You might say that rock songs with messianic imagery are a dime a dozen – and you wouldn’t be wrong. Salvation language befits rock n roll; mixing a few religious metaphors into an otherwise mundane love song can give it a majesty it wouldn’t otherwise have. Just ask Martin Gore or Bruce Springsteen. Whether or not there’s any sincerity or belief behind the words is a separate matter, and not really for us to know. A person in the throes of falling in love or having their heart broken certainly feels those things in an intensely spiritual way. And who’s to say where desperation ends and belief begins? The two go hand in hand after all.
Suede knew a thing or two about majesty. In the dour 90s, when sulking bravado was all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic, no one delivered the drama with as much flair as Suede’s Brett Anderson. While much was made of their glammy/androgynous kinship to Bowie, accent aside, Morrissey is the more natural touchstone (minus the Moz humor that is), not to mention the seedy/hyper-literate grandeur of Scott Walker. The truth is, though, that Suede sounded utterly like themselves, from the first notes of “The Drowners” onward. The Brit-pop label they got shunted with was simply an accident of timing.
Their unequivocal masterpiece is 1994′s Dog Man Star, a record that some of us believe to be among the very best music the British Isles produced that decade, or any other. Grandiose in every possible sense – pop music that (almost) deserves the ‘Wagnerian’ tag – but also that very rare record that doesn’t collapse under the weight of its ambitions/pretensions. Instead, it embodies them in about as strong an argument for the substances that inspired it as you’ll ever hear. It’s that good, and its stature has only grown over the years, as last month’ deluxe reissue proved. This is not to say that it glorifies addiction or debauchery. Not remotely! Just that Dog Man Star understands that sort of suffering in a way that conveys both compassion and rare poetry. Sure, Anderson’s lyrics open themselves up to easy parody (he himself has indulged in it from time to time), but for a brief hour, it all worked perfectly. In fact, when it comes to capturing the seething humanity and undeniable romanticism of the (bohemian side of the) drug culture, not to mention the religious yearning it simultaneously incites and repels, I’m not sure anyone has done it better. Bernard Butler’s genius-level musicality and production instincts didn’t hurt.
All this to say, when Suede invoked the Second Coming, it not only made sense, it was moving. Like a number of their Smiths-inspired peers, they proudly (or arrogantly) consigned some of their best songs to the b-sides of their singles, and two of the Dog Man Star-era songs that suffered that fate are prime examples of what I’m talking about. In “My Dark Star” Brett may be singing about his girlfriend, but when he casts her as a dark-skinned Jesus, it somehow rings true: “In rented gear 2000 years we waited for a man/But with a tattooed tear she’d die for us all tonight… And she will rise.” The acoustic performance below doesn’t quite do the sweep of the recorded version justice:
Then there’s “This World Needs a Father,” a tune conspicuously left off their now obsolete but absolutely indispensable collection, Sci-Fi Lullabies (which ironically took its name from one of the lines in the song). Brett pleads, “Hold on, he’s coming…/Through the tears of your [scheisse]-stained dream/…Let the light of the bomb shine from him tomorrow/Yes this world needs a father for the sorrow.” Is he singing about God or narcotics or both? The song ends on a note of profound ambivalence – “For drink to you is all I can do/as life goes round, round the pill” – but hey, this is Suede. They are nothing if not an acquired taste. Acquire it now:
As a footnote, while the above songs could be dismissed as (ridiculously successful) exercises in gloomy melodrama and Byronic irony, on his first solo album, Brett sounded too tired to wheel out his old persona, opting instead to pen a couple of surprisingly direct songs about lost love, death, fathers, and yes, Jesus. Track two, “One Lazy Morning” caught me completely off guard when i first heard it. I found myself scanning back three or four times after that first chorus (say whaaat?). It’s more humble than those early songs and therefore a little less memorable, but nonetheless really affecting and even sweet: