“What am I without you?” questions Brett Anderson on the open-hearted lament of the same name. A band that has always placed their messages between the lines, the transparency of What Am I Without You? sees Suede at their most honest, parting with the kind of overreaching question that we would associate with an insufferable celebrity with a loose grip on reality.
This is Brett Anderson we’re talking about, though. Leader of one of the most exciting bands to emerge from the British isles over the last thirty years. Another overreach? Not really.
From the thunderous return of Bloodsports (2013), the cinematic brilliance of Night Thoughts (2016) which then fed into the meticulously orchestrated splendour of The Blue Hour (2018), Suede have spent the last decade engineering the greatest return from any British act of ’90s.
Besides, the lucidity of What Am I Without You? is soon reframed during the swirling cadence of Black Ice – a cinematic snapshot that is ultimate Suede (“Where on the black ice/With no headlights/With our hands off the wheel.” Yes, the dangerous, panoramic drama remains.
Harnessed by Neil Codling, Richard Oakes and Suede co-founders, Mat Osman and Simon Gilbert, Anderson has always found inspiration in black pits. Stimulated by the literary greats, the singer has entwined rich, fantastically stories which have remained vivid throughout the Suede patchwork. It was no surprise when Anderson’s 2018 memoir, Coal Black Mornings, proved to one of the finest artist memoirs to have ever met the eye.
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Suede have always been about the juxtaposition. Anderson combing frosty frontiers in pursuit of his subjects. Part primal part sorrowful, his vocal range has forever soared above crunching choruses to exhilarating effect and, together alongside his band mates, the sea of euphoria is complete.
As Blur and Oasis spent an existence in smoky boozers and the Manic Street Preachers immersed themselves in the fusty aroma of libraries, Suede flitted between both.
Of all the bands of the Britpop era, while the Manics and The Charlatans most certainly had their moments, Suede have been the only ones to consistently maintain the required level of relevance, hell-bent on moving things forward as opposed to clinging to the ghosts of Britpop: a hysteria the band merely stumbled into and one they had very little in common with.
Suede were never baggy. They were suave. Sexy, even. Wildly androgynous and positively vague, they sparked intrigue. A band purely for the outsider, and as far as longevity is concerned, it has been their greatest boon.
The last decade confirms as much, with Suede producing their finest work.
Measured in execution, since Bloodsports Suede have moved their own boundaries, working outwards with grandiose statements which reach fever pitch on Autofiction: the band’s awe-inspiring seventh album. Suede’s self-professed ‘punk’ record, Autofiction sees the band in new visceral ways.
With hairpin turns, anthemic arcs and lung-busting choruses, Autofiction sees Suede being as decisive as ever. Stripped back with the directness of Bloodsports and the dynamism of Dog Man Star, in many ways it’s the album Suede aficionados have long been waiting for.
The metallic rush of opener, She Still Leads Me On, is like lighting travelling through the veins. While many claim it’s the start of an album which sees the band reinvigorated, such statements underline a disserve to the hard work done over the past decade.
With Personality Disorder, we are met with unalloyed disarray (“Will you bend my personality disorder? Feel me with your personality disorder”). “Is it wrong to love you?” questions Anderson with a new found transparency the band has seemingly being working up to. Meanwhile, the sweeping grandeur of 15 Again sees Suede picking up the slack the Manics have left behind since Postcards From A Young Man.
It bleeds into The Only Way I Can Love You. Atmospheric and anthemic in equal measure, this is fists-to-the-sky Suede, rivalling the pomp and panache of Animal Nitrate.
Oakes’ swerving blues romp of That Boy on the Stage simply takes Suede into new territory. With a groove unlike anything on Autofiction, like What Am I Without You?, Anderson untangles the intricacies of the relationship between artist and fan. (“He speaks of love and power/ And all those pretty things/ You know the voice that flatters you/ Is not the voice that sings.”)
Then there’s Drive Myself Home. With poignant intensity bursting at the seams, Drive Myself Home is the essential ballad every great album needs; placed in the middle of Autofiction, it gives moment for pause and to catch our collective breath.
On Shadow Self, Osman’s nagging bass lines and Oakes’ ringing waves of white noise create a post-punk vibe. It’s soon drowned out by Anderson’s swirling theatrics (“It doesn’t matter what you think/ When you’re not a person, you’re just a thing“. It’s the kind of outsider lament that Suede have built a career upon.
It continues on the goth-y synth punk reverie that is It’s Always the Quiet Ones – Autofiction’s pinnacle moment. Quite simply, It’s Always the Quiet Ones is a song that turns good albums into career-defining ones. Not only is it the shining beacon of Autofiction – it’s one of the best songs the band has ever written.
And while the rollicking Turn Off Your Brain and Yell isn’t weak by any stretch of the imagination, it’s no fault of Suede’s that they fail to reach the heights of The Fur & the Feathers – perhaps one of the best closing tracks from any album of the last three decades.
With the last note of Turn Off Your Brain and Yell, Suede leave us short of breath. There are some albums which leave a lingering majesty and Autofiction is one them. While Suede have never been quiet per se, in comparison with their Britpop contemporaries they have stayed in those very shadows Anderson references during It’s Always the Quiet Ones. And as their fan base grows older and the general listenership of the album itself arguably on the wane, Suede have only gone and produced something truly vital.
Yes, Autofiction is a high-watermark moment in the Suede story. Through blood, sweat and tears, they have well and truly ploughed their own furrow.
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