Suede’s eponymous debut album probably attracts more attention for its influence than its individual merit. It was the album that kickstarted the Britpop movement, and is an excellent blueprint for it; lyrics centred around a small-town British life, a guitar-heavy sound, and a lyrical focus harkening back to the classic British bands – The Beatles, The Smiths, The Kinks, and so on.
It was a pivotal album, paving the way for Oasis, Blur, and Pulp, among others, to flourish in the musical mainstream. And in the eyes of the music industry, it couldn’t have come too soon; in the year leading up to the album’s release, Suede were the most written-about band in the country. They made the cover of Melody Maker in 1992, and it dubbed them “The Best New Band in Britain.” That was before they had released a single note of music; a year before Suede, and before any of the three singles that preceded it.
In an Independent article by William Leith, published eight days before Suede was released, it was said that the band “had more hype than anybody since the Smiths, or possibly even the Sex Pistols.” It had figures to back that up, too:
In the past year, Suede have been pictured on 19 magazine covers (including six Melody Maker covers, four New Musical Express covers, and, unprecedented for a band who have yet to release an album, the cover of Q magazine, which appeals to older fans). The Christmas edition of the NME, on which Brett Anderson posed as Sid Vicious, was the biggest-selling NME for a decade.
The first single they released, The Drowners, was notable for its sheer difference to anything else at the time. It was nothing like the fading ‘Madchester’ scene, and even less like the grunge emanating from America. But it was only a moderate success commercially, reaching number 49 on the UK Singles Chart. Metal Mickey and Animal Nitrate reached number 17 and number 7 respectively; but even these figures aren’t particularly special.
Nevertheless, the anticipation continued to build. NME ran a cover story revealing that Steve Sutherland had sent David Bowie a tape of the album, and Bowie said: “Of all the tapes you’ve ever sent me, this is the only one that I knew instantly was great.” Sutherland had a similar experience himself: “When I first saw Suede, it was one of the few times I can honestly say I saw a band and I was utterly convinced they were brilliant. Often, you get a band with attitude, or a gimmick, or good songs, but seldom everything together.”
But as Brett Anderson (lead singer) himself pointed out in the aforementioned Independent article, “The British music press are notorious for getting it wrong, for leading people up the garden path.” He was convinced that the hype would amount to something, that Suede would go the distance. But ultimately, the only proof would be the album’s release.
Anderson, the music press, and David Bowie were not to be disappointed. It was a number 1 in the UK Albums Chart and spent 22 weeks in the top 40. It sold 100,000 copies in its first week, making it the fastest-selling debut album since Frankie Goes to Hollywood released Welcome to the Pleasuredome in 1984. Animal Nitrate was declared single of the year by Select, and The Drowners won the same accolade from NME and Melody Maker.
It also attracted attention stateside; it remains their best-selling album in the US, shifting 105,000 copies as of 2008. It gained excellent reviews from Allmusic (5 stars), Rolling Stone (4 stars), and self-proclaimed ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’, Robert Christgau, who compares the band favourably to the Smiths, saying that they are “more popwise and more literary… at a comparable stage.”
In an interview with Brighton local paper The Argus, Anderson said that the album is about “sex and depression in equal measure.” Animal Nitrate, a play on the name of the drug amyl nitrite, is possibly the most risqué song the group ever released:
“In your council home, he jumped on your bones,
Now you’re taking it time after time.”
Yet Anderson’s lyrics in Sleeping Pills are some of the most harrowing of his career:
“Angel, don’t take those sleeping pills,
You don’t need them,
Though it’s just time they kill.”
Musically, the album feels like Anderson constantly competing with guitarist Bernard Butler as the two try to outdo each other; Anderson’s falsetto wails, not exactly beautiful in sound, but certainly captivating, are backed by a guitar sound thick with distortion, amplification, and vibrato. It’s virtuosic, too; unlike most of their Britpop contemporaries, Suede didn’t have an aversion to solos. NME ranked Butler’s work on Animal Nitrate at number 48 on their list of the Greatest Guitar Solos.
If Suede are remembered more for helping start Britpop than their actual music, it is not justified. Whilst they would later be overshadowed by the battle for chart positions between Blur and Oasis, and declined with the rest of the movement towards the end of the nineties, this album certainly lived up to its considerable hype – and then some.
A number of Suede’s tracks have been added to my Spotify playlist accompanying this series; you can listen to it here.