The reissues market really thrived on artists from a certain area being tarted up and dusted down to allow middle-aged types to relive their youth. The Who, The Stones, Costello and Bowie, have all been remastered and repackaged to celebrate every two-bit anniversary, with huge sales to boot. However, with the CD market not quite what it once was, the music of the Nineties is also getting a facelift before the bags have truly formed under its eyes. Beck, Saint Etienne, Radiohead and Pulp have all had relatively recent deluxe outings and latest into the fray come Suede.
The trajectory from ‘Best New Band in Britain’ to the chartphobic wet-fart of a finale is fascinating, and the recently released 2CD/DVD sets of all five albums are every bit as good as you would hope. Let’s begin where it all ended: ‘A New Morning’. Having suffered a lengthy and troubled gestation, Suede’s final album was met with critical and popular indifference. After the pop re-birth of ‘Coming Up’ and the drugged, synthetic sound of ‘Head Music’, a polished, optimistic outing – with most rough edges neatly smoothed over – just didn’t really seem like an album they would release. Listened to directly after the previous four records, its flaws remain noticeable if dimmed but, taken in isolation, ‘A New Morning’ still contains some cracking indie jangle. ‘One Hit To The Body’ has a gloriously big chorus and ‘Positivity’, despite being the slick, shuffling first single which signalled the beginning of the end, possesses a great late-period Anderson vocal. The bonus tracks are a mixed bag, with previously unreleased track ‘Refugees’ demonstrating exactly why it had hitherto been hidden from us. The demos, as Brett observes in his splendid sleevenotes, suggest what might have been, stripping back some of the gloss and giving some of these, actually rather fine, songs a chance to get comfortable and spread out a little. As with ‘Head Music’, the b-sides are ripe for a bit of cherry-picking, ‘Simon’ chief amongst them, along with actually-an-a-side ‘Attitude’, previously used to promote the ill-fated ‘Singles’ compilation which served to truly switch out the lights on the band’s original run.
Part of the problem facing ‘A New Morning’ and, to a lesser extent, the two albums prior to it, was that it wasn’t either ‘Suede’ or ‘Dog Man Star’, two critical milestones which caused press and populous alike to fall head over heels for a faintly androgynous front man and his guitar god sidekick. The adrenaline rush prompted by the first play of their debut album is still very much present eighteen years on, the opening pairing of ‘So Young’ and ‘Animal Nitrate’ setting the tone for drug-tinged, council house based despair and talk of disappointing sex. Although there has been much criticism of some of Brett’s later lyrics, it’s hard to deny that lines like “In your council home, he jumped on your bones” are tremendously evocative.
While Bernard Butler’s majesty was a key part of that dynamic mix, it was on ‘Dog Man Star’ where ambition and arrogance combined to produce a true epic, utterly out of step with almost everything released in 1994, bar perhaps ‘The Holy Bible’ by the Manics. Listening to the original, untrimmed and seemingly unmuddied ‘The Wild Ones’, replete with subsequently removed squawking Butler solos, it’s not difficult to see how the famous split might have been brewing. Already resorting to songwriting by post, despite living near enough to walk, the tension in the extended minutes of one of the band’s defining songs is fascinating. It doesn’t improve it though, a little like much of the non b-side bonus material on the first two albums: worth a listen but unlikely to change your mind. After all, you already love these two records anyway and the majority of the bonus tracks from the singles have previously been anthologised on the ludicrously strong collection ‘Sci-Fi Lullabies’. The DVD interviews are gentle and faintly revelatory while the various live footage, of not always crystal clear quality, goes some way to conveying the buzz around the band almost twenty years ago.
The departure of Butler and arrival of seventeen year old replacement Richard Oakes brought about a creative re-birth, the band aiming to craft an album which could ultimately double as a Greatest Hits. That album was ‘Coming Up’, and it’s the most essential out of the five sets on offer, containing as it does the most consistently excellent range of material. While augmented by an engaging interview and some fine live footage from the Roundhouse, the music contained on both discs is largely wonderful, with the b-sides disc good enough to stand alone as an album in itself. The bleakly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking ‘Another No One’ remains one of my favourite Suede songs of all time, whilst the gloomy ‘Europe Is Our Playground’ is another of their less prominent gems. Benefiting from the remastering process noticeably is ‘This Time’, always a fine tune but now sounding rather more robust, which features a guitar line emerging a little after the four minute mark which is gloriously rich and relentlessly euphoric. It is one of many, many highpoints on this particular set and serves to underline how, in the midst of Britpop, Suede were real contenders whose subsequent decline still seems baffling.
Certainly, Brett seems to think hindsight is a useful tool when trying to make sense of this sizeable body of work, offering revised tracklistings for all of the albums in their respective booklets. This seems most necessary on 1999’s bloated ‘Head Music’, which did a remarkable job of destroying some not inconsiderable momentum which had built up across the ‘Coming Up’ campaign. Sticking with the same font and style as its chart-shagging predecessor, the stage was set for ‘Head Music’ to cast Suede as one of the biggest bands in Britain. However, thanks to some drug addled production choices and somewhat injudicious track selection the album remains a massive great ‘what if’. Swap out ‘Crack In The Union Jack’ and ‘Asbestos’ and things are already starting to look up, Anderson suggesting that ‘Heroin’ and ‘Crackhead’ might be more suitable bedfellows for the likes of ‘Electricity’ and the still utterly magnificent ‘Down’. The b-sides disc, as is the case with pretty much all of these reissues, mirrors the album; in this case meaning that it contains moments of greatness amongst some rather less memorable creations. With over a decade having now passed, it’s a rather more tame listen than it seemed at the time but it remains a glorious folly rather than an out-and-out flop. This extended package makes for fine company when looking to reminisce and re-evaluate.
Some of the bonus video footage across the DVDs is of somewhat sub-standard quality (audio on the left channel only for one video of an in-store performance) but the highlights, including the original Channel 4 documentary to mark the release of ‘Head Music’, are well worth having. That these deluxe sets are so reasonably priced makes it rather easier to forgive the odd flaws and, while not up to audiophile standard, the remastering does a decent enough job of filling out the sound of the earlier albums which always sound a little like they were playing from the room next door. Suede recorded some truly excellent material and, like so many great bands, a reasonable amount of more mediocre tunes also, but these sets do a great job of reigniting the love affair and will please anyone with more than a passing fondness for this quintessentially Nineties band. If this will be the first time you’ve dabbled then it’s hard not to be slightly envious of the thrills, chills and out-and-out highs ahead of you. A largely excellent collection, offering hours upon hours of entertainment, these reissues are more than just nostalgic boxes to play once and then shove on the shelf. Yes, even ‘A New Morning’.
‘Suede’, ‘Dog Man Star’, ‘Coming Up’, ‘Head Music’ and ‘A New Morning’ are all now available as 2CD/DVD sets on Edsel. Sample the packaging and audio here.