IT'S A VERY Suede title. Twenty years ago, when the band were in their nylon-shirted pomp, Night Thoughts would have immediately implied filthy assignations behind lock-ups or down stairwells, red lightbulbs flickering behind suburban nets, furtive pre-dawn phone calls to all the wrong people.
Now, however, five years into Suede’s admirably strong and graceful comeback, the title is more suggestive of 3am non-stop neurotic cabaret, or as singer Brett Anderson puts it, “those times when you are lying in bed wondering what the fuck you’re supposed to be doing, that waking nightmare of real life.”
After their 11-year recording break, 2013’s Bloodsports was hardly shy and tentative, but Anderson describes it as a “neat little rock record”, and compared with this follow-up, it is. Night Thoughts is the work of a band at full beam, once again stretching out and reminding themselves of what they can do. Suede always had ambitions beyond shaking their bits to the hits, despite their abundant talents in that area.
The febrile pop of Animal Nitrate or The Drowners might have issued their first irresistible demands for attention, but the mood and pacing of their 1993 debut album was warped by the theatrical balladry of Pantomime Horse and She’s Not Dead. Their hunt for a big, transcendent kind of beauty expanded with 1994’s Dog Man Star, complete with its closing suite of tympani-flashing ballads, and that’s the attitude reactivated here. “Too scared to look down through my fingers,” sings Anderson on the shuddering Tightrope, Richard Oakes’s guitar treacherously shiny beneath him, but this is a band carrying off a balancing act between their past and present in the grandest style.
Recorded with long-time associate Ed Buller and a full string section in Belgium and London, Suede’s seventh album was partly inspired by Frank Sinatra’s nocturnal sorrows on In The Wee Small Hours. The band wanted their new mood indigo to sound coherent, conceptual, complete – a “bloody-minded” reaction to the modern way of consuming music. Underlining this is the dark accompanying film by Roger Sargent, which tells a story, song by song, of love, loss and violence. There’s a man, a woman, a child, the sea, impending doom: it fits beautifully. Yet even without the unifying visuals, Night Thoughts stands its ground.
Think of all their wild ones, beautiful ones, barely over 21s, and it’s obvious that youth has always been important to Suede. The role of Bostik-hungry waifs, jeered at by the straight world for their pretty hair and charity-shop shirts, isn’t really open to them any longer. Anderson’s now a father. He’s probably attended a soft play centre recently.
No longer so young, nor so gone, Suede find themselves operating in a very grown-up present. If the adolescent dream of adulthood is unlimited freedom and crazed transgression – ideas to which the singer was particularly committed in the ’90s – these songs face the less glamorous realities of getting older: sharpened nostalgia, increased fear, heightened awareness of time, a new understanding of your place in the world, and the place of those around you.
“Night Thoughts never feels like the work of a band chasing past glories.”
And so family hangs heavy over Night Thoughts. What I’m Trying To Tell You, with its chilly late-Abba chug, sounds almost comically self-deprecating thanks to its snappy rhyming – but it’s a message for Anderson’s young son, the singer listing his own faults as a kind of preemptive plea for compassion. “I don’t know the meaning of much/I never make the best impressions/And I don’t have the means of expression/To explain my obsessions,” he sings. I Don’t Know How To Reach You, meanwhile, comes from the perspective of a father losing his grip on his growing son – Slipping Through My Fingers, Haywards Heath edition.
There’s a similar mirroring with the martial orchestrations and disturbing childhood terrors of When You Are Young, reprised as When You Were Young, the shift in tense emphasising different perspectives, flying time. Yet their real trick, and it’s a great one, is to apply the blazing commitment of their earlier work to these songs so they never feel drearily “mature”. It’s easiest on a track such as Like Kids, its euphoric, rabble-rousing chorus as romantic as New Generation, or the gothic guitars and us-them theatrics of Outsiders. No Tomorrow, though, starting out like Sylvia by Focus, deals with the heavy subject of the depression suffered by Anderson’s father with real fire. Anderson has a famously idiosyncratic lyrical lexicon, which, for all its brilliant flashes, can let him down. Here, though, he’s at his best: “Too long have I sat outside and smoked/I know all the neighbours’ cars.”
There are undoubted, unmistakable resonances with Dog Man Star. A kids’ choir na-na-naing on No Tomorrow recalls the urchin chorus at the end of We Are The Pigs. Closing track The Fur And The Feathers is a full-hearted, bouquet-strewn ballad about “the thrill of the chase” that echoes the over-the-top emotion-spill of Still Life. Yet Night Thoughts never feels like the work of a band chasing past glories.
In fact, Anderson tells MOJO that Suede Mark II’s impetus comes from their “Stalinesque” desire to erase their shaky final years, and say “the last two Suede records weren’t as good as they should have been… these were the kind of records we should have been making.” They might not be able to change the past, but Night Thoughts is the work of a band very much at home in the here and now, all the while looking forward. Still something else, still something wonderful.
Watch the video for No Tomorrow...