Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Suede – Dog Man Star

on March 23, 2013, 12:00am

Britain, 1992. The kids are on drugs. The clubs are blaring house music. Across the Atlantic, everybody’s wearing flannel and bashing their heads in synchronized catharsis. Here, they get high and dance. Worlds apart.

For the past three years, the country’s antsy, overactive music press has been captivated by The Stone Roses — a group of mop-top youngsters who share an equal love for ‘60s psychedelia and rhythmic dance music. Once hailed as the saviors of British rock, the band has become idle, bogged down by contract disputes and creative hiccups. Ruthless and uncompromising, the journalists rip apart the Roses and point their crosshairs elsewhere, in search of a new band, fresh blood.

Melody Maker makes the first move, putting some androgynous-looking lads known as Suede on its April ‘92 issue. The headline: “The best new band in Britain.” And they haven’t even released a single yet, much less a full-length album. It was at this exact moment that the Britpop fad/craze/hype-machine began.

Flashforward to 1993. Suede have ridden that hype to a No. 1 charting debut album and a string of successful singles and favorable reviews. Frontman Brett Anderson, with his flamboyant whine and groomed appearance, courts an infinite amount of David Bowie comparisons. Guitarist and songwriter Bernard Butler’s lavish compositions are also quite glam, though his jangly guitar cites The Smiths. While somewhat derivative, Suede’s early output is sharp, promiscuous, and theatrical.

Then Blur and Oasis come along and its Britpop this, Britpop that. The press is hurling its tentacles in every direction, and tightening its grip on what it’s already latched onto. Anderson retreats, denouncing the scene — one that he’d later call “horribly twisted” — and sets out to make a record that is decidedly un-Britpop, Suede’s sophomore album, Dog Man Star.

Pompous. Pretentious. Self-indulgent. Overblown. Overproduced. Dog Man Star is all of these things because it was written to be all of these things. The typical music consumer, myself included, winces at such attributes. But with this record, the melodrama is executed with a self-awareness that makes sense when Anderson explains it.

“British journalists wanted this album to be this standard-bearer for British rock, but I’m not anyone’s pawn,” Anderson told The New York Times. “People always expect me to write songs about council flats and corned beef and living in Leyton in 1945 and other very British stuff. I just decided, well, I’m going to write about James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, which are the last things anybody expected me to write about.”

Anderson did most of this writing alone in a secluded Victorian mansion. No bandmates, no cutthroat journalists. Under the influence of hard drugs and hallucinogenics, Anderson expounded on the theatrics of Suede’s debut and made those theatrics the thesis. His lyrical subjects became exclusively tragic figures — the addicted teenager in “Heroin”, the street dwelling prostitute in “The Asphalt World”, the aforementioned James Dean in “Daddy’s Speeding”.

Butler’s compositions aligned with Anderson’s noir imagery. A competent blues guitarist, Butler’s fretwork is expressive, and here, it’s expressively sad. For every major chord, there are two minors. For every high note, there are three low ones. When his guitar is muted, string arrangements and orchestras take over. Such elements are most prominent on “The Wild Ones”. Butler’s guitar churns and churns as Anderson puts on his best Scott Walker impression: “We’ll shine like the morning and sin in the sun, oh if you stay / We’ll be the wild ones, running with the dogs today.”

Butler’s musicianship and Anderson’s ambition belonged together. As artists, they were the perfect couple, sharing an obsessive-compulsive vision for their music. But as people, they hated one another. The introverted guitar nerd in Butler couldn’t stand Anderson’s rockstar-fashionista behavior (and vice-versa). Sensing this tension, the UK press turned the feud into the stuff of tabloids. Butler was quoted saying things like “Brett drives me insane,” which in turn made Anderson angry. The tension boiled. After a disagreement concerning producer Ed Buller’s involvement with Dog Man Star, Butler temporarily left Suede. When he tried to return, Anderson locked the door to the recording studio and left Butler’s instruments out in the street. The guitarist recorded the remainder of his parts alone and never performed with Suede again (though the Anderson and Butler would eventually reunite as The Tears in 2004).

Under all these circumstances, how did Dog Man Star survive? Even now, it sounds so cohesive, as if Butler composed every note to be the aural equivalent of Anderson’s every word. They foiled each other; without these sweeping arrangements, Anderson’s tales of Hollywood romance would have been exposed as dramatic schlock. Flip that statement around for Butler’s music, which would’ve come off as obscenely overwritten had it not soundtracked such pretensions.

More recently, Anderson has compared Suede’s latest album, Bloodsports, to Dog Man Star. Since the early ’90s, he hasn’t written a single song that’s half as powerful as “The Asphalt World”, or a ballad quite as affecting as “Still Life”. With skepticism in my voice, I ask: Is an older and wiser Brett Anderson — one who isn’t rebelling against the status quo, one who isn’t sequestered in a mansion, one who isn’t collaborating with an artistically gifted guitarist — capable of another Dog Man Star? Go decide for yourself.