Suede: Dog Man Star - review

Suede's second album is still truly extraordinary – who would dare make it today, asks Alexis Petridis

We seem to be in the teeth of a Suede revival: their reunion has been greeted with widespread delight, and last week the NME referred to them as "the hip reference everyone's trying to drop". Even so, listening to their second album – newly reissued, like all Suede's albums, in a three-disc special edition – you're struck by the sense of it being an artefact from another, lost era. That's not because it sounds of its time. Indeed, it's hard to think of an album that sounds less in step with 1994 – the year the Britpop movement Suede helped kickstart finally codified into earthy, prosaic guitar rock – than Dog Man Star. It's because it belongs to a sub-species of rock album that seems to have become extinct: the demented, doomed, destructive folly, the recording of which tears bands apart (it was recorded at the point when Suede's meteoric early success had curdled relations between frontman Brett Anderson and guitarist Bernard Butler so much they collaborated on songs by post) but makes for great reading in heritage rock magazines a few decades on. Dog Man Star wobbles unsteadily along a high wire that separates greatness from utter ridiculousness, clearly under the influence of some appalling combination of drugs. Looking on, occasionally through your fingers, it's hard not to be impressed by the sheer degree of ambition that got it up there in the first place. Or at least the sheer degree of passive aggression.

As you listen, you often find yourself picturing Butler deliberately coming up with music that displayed his considerable skills but was almost impossible for Anderson to turn into workable songs, only for the singer to not only pull it off, but also to ratchet up the music's sense of overloaded hysteria through his lyrics. Within 30 seconds of the album beginning, someone's stabbing a cerebellum with a curious quill, which if nothing else, lets you know what you're in for lyrically: "I'm 18 and I need my heroine"; "I know a girl she walks the arse-felt world"; "she-rocker hear the audience scream for the death of a king, but a hand-job is all that the butchery brings" and so on.

The results are fetid and claustrophobic – even the sparsest songs feel weirdly airless – compounded by the bizarre, muffled production, one of the factors that led to Butler's departure three months before Dog Man Star's release. At its most straightforward, it simply took the crunching glam rock blueprint of Suede's debut album and turned everything from the guitars to Anderson's vocal mannerisms up to full blast: the singles We Are the Pigs and New Generation; The Asphalt World, a stately nine-minute exploration of ecstasy-driven infidelity that keeps fading and surging, not unlike the drug itself. At its weirdest, as on the grinding, monotonal, wilfully offputting opener Introducing the Band, it doesn't really sound like anything else at all: only Anderson's estuarine vowels identify it as the work of the band who'd made The Drowners and Metal Mickey.

But its main currency is ballads, which range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Into the latter category fall Black Or Blue and The 2 of Us, which have the hint of showtunes about them, not in the sense of the usual rock appropriation of Weillesque oompah or Cole Porter's lyrical flash, but in the sense that they actually sound like something from the score of Cats: Suede, a band who packaged their debut album in a sleeve featuring two naked lesbians in wheelchairs kissing, were never afraid of trying a bit too hard. But when Dog Man Star's ballads are good, they're amazing, not least The Wild Ones and Still Life, the latter extravagantly larded with orchestration and timpani. On the one hand, it's just more preposterous showboating, a suitably overblown finale to an overblown album. On the other, it's a genuinely beautiful song, and there's something incredibly touching about the way all the pomp and circumstance turns the lyric's bored suburban housewife – a subject traditionally fit for nothing more in rock than pity or satire – into a strangely heroic figure.

And yet, 17 years on, the most striking thing about Dog Man Star isn't really the music. Anyone coming to it for the first time would do well to remember the position Suede were in when they released it: the biggest new band in Britain, catapulted from pub-circuit obscurity to the Mercurys and Brit Awards with a speed that's now par for the course, but at the time seemed almost laughably brisk. As you listen, it's worth asking yourself if any band at the same stage of their career today would have the bravery, the chutzpah, to attempt something like this? Given the band currently in the most analogous position to Suede's is Mumford & Sons, the answer seems fairly obvious.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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