Suede plays it anew with ‘Bloodsports’ album

by Shaun Curran

Special To The Japan Times

Ten years ago, Suede was in the process of fizzling out to a backdrop of apathy. For a band whose initial brilliance inadvertently help kick-start Britpop in the 1990s, it all seemed unedifying: a farewell tour, sparsely attended, was met with a collective shrug of the shoulders and was testament to the malaise that had taken hold of the outfit.

Singer Brett Anderson, much like the family of a terminally ill relative, tried to make the best of the situation, but when he told the audience at the band’s last gig at the London Astoria in December 2003 “there will be another Suede record,” it seemed like a hollow promise, and not a particularly inviting one at that.

But fast-forward a decade and Anderson has improbably been proved right. What’s more, “Bloodsports,” the band’s first new collection for 11 years, is — unlike those of many veteran bands that regroup — the sort of record that has people reaching for synonyms for “return to form.”

“Did I actually believe that when I said that we’d make another record?” Anderson asks rhetorically from his Notting Hill home. “No, I don’t think I did. You never know, of course, but deep down I really thought it was all over.”

And with good reason. Once a band so exhilarating it was splashed on the cover of influential weekly magazine Melody Maker and heralded as “The best new band in Britain” before it had even released a single, loss of focus and Anderson’s addiction to crack cocaine were among the factors that slowly sucked the life out of a once-vital group, resulting in 2002′s sterile “A New Morning.”

“In 2002, it just became like a job,” Anderson admits. “The magic went. It happens. It happens with bands, it happens with relationships. But at least we recognized that and did the dignified thing. More bands should do that. Instead they just carry on and it’s like ‘Give us a f-cking break.’

” ‘A New Morning’ was a disaster. It deserved to be as well, because it wasn’t very good. I was put out by the reaction at the time, but the truth is it wasn’t very good. It had three good songs. Loads of bands get away with having only three good songs in their career, but this is Suede. We have high standards.”

That much is certainly true. In 1992, Suede not only had fantastic songs full of sexual ambiguity, sordid glamour and working-class depravity, but in Anderson it boasted a frontman for the ages: beautifully androgynous, elegantly wasted and with a killer turn of phrase (he once snootily dismissed Oasis as “the singing electricians”) he was seen as no less than an heir to David Bowie.

Indeed, after winning the Mercury Prize for their eponymous debut in 1993, Suede could do no wrong. It made the slide into irrelevance all the more jarring. The onset of the decline is difficult to identify: most agree that “A New Morning” was, at the very least, the final nail in the coffin, while others will point to 1999′s “Head Music,” an experimental album that veered wildly from the sublime (“Everything Will Flow”) to the ridiculous (the opening couplet in “Savoir Faire”: “She lives in a house/She’s stupid as a mouse” came to embody Anderson’s plunge into self-parody).

Some would even look to the departure of original co-songwriter and guitarist, the mercurial Bernard Butler, who fell out with Anderson in 1994 shortly before the release of Suede’s masterful second album, “Dog Man Star.” “We were seen as weakened when Bernard left, and the bullies were lining up to kick us in the shins.” That proved premature listening to 1996′s “Coming Up” though, which contains many of the band’s most recognizable tracks (“Trash,” “Beautiful Ones”) and remains Suede’s biggest seller.

But whatever, the majesty had vanished, as Anderson starkly admitted when he stated he needed to “get his demon back.” A long look in the mirror followed, but not the type that is normally associated with the singer, who has always, rightly or wrongly, stood accused of conceit: the pompous, self-obsessed dandy. Speaking to him, if this was ever true, it is wholly outdated: engaging and chipper, his assessment of Suede is truthful to a fault.

“I am quite self-analytical. I think there is this misconception that I am vain and arrogant, but that is just one-dimensional. I am proud of the good stuff I’ve done, but I am also honest enough about the stuff that has gone wrong.”

In the wake of the split, Anderson went about regaining his muse. After a decade of not speaking, he and Butler reconciled in 2004 for short-lived band The Tears (the pair remain friends), before Anderson embarked on a curious solo career, most of which was spent “self-consciously doing the opposite of what Suede would do.” As a result, few were expecting the band to ever return.

Conversely, that is exactly what has made their comeback so thrilling. Anderson says that “other than interviews, I hadn’t even considered” getting Suede back together until, in 2010, the U.K.-based charity Teenage Cancer Trust asked it to reform for their annual high-profile fundraising gigs at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Anderson reconvened the second, post-Butler incarnation of the group — Richard Oakes (guitar), Mat Osman (bass), Simon Gilbert (drums) and Neil Codling (keyboards) — for what was “genuinely intended to be a one-off show, which I thought was a glorious way to end it.” It was therefore a “wonderful surprise” that “we enjoyed it so much we knew we couldn’t leave it there.”

Enter “Bloodsports,” which after a difficult gestation with old cohort Ed Buller (“he was brutal, but that’s what I needed”) has gone a long way to restoring their reputation. Unmistakably Suede-like, it could have easily followed “Coming Up,” and its best moments (“Hit Me,” “Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away”) equal anything from their ’90s heyday.

“It had to be amazing, or there was no point,” Anderson says. “If it was just OK, it would be like ‘so what?’ Touring for two years and playing the greatest hits infused the record, made us very conscious of what we did really well. Classic Suede was very much the intention. We knew it needed all the elements that made us great.”

Lyrically, Anderson rejected the sex and drugs of yore, “looking for the drama in something else. The lyrical style in early Suede was easy to fall into self-parody. This record is about the friction between two people, that moment of drama and beauty that is created. It’s more microscopic, less universal than in the past.”

That past is inescapable, even the bits Anderson would rather forget. The mere mention of the word “Britpop” makes him bristle, wary as he is of standing out from what he calls the “laddish cartoon,” or re-treading old ground about the love triangle soap opera with Blur’s Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann of Elastica.

“It was a reaction to the colloquial imperialism of America, the idea that people were no longer able to live their own lives. But in fact, the good message to come from Britpop was that it was fine to sing about your own life. I think that’s the key thing that Suede gave to the world: you didn’t have to sing in rock-speak or ’60s cliché. It’s OK to sing about a grotty flat on Holloway Road.”

Of course, Anderson no longer frequents grotty flats on Holloway Road, hedonism fueling his art. Yet he refutes the suggestion that living as comfortably as he does results in creative bankruptcy.

“You are always competing with what you did in the past, but it is a different set of challenges. Your body works differently, your brain doesn’t flow as well and it is hard work. But that is no excuse to make something average. You can’t put a warning on the record and say, “Really sorry if this isn’t up to standard, but my life has changed.” That record needs to stand up against what you have done in the past. And if I have to work twice as hard next time to make sure it does, then I will.”

How Suede’s next move manifests will be interesting, but that is for another time: next, a rejuvenated Anderson can’t wait to bring “Bloodsports” to Japan.

“The first time I went I had hardly traveled, I was just some scruffy kid from Heyward’s Heath. I was taken aback, it was quite an exotic culture clash and I didn’t know how to get the best out of it. But it’s different now — I love Tokyo. And we are looking forward to playing our new songs there.”

Suede plays Club Diamond Hall in Nagoya on Oct. 7, Namba Hatch in Osaka on Oct. 9, and Shibuya-Ax in Tokyo on Oct. 10 and 11. All shows start at 7 p.m. Tickets cost ¥7,350. Japanese band OverTheDogs are scheduled as support act for the Oct. 7, 9 and 10 dates. For more information, visit www.suede.co.uk or www.creativeman.co.jp/artist/2013/10suede.