DOG MAN STAR
You almost have to love Suede just for their over-the-top ambitions. No other band today attempts the operatic scope and swooping grandeur that the lads from the London exurb of Haywards Heath aim for. On their much-hyped 1993 debut, a fine interim EP called Stay Together, and their new full-length disc Dog Man Star, they try to combine the theatricality of Queen, the suburban melodrama of the Smiths, and the swollen mawkishness of a John Williams film score with the early-70s androgynous glam rock of David Bowie. They often fall short of the mark, and it’s hard not to snicker at Brett Anderson’s quavering, nasal falsetto and at the band’s overweening dramatics. But when they momentarily forget that they are the Most Important British Band Since Last Week, they’re capable of going for the emotional jugular like few other groups.
The trouble is, their own ambitions and their awareness of the high expectations of music press rarely allow them to be unself-conscious enough to make that direct emotional connection. They don’t seem to realize that they are not, in fact, the saviors of the British music scene, or that whether or not they are doesn’t matter. Their lyrics are more often laughable than profound, and their music is just as often derivative and self-indulgent as it is arrestingly original. Still, having high ambitions means that if you fall just a little short of them, you’re doing a damn sight better than most. Dog Man Star is full of songs that would be out of place on any other band’s records; Suede are mining a vein that few others are working. And even their partially realized dramatic visions are more compelling than the relentlessly banal pyschodramas that most rock bands come up with.
Suede has the cojones to open the album with a concept piece titled “Introducing the Band,” a trancelike number that sets out the bands’ themes: the all-consuming nature of the star-making machine, the disillusionment and oppression of post-industrial suburbia, and of course a dose of the band’s trademark, ever-marketable androgyny (“I want the style of a woman, the kiss of a man”). All those elements that make Suede compelling, worthy of attention, but they also make them just a little laughable: you can see what Anderson is aiming for with lyrics like “Dog man star took a suck on a pill /And stabbed a cerebellum with a curious quill” but you wish he’d dispense with the highfalutin’ nonsense and stick with what he’s good at, which is swooning, slightly trite yet still throat-catching dirges like “The Wild Ones,” in which aching strings and bluesy guitar embroider lines like “Oh, if you stay / We’ll be the wild ones, running with the dogs today.”
Throughout the album, what redeems the band is Bernard Butler’s sinous, quivering guitar work. It soars through the nearly formulaic scorcher “We Are the Pigs,” which tries but fails to be as heartstopping as the first album’s killer single, “Metal Mickey;” it snakes through “Heroine,” yet another ode to a dead film star (“Discarding her clothes in the plastic flowers / Pornographic and tragic in black and white / My Marilyn come to my slum for an hour”); and it lifts the record’s best song, “New Generation,” above of the level of the merely anthemic and into the realm of truly compelling rock and roll.
The songs on Dog Man Star that don’t make good use of Butler’s smoky, penetrating guitar ultimately suffer for it: the thin-sounding James Dean homage “Daddy’s Speeding,” or overorchestrated, bloated soundalikes like “The Power,” “Black or Blue” and “The 2 of Us.” The lyrics and Anderson’s voice are too insubstantial to carry the songs on their own. Butler–who with Anderson wrote all of Suede’s material–quit the group three-quarters of the way through the recording of the new record, and it’s evident where the band and their producer tried to fill in the gaps. But plugging in some over-the-top strings or waffling Hammond organs doesn’t do the trick. Butler’s departure doesn’t bode well for the band.
Even Dog Man Star’s best song, “New Generation,” doesn’t have the ferocious guitar swagger of “Metal Mickey,” and there’s not one song on the whole album as gorgeous and lyrical as “My Dark Star,” a throwaway track on Stay Together that’s the best thing they’ve done to date. The album’s second-to-last track, “Still Life,” offers the definitive paradigm of both the pleasures and frustrations of Suede: Anderson quavers and postures like a latter-day Diamond Dog on what’s basically an above average rock song (“And this still life is all I ever do / There by the window quietly killed for you”) when suddenly, a full orchestra charges in like U. S. Cavalry. Strings swell, brass brays and, improbably as it may seem, as one waits for imaginary movie credits to start rolling, the heart is touched. The song may be more farce than high drama, more soap-opera than tragic opera, but in the end it doesn’t matter, because it works.
Suede make an impression because unlike most bands, they try for grandeur; just because they occasionally lapse into grandiosity instead doesn’t make their ambitions wrong. True, aside from a few keeper tracks on each record, there’s not all that much substance to them. But hey, at least they’re trying.