We were competing with the great records of the past” Brett Anderson reflected in 2011; “That’s what we had to prove with it. I was trying to write without any boundaries”. An interesting theory, given that their self titled debut had been the most exciting British rock album since ‘The Queen is Dead’, but ever the perfectionists, Suede came together to write their finest work – and the one that subsequently ruined the relationship between the band’s chief writers!
Suede started Britpop and subsequently came to hate the genre, none less so than Suede’s guitarist and co-songwriter Bernard Butler. Moving to move away from the genre the band saw as “a horribly twisted, a musical Carry On film”, songwriters Butler and Anderson moved to the darker albums of Lou Reed and Kate Bush, Anderson took solace from Scott Walker, Butler listened to The Righteous Brothers. Drugs were unquestionably an influence on Anderson’s spherical scope as he consumed tab after tab, the psychedelia most prevalent on Monroe ode ‘Heroine’ and the pleasantly Floydian ‘The Asphalt World’. Anderson’s liberal drug use irritated Butler (Butler despised being treated like a subservient for his unwillingness to party) and the two recorded the album growing further and further apart than Lennon/McCartney ever drifted.Butler took issue with Ed Buller’s production (Butler was a more than competent engineer himself) and insisted the others sack Buller and allow Butler to complete the album; Anderson, wary of Butler, refused. Butler left the band before the album was finished, many of his guitar parts replaced by session musicians (Butler does not play on ‘The Power’, tellingly, the album’s weakest track) and the band toured the album with seventeen year old Richard Oakes as guitarist ( a position he holds to this day).
But in the trend of difficult albums a la ‘The White Album’ and ‘Kid A’, ‘Dog’ is all the better for its dark behind the scenes politics, Suede playing the same songs in unison, but not all playing the same music. Butler (the finest indie guitarist of his generation, save for Graham Coxon) imbues the album with his touch, bluesy charge and spiritual incantation visible in his playing, the seventies potency that blessed ‘McAlmont Butler’s ‘Yes’ here in its genesis. ‘New Genesis’ came closest to a seventies rocker, ballsy in its drumming, aggressive in guitars, a musical statement of social intent. Delicate piano playing compliments Anderson’s baritone excellence on ‘The 2 Of Us’, as fine a vocal as his falsetto Bowie brilliance heard on the band’s greatest single ‘Animal Niterate’. Where ‘Suede’ (1993) had an optimism to it, ‘Dog’ feels barren, helpless, as hapless as a Beckettian play; “lying in my bed/watching my mistakes” Anderson echoes over pained voice, the album’s process at its most real.
Doom and gloom is, thankfully absent, from the album’s most obviously commercial track ‘The Wild Ones’ (still Anderson’s favorite Suede song). Shades of Phil Spector surround its production, Anderson lilting voice demanding and commanding twenty odd years after its release. ‘We Are The Pigs’ spiralled in Roger McGuinn jangles, but exploded into a song angrier than any heard since John Lydon called himself an antichrist (Simon Gilbert’s finest hour as a drummer, sharp, but loud, reminiscent of The Smith’s Mike Joyce, who preceded Gilbert as Suede’s drummer). ‘Black Or Blue’ brought shades of esoteric Lennon forward, ‘This Hollywood Life’ glammier than glam, closer ‘Still Life’ a beautiful ode to The Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’.
Behemoth ‘This Asphalt World’ proved the band’s towering achievement, a colossally audacious nine minute track (trimmed from twenty minutes, much to Butler’s utter contempt), but one that rewarded the listener as prog classics ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ had once done. Gender irrelevant in its writing, gorgeous in its playing, ‘Asphalt’ shimmered riff upon sideline as Anderson delivers the best performance of his career. The greatest Suede song the radios never played, ‘Asphalt’ took the band’s core influences, shook them and beat them.
Despite the album’s grandiosity, audacity and genius, it failed to generate the response ‘Definitely Maybe’ and ‘Parklife’ generated, a critical triumph, not a commercial vessel. But neither were ‘Berlin’, ‘Tusk’, ‘Stormcock’, ‘Queen II’, nor ‘The Dreaming’, each the crowning jewels of their writers, each a treasure to passionate listeners, each a cult for avid followers looking to avoid the mainstream. And in this family of off-beat brilliance, ‘Dog Man Star’ sits very comfortably!