City' to "Still Ill" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--and let it rock their world for the three minutes it's on. Others sit and listen, listen. How does it work, what does it mean? What is the difference between "Teen Spirit" and "Livin' on a Prayer"? Why is the image of early-70s Bowie so commanding, that of early-90s Chris Robinson so ludicrous? In Eno's famous dictum the Velvet Underground were heard in their time by very few people--but nearly every one of them picked up a guitar and started a band. The same scenario is writ a bit smaller with any other distinctive group: someone, somewhere, sits, listens, and thinks.

Suede's self-titled debut starts with a cliched drumbeat that's immediately defaced by a blast of feedback and a discordant minor guitar strum, all beginning the antianthem "So Young." What follows is an explicitly homoerotic, highly theatrical, and utterly captivating song cycle that means everything and nothing. Singer Brett Anderson is an unapologetic glam rocker who views the trebly androgynous yowl of "Rebel Rebel" as a call to arms, the dysfunctional sarcasm of "Hand in Glove" as a literary manifesto; but he doesn't believe in retro rock, and though Suede references the heyday of British glam it's recorded with a full-bodied 90s roar. Most notable is the interchangeable sexuality limned in the songs; Anderson's comments on the issue--"I'm a bisexual man who's never had a homosexual experience" or "I'm willing to be persuaded, whatever"--can probably be read as cynical. But I take the remarks as a sign that he's willing to reveal his personality and conflicts, ready to fight his problems out on the streets. Not that the band is a social groundbreaker: the leadoff "So Young," like "Street Fighting Man" but unlike "Teen Spirit" and "Like a Rolling Stone," displays ambivalence toward its audience, not contempt for it. But Suede know this: they're rockers, not sociologists. Theirs is a sexually charged demimonde of predators and victims, beckoning highs and unpretty collapses, one after another: the portrait of toxic, druggy sex in "Animal Nitrate," the doomed adulteress in "She's Not Dead," the vicious bout of incestuous homosexual rape in "The Drowners," the glittery, brittle drag queen in "Metal Mickey."

Some people aren't going to like the band, for some of the same reasons people didn't like the Smiths. In one sense Suede is merely the sound of poseur rock 'n' roll squatters flirting with decadent images for shock value. Anderson sings in a falsetto with an arch, heavily melismatic delivery that makes Hunky Dory-era Bowie look like a piker, and can occasionally match Morrissey drawl for drawl. And guitarist Bernard Butler, who writes the songs with Anderson, has definitely spent too much time alone in his room; he's a grim edifice builder of undeniable taste (I hear early Stones riffs all over the place) but with a nervous, guilty fixation on ornamentation. Together the pair offers Diamond Dog-gy art rock, overripe soundscapes, affected vocal arrangements, and an interest in deviant behavior that borders on the pathological.

But that's because they're self-conscious, and what interesting rock band isn't these days? Almost every one of these songs finds Anderson pinning a searing, uncompromising lyric to Butler's indefatigable guitar--"Oh what turns you on, now your animal's gone"; "Have you ever tried it that way?"; "And so we drown, sir we drown"; "Does your love only come in a Volvo?" I don't care that Bernard Butler needs a social life: I just want to hear the intro to "Metal Mickey"--in which about four of the most concussive guitar riffs of the year clangle over one another before Anderson launches into his tirade about the drag queen--over and over again. Outside the world of rap, no one's inventing rock and roll again; it's all been done, has all been done for 20 years or more. Of course Suede are self-conscious. They've taken rock's verities and turned them into new devices designed to do what rock 'n' roll has always done: offend one generation, alienate another, and transfix a new one. Suede are old, they are new; Suede don't exist, they will always exist. They're serious; they're silly and exploitative. They are utterly unforgettable, they'll live on forever, talking over our heads to their forebears--Morrissey and Marr, Jagger and Richards, Bowie and Ronson--and to kids in their rooms of the generation to come. Personality matters, they confide. So do riffs. Three chords aren't enough. And "I love you, baby" are the four most boring words in the language.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Sheehan.

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