June 4, 2009

Hear Again: Head Music.

Because of its brevity, sparse arrangement, and rudimentary production, Crack in the Union Jack seems like an afterthought rather than a proper ending to Suede's fourth album. Looking back at a decade during which Anthony Blair's "New Labour" government proved to be Britain's most right wing since the end of the Second World War, it's tempting to interpret the track as a perceptive piece of prescience regarding "Cool Britannia" — the fad that followed the election of Britain's youngest PM in 185 years which sought parallels with the Wilson years' "Swinging London". As sassy as Suede may have been, they were rarely clever about politics, so if Crack… reflects on anything it's Britpop itself. A response wrapped in the British flag to North American Grunge that Suede had helped usher in during the 1990s, Britpop had begun to fracture and wane just as Britain's political winds appeared to be turning.

Suede may themselves have contributed to its demise by trying to recombine their formula — an outer-suburban middle class fantasy of central London streetlife combined with nostalgia for past British musical dominance — which had made their first album Britain's fastest selling debut (until Oasis came along) since Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome, and propelled their second and third to the top of the British album chart. Not that Head Music deviates much from the polished sound of Suede's 1996 mainstream breakthrough Coming Up. In fact, it could give a casual listener the impression of being cobbled together from that album's leftovers. Today it plays like an excellent — if unintentional — assessment of the decade's excesses by a generation that preferred getting lost inside their own heads to affecting the harsh climate outside.

However, at the time of its release a decade ago it was the shift toward a more electronic sound that captivated, and made Suede's first album with a title track their third chart topper. That conscious change in instrumentation is commonly cited as the reason for why Suede switched from working with producer and former Psychedelic Furs keyboardist Ed Buller, who'd produced all their previous albums, to Steve Osborne, who'd helped shape Curve's drum-machine and sequencer driven rock. But the switch behind the mixing desk was more likely brought about by necessity, as Buller — a founding member of the electronic music project Node — decided to pursue composition and orchestration studies at the San Francisco Conservatory. Suede's musical palette was more likely widened by the arrival of drummer Simon Gilbert's cousin Neil Codling on keyboards.

The initial accusations that Codling was simply added to Suede's line-up for his looks were quickly dispelled by his musical contributions. On Head Music Codling's credited with composition on five tracks, one of which he'll forever be blamed for alone — making him the only other member of the band besides vocalist and founding member Brett Anderson to receive sole credit for a Suede recording. A dubious honour as the track in question, Elephant Man, so displeased producer Osborne he reputedly refused to have anything to do with it. Instead, occasional The The collaborator Bruce Lampcov helped shape it into what could easily be mistaken for an outtake from an Adrian Belew session with Kiss — betraying that particular band's rather heavy debt to Glam despite their persistent efforts to obtain Heavy Metal credentials.

Codling's careful application of synthesisers and other electronic devices, as for instance on the album's stomping Glam opener Electricity (initially titled Stompy), brings to mind the equally measured and seamless embedding of electronic instruments on T.Rex's final album Dandy in the Underworld, or the first two albums recorded by Japan (the band, not the island nation). The ascending sine-wave glissandos which Codling adds to the ballad Down are particularly exceptional, as delicate as they — given the song's theme — are devious. More importantly, the electronic accents provide the final touch in Suede's crafting of an accompaniment vivid enough to immaculately complement Anderson, one of the most dramatic and distinct voices of 1990s popular music.

As if to mock his detractors further, Codling's also featured on the Head Music sleeve. That's him, the blob on the right. The other blob is Sam Cunningham, Brett Anderson's girlfriend at the time, and the subject of the album's She's in Fashion — not so much a confirmation of status as an indication of career. Anderson's initial idea for the sleeve had been a photo of two people facing each other while wearing interconnected headphones, listening to "each other's brains" as it were, to reflect the flow of connections between people that he perceived to be the album's theme. Fashion shutterbug Nick Knight snapped a variation of it, which designer extraordinaire Pete Saville tweaked, adding a minimal design completed by almost illegible, handwritten lyrics. Given that lyricism was never Suede's strong suit, Saville may have had a point.

That suburbia frequently features in former urban planning and architecture student Anderson's lyrics is perhaps not entirely surprising, but the amount of cut-up lines he delivers about life strung out on sex and drugs in some large, dirty metropolis often render his lyrics all the excitement of a grocery list. Even Anderson admitted at the time that they were more often than not designed to sound swell, rather than deliver some profound meaning. But any allegations of delivering nonsense could equally well be leveled at the sources of Suede's inspiration; T. Rex, Roxy Music, Japan, The Associates, even David Bowie have all at times sounded a lot better than they've read. Peculiar deviations (the foot fetishism of Savoir Faire) and plodding double entendres (the title track) aside, when Anderson's words fall smartly into place they tend to be memorable.

As, for instance, in He's Gone, originally intended for the 1997 Lazy single and one of Suede's finest ballads, which invokes The Carpenters and despite being the penultimate track is the album's proper closer. Or Indian Strings, the only truly introspective song on the album: "Open up my heart and see what's inside / Take a look inside me, inside my mind / And you'll see my heart is broke in two / 'cos' I've seen the real you". Garbled as they may be, such flimsy snapshots from a nation of council estates blighted by cocaine and carnality were always Suede's forte. Catchy, yet not entirely devoid of meaning. Just about groovy enough to keep laidback listeners awake, but nothing worth giving the bong a pass and getting up for. Head music, indeed.

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