SUEDE Coming Up (Nude)

Suede’s second album, the magnificent "Dog Man Star", showed just what could be achieved with a modicum of ambition and tenacity: blending Pink Floyd, punk and, somewhat bizarrely, Lloyd Webber, it was loved and hated in roughly equal measures, leaving the style of its successor up for grabs. However, the replacement of departing guitar hero Bernard Butler, whose conceit "Dog Man Star" largely was, with the barely-out-of-his-teens Richard Oakes seems to have clarified Suede’s future direction.

A few clues: there are no nine-minute prog workouts on "Coming Up", the orchestras are conspicuous by their absence, and there’s lots and lots of fuzz guitar. In fact Suede’s new direction is very, very "Aladdin Sane", right down to the impossibly weedy production and the rank stench of style over substance, as if Bert’s perfectly happy wallowing in the gutter whilst staring at the stars as long as there’s enough glitter to go round. There are moments of quite goodness - "Trash", the first single for example, as fine a rallying call to the dispossessed as we’re going to get until the next Pulp album, and the elegiac "The Chemistry Between Us" ("Class A, Class B, is that the only chemistry between us?"). But generally "Coming Up", as its title half-suggests, would take the quick buzz option every time, with scant concern for the morning after. "Dog Man Star", with its pebbledash and satellite towns, made for a far more convincing night on earth.

SUEDE Head Music (Nude)

So why do I keep buying Suede albums then? Glad you asked me that: because years ago a band called Suede fashioned the definitive first text in the whole new prog (or new seriousness, if you prefer) movement, "Dog Man Star", a breathtaking album without which subsequent offerings from Radiohead and The (late lamented) Verve would have sounded very different. Typically nothing subsequently released by Suede or their former guitarist Bernard Butler has recaptured that spirit of brave but doomed experimentation, although some of Bernard’s work in his ill-starred partnership with McAlmont has come hearteningly close. Butler’s solo debut "People Move On" was something of a retro Trojan clotheshorse that just about passed muster on the strength of innumerable Neil Young comparisons (mostly, it has to be said, from the direction of his label boss, Alan McGee), whilst Suede appear to have ground back into the glam racket furrow the ever-perceptive Mark E Smith marked out for them as far back as 1993.

So "Head Music" plays like another episode in the continuing dumbing down of Suede: the music and lyrics mostly seem like a remade/remodelled version of their last album, "Coming Up", except with all the tricky bits airbrushed out of the picture. The first side ("Electricity", "Savoir Faire" and "Can’t Get Enough") is pure Suede panto parody – which is fine if you accept Brett’s assertion that to be in a band at all is to parody yourself, but not if you don’t (if you see what I mean). Then there’s the elephantine likes of "Elephant Man" which might be dismissed as a joke if it weren’t so difficult to think of Suede not taking themselves seriously on some level at least. And the brief closing acoustic strum "Crack In The Union Jack" might actually have something to say if, as with most of the album, the lyrics weren’t so self-consciously simple. Brett says they were written that way for the benefit of the band’s substantial foreign fanbase, which sounds like something of an own goal – what were said fans supposed to make of the grimy but refreshingly literate urban verbal sprawl of Suede’s first two albums?

There are moments of greatness here, though. Most of side two ("Everything Will Flow", "Down" and "She’s In Fashion") manages to rise above the almost nursery-rhyme simplicity of the lyrics and incorporates gentle trip-hop textures and string arrangements without sounding like the work of dabbling dilettantes. And "He’s Gone" – apparently already a live favourite – is another highlight. But the overall impression is of a band in creative stasis – here come the new song, same as the old song, as Pete Townshend once wrote. Added to which the production and pressing of "Head Music" is disgracefully shoddy – even worse than that on "Coming Up" – which acts as a further barrier to listening enjoyment. There’s the core of a good, possibly great, album here, but what surrounds it are predominately lazy retreads of familiar pathways.

On the week of this album’s release, Virgin Megabores up and down the country renamed themselves "Head Music" stores, according to a Virgin suit purely to demonstrate their commitment to new music, something for which they should be heartily congratulated. After all, the last three Suede albums only hit #1, #3 and #1 in the album charts respectively, so Branson’s mandarins were really sticking their neck out on this one…

Bernard Butler

McAlmont & Butler