In 1994, Suede released what remains to this day my favourite album ever, Dog Man Star: their dramatic, epic masterpiece.
Unfortunately, by 1999 things had gone horribly wrong. Their Head Music LP from that year was an uninspired grab-bag of songs of varying degrees of quality. One track received particular negative attention: a slight, Prince-inspired number called Savoir Faire which contained the lyrics, “She live in a house, she stoopid as a mouse, … and she rockin’ to the looney tune”. It was pretty dire. But what concerned me more was Brett Anderson’s insistence that this was the best song that Suede had ever recorded.
It was a sad indication that not only had Suede lost the magnificence of their first couple of albums, but their coke-addled leader remained entirely oblivious to that fact. As such, quality control continued to falter until, almost with the fans’ consent, they disbanded in 2003.
As a loyal fan, it was exciting news when, after a seven-year hibernation, they reformed for gigs in 2010. But when talk began of actually recording new material, that excitement became tinged with anxiety. Despite Brett’s assurance that “if the new Suede album isn’t amazing, we won’t release it”, I remained cautious. I’d heard his patter before.
Barriers, the first taster for the album, arrived in January 2013 – and it sounded fabulous, but flawed. With its vaulting chorus and classic Suede guitar it was a perfect two-minute Suede single, but padded out to stadium-filling proportions by unwanted U2-esque bluster.
The nerves remained until the full album release in March. But thankfully the rest of the album proved to be far less flabby.
In fact, at times Bloodsports delivers all you could wish for from a Suede record in 2013. For The Strangers, originally debuted live last summer, is probably the highlight. Its anthemics, darker and more subdued, are far more suited to your average army of Suede fans (“all the strangers out there”) than the bombast tacked on to Barriers.
Along with the equally beautiful Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away, it genuinely sounds like it could have been a b-side from the early days. For any other band, this might sound like a backhanded compliment but not in Suede’s case: their b-sides from the Suede and Dog Man Star era were easily the equal of tracks on their parent albums [please refer to CD 1 of the Sci-Fi Lullabies collection, if you haven’t already done so].
The first official single, It Starts And Ends With You, is the big pop moment of the album. And with “and…I fall to the floor like my strings are cut”, it delivers the catchiest Suede chorus we’ve heard since Coming Up.
But the album is not just Suede-by-numbers. Sure, there are nods to much of their previous output, but the band is adding more complex elements and structure to their songwriting here (with keyboardist Neil Codling taking a more prominent role). An almost symphonic approach to composition can be heard on Always, for example, which drifts along for the first couple of minutes without particularly lodging in the brain, but unfurls magnificently from the middle-eight through to the coda.
And sonically, What Are You Not Telling Me? is unlike anything they’ve recorded before. The guitars are delicate, a piano twinkles – and I swear I heard a bit of glockenspiel! But despite such an arrangement the song veers away from cosy Radio 2 territory thanks to the band’s innate sense of the darkly romantic.
There are no duds here, though a couple of tracks aren’t total triumphs: the recorded version of Sabotage lacks the drama of previous live performances and while rocker Snowblind is taut with tension it doesn’t really go anywhere particularly exciting.
And then, in the middle of the album, sits the puzzle that is: Hit Me. At first it sounds like a mere facsimile of lead single ‘It Starts And Ends With You’ – it could easily launch into that chorus at several points, rather than its own inferior one. But, maybe more than other tracks on the album, Hit Me shows that Suede, as a unit, really know what they’re doing these days. Maybe I’m wrong about the simplistic chorus; maybe it’s perfection as it is; maybe Suede realise that and have the confidence to leave it alone.
I think that Suede have finally rediscovered what it is that makes them great. And Bloodsports is a great reminder for the rest of us.