Suede - Dog Man Star
As with this site's recent review of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, the cover of Dog Man Star says much about the music on the album. As Loveless features the photocopied image of guitars superimposed on one another until they blur together, reflecting the hurricane of guitar noise that grinds throughout the album, so Dog Man Star sees a lone figure of a naked man slumped on a bed in a room in which the damp is visible on the walls. The window in the room is open and offers the only connection between the isolation within the room to real life outside. Unlike their debut, however, which only crept indoors when the night came alive, Dog Man Star looks to hide away all year round and you suspect that, should you wait long enough, the walls will eventually come crumbling down around it.
Dog Man Star is not only Suede's masterpiece but a remarkable album that is capable of standing alongside other bruised and battered wonders such as Lou Reed's Berlin, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers and Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On. On each of these albums, you feel that the dank music and fuggy lyrics came out of late-night recording sessions that so exhausted the band that a return to shimmering rock was now far beyond them. As Lou Reed lost it in a drugs haze having recorded the screams of children told that their mother was dead, as Sly Stone retreated ever further into the brown smoke coming off the heroin that bubbled with each fix and as Big Star's split went unnoticed following songs like Holocaust, so Suede lost the guitarist who had given them the thrilling music to back up the hype that surrounded their pre-signing gigs.
Over two albums - Suede and this - Bernard Butler had developed into a remarkable songwriter and, in this album's more adventurous moments, it's astonishing to look at the rate at which his abilities developed. Compare, for example, songs like Moving and The Drowners on Suede to We Are The Pigs and Still Life on Dog Man Star and note that only one year passed between the release of the two. Even in comparing Stay Together, released in February 1994, to The Asphalt World from this album only ten months later and the growth in complexity is dazzling. Yet, amid claims from Butler that he was tired of writing songs to which little would be added but lyrics about drugs, Dog Man Star almost disappeared from the moment it was released, looking unloved and unlistenable compared to the flurry of excitement around the release of that same year's Parklife and Definitely Maybe or, indeed, Suede's own debut.
With the twelve songs here, Suede are never been better, with the album crackling during its opening tracks through to ending with four swooning ballads, taking in folk, electronica and glistening pop along the way. With Introducing The Band mixing Eno and Killing Joke, second song, We Are The Pigs, spits over roaring guitars, feedback and the wail of sirens before a chorus of kids chant, "We will watch them burn." Those who recall seeing Suede on the tour that followed the release of Dog Man Star will remember the movies that played behind the band and to accompany We Are The Pigs, the film featured a bunch of kids on a hillside outside of town stripping a car down before setting fire to it, closing with the startling image of a young girl sitting in front of a blazing car. Not only was that a defining image in Suede's history but We Are The Pigs is also one of Suede's most remarkable songs and, given what came after this album, it's difficult not to feel disappointed at there being no follow-up from the Butler/Anderson songwriting team.
As We Are The Pigs ends, Butler gives the album no more than a second or two to recover before slamming into the harmonics that open Heroine, which opens with a steal by Anderson from Byron's She Walks In Beauty before a burst through girls, drugs and Marilyn Monroe takes the album to the slow-burning and stately The Wild Ones. It was really only a matter of time before Suede recorded a song called The Wild One, calling up, as the title does, the imagery of youth set against adults, which is a Suede theme that goes all the way back to So Young, the opening track on their debut. After that, there's a mix of experimental rock - Daddy's Speeding, which builds to being an assault through distorted guitars, helicopters and feedback - as well as the sweet pop of New Generation, which foretold the sound that Suede would settle on following the release of this album. This first part of the album is closed, however, with This Hollywood Life, which opens with a blurt of saxophone and guitar before closing with a granite-toughened solo from Butler, featuring his very best playing.
The last four songs on the album are hard to beat for swooning ballads, beginning with The 2 Of Us and Black And Blue before what is arguably the album's best song, The Asphalt World. Anderson's lyrics tell a story of two men having an affair with the same women and leaving traces of each other on her so to identify one another but, as with the rest of Dog Man Star, it's so much Butler's song as he brings life to an old and trusted sequence of chords before fading all instruments but for a single guitar, which builds over a couple of minutes before the chorus bursts through once again and the song ends with what is rumoured to be a sample from Hitchcock's The Birds.
Finally, Still Life is a remarkable last track and, after the pressure of The Asphalt World, brings peace to Dog Man Star in the same manner as Lou Reed's Sad Song let a little light into Berlin after the bleak suicide of The Bed. Over some of Butler's most delicate playing, Anderson sings a clutch of beautifully written verses, which are optimistic is spite of Suede often being considered lost in the city.
Whilst it may be thought of as a problem elsewhere, Dog Man Star is the sound of two bands playing the same songs and it was little surprise that Butler left soon after. Despite what Mat Osman and Simon Gilbert brought to the record, this is really Butler's album and at certain moments, notably the endings of This Hollywood Life, We Are The Pigs and Daddy's Speeding, you suspect that Butler could have recorded the music entirely on its own so dependent is it on his guitar playing. Indeed, The Asphalt World rests completely on Butler's playing with there being little in the instrumental break beyond his guitars. Of course, the risk Suede played with was in becoming self-indulgent and whilst the relative failure of Dog Man Star would seem to bear that out, few bands wore such a criticism as well as Suede. Undoubtedly, the most disappointing aspect of Suede's history was that, following Butler's leaving before this album was completed, there was never a true follow-up as the photocopied playing of Richard Oakes lost the detail in Butler's music that made it so special.
It's probably obvious that I love this album but, to be honest, it took a while to do so. Suede, Coming Up and even Stay Together are all immediately appealing but Dog Man Star takes a little time to work itself in. Indeed, on first listen, it's likely that you'll get bored of it soon after either The Wild Ones or New Generation but those last four songs are worth sticking with. Like Scott Walker, Lou Reed or David Bowie at their very best, Dog Man Star was the sound of a band accelerating towards failure through what looked to be overreaching themselves yet, at the last moment, Suede, at least in the Butler/Anderson version, pulled off a triumph.
It's often said that there are no great albums recorded any more, least nothing to compare to Revolver, Exile On Main St. or Electric Ladyland but Dog Man Star really is more than a match for any on that list. As with Loveless, the shame is that it's been heard by so very few people who would love it were it only given the chance.