New Ordered: Ranking the songs off Suede’s ‘Dog Man Star’ on the classic record’s 20th anniversary
[dropcap]D[/dropcap]og Man Star is a difficult album rife with contradictions. The sophomore record from Suede, released 20 years ago tomorrow and now considered one of the UK’s greatest musical works, is the British rock band’s magnificent magnum opus; a grand, theatrical collection of symphonic anthems and raw sexual emotion that was plagued by turmoil but defied and shunned the UK’s Britpop tidal wave that Brett Anderson and company helped create just two years prior.
There’s a true struggle within each of the album’s key elements, and its the tension, the moodiness, and the theatrical nature of its sound that helped shape its legacy. Its title, Dog Man Star, suggests a certain ambitious evolution, from a creature to a deity in three simple steps (with man in the middle and capable of going either backwards or forwards at any time). But yet its cover art, a re-purposing of American photographer Joanne Leonard’s 1971 image “Sad Dreams On Cold Mornings,” depicts a man face-down in bed, shielded away from the flickering light of a corner window. “It was meant to be a record about ambition; what could you make yourself into,” Anderson tells John Harris in The Last Party. “The title was meant to reflect the music: I thought it was like onomatopoeia.” Yet, there’s a man with zero ambition right smack dab on the cover.
Suede play a prominent role in Harris’ 2003 book about ‘Britpop, Blair, and the Demise of English Rock,’ as its subtitle suggests. But by October 10, 1994, the United Kingdom had already gone mad fer it, with records by Blur (April), Pulp (April) and Oasis (August) dominating lad mag covers and effectively washing grunge’s influence from record store shelves in a new era of national pride. Less than 24 months after establishing the genre of Britpop, Suede were not only disenchanted with it, but on the outside looking in. In this week’s NME, Anderson calls Britpop the “big cartoon of the mid-’90s,” adding: “I thought it was really ugly and without any kind of artistic worth, we did want to distance ourselves,” he said.
They also wanted to distance themselves from each other.
By the time Dog Man Star was released, Suede were embattled on several fronts. Though its sound exudes the confidence of a cohesive, decisive band striving for their creative peak, the recording of Dog Man Star’s proved anything but. They were a fragile group on the brink of dissolution, having just been upstaged by MTV-darlings the Cranberries on a US tour, enveloped in inner-band turmoil and personality clashes that led founding guitarist and chief co-songwriter Bernard Butler to leave the band before the album’s completion (and effectively destroying its proper promotional means before its release), and soon a lawsuit from an obscure lounge singer would force the band to adapt its name to The London Suede, a decision Anderson still hasn’t gotten over and forever the main reason they refuse to tour here.
It’s damn-near incredible this album ever saw the light of day — the enigmatic Butler wanted to shift towards more of a prog-rock sound (a first rendition of album standout “The Asphalt World” was rumored to clock in at roughly 25 minutes, with an eight minute guitar solo). Anderson, meanwhile, was using drugs and hanging with Mennonite neighbors who would chant at him while he was high. Butler wanted to produce the record, Anderson wanted to stick with longtime collaborator Ed Buller. Butler’s replacement would surprisingly be a 17-year-old named Richard Oakes, who would later contribute greatly to the true Suede re-birth that was 1996’s Coming Up. But in ’94, Oakes was a teenager faced with the task of replacing the Johnny Marr to Anderson’s Morrissey.
As a result of the fractures across the board, Dog Man Star did not sell very well, and was pretty much ignored in America. But its nature of being so fucking detached from reality over the course of 1994 has helped nurture its timelessness.
Some of it sounds like a ’70s record (“The Asphalt World”), other parts like the ’80s (“New Generation”), while the rest allows its beautifully bloated and overbearing ’90s-ness to shine through. It’s oddly claustrophobic and grandiose, often both at the same time, and is a startling look inside what the human mind is capable of on the cusp of madness. If Suede’s 1993 debut record was that passionate one-night stand on too much amyl nitrate, Dog Man Star was the forced conversation you had to have with that person over breakfast. He or she could have left at 5 a.m., they that person stayed, and now you have to face it. It’s probably more grim than it sounds.
I’ve always suggested that the first four Suede records have corresponding seasons: 1996’s Coming Up a springtime re-establishment for the band after the Dog Man Star era, ushering in a new vibrancy and shimmering pop sound, Oakes fully ensconced as a true and contributing member. 1999’s slightly misguided and experimental Head Music was a summer record, with its tales of riding in overheated subways and love affairs that sparked like electricity. The aforementioned 1993 debut was unpredictable and snarky like an autumn night, a glammed-out rock record of rawness tinged in its brown sleeve and slightly chilly sexual prowess. And naturally, Dog Man Star was winter, a record of isolation and loneliness, a wistful gaze out the window into the world and the subsequent realization that there is nowhere to go.
With all that in mind, let’s prepare the unthinkable: to rank the 12 songs off Dog Man Star, arguably the most important and influential album of my life, one that forever changed the course of my existence at the age of 15. We’ll leave off North American bonus track “Modern Boys,” as it always felt like a cheap tack-on, and sadly ignore the wealth of b-sides from this era — “Killing of A Flash Boy,” in particular, would likely crack the Top 3 of this list had it been included; “Whipsnade” would be a contender as well. Maybe we’ll do a New Ordered on b-side double-album Sci Fi Lullabies in 2017.
So in the meantime, here is the latest New Ordered, ranking the songs off Suede’s Dog Man Star from best to
kinda just great worst.
And tonight, we celebrate the record with the latest Britpop Social Club at Abigail’s Restaurant in Cambridge; we might even spin Dog Man Star in its entirety at midnight.
1. “The Asphalt World”
With apologies to the title track off the Stay Together EP (the extended version), “The Asphalt World” is Suede’s finest hour. Which makes it ironic, seeing as its so far removed from not only the other albums’ songs but Dog Man Star’s as well, and likely caused the greatest rift between Anderson and Butler. But it’s a sweeping, majestic 9-minute prog-rock anthem with some of the most biting and sinister Suede lyrics Anderson has ever penned. “With ice in her blood and a Dove in her head/Well how does she feel when she’s in your bed?/When you’re there in her arms/And there in her legs/Well I’ll be in her head,” he offers. “Cos that’s where I go/And that’s what I do/And that’s how it feels when the sex turns cruel/Yes both of us need her, this is the Asphalt World.”
Suede fans are a different breed than those of Blur or Oasis, and for good reason. Those folks are all busy in the pubs talking shit about sneakers and raising pints; we’re in the loo shagging their birds behind their back. And we listen to songs like this, because we are consumed by sexual jealously, on both sides of the equation. Sometimes a Jarvis Cocker, for all his devilish sexual intelligence, can’t match the animal magnetism of a Brett Anderson.
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2. “The Wild Ones”
Anderson has said repeatedly that “The Wild Ones” is Suede’s best work, and he’s not far from the mark. A romantic twirl around the optimism first aimed for when the pen hit the paper, the song is a melancholy escapism ballad full of weighty ambition and entranced hopes for a better tomorrow. “But oh if you stay we’ll ride from disguised suburban graves,” Anderson sings in some of his finest lyrical turns. “We’ll go from the bungalows where the debts still grow every day.” It holds up sturdier than the backyard shed your grandfather built.
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The first line, hitting powerfully at the :08 second mark, is lifted right from an 1875 Lord Byron poem: “She walks in beauty, like the night.” Traces of the debut record’s unabashed sexuality mature into a true romantic passin, intertwining imagery of Marylin Monroe and the post-pleasure aches of drug addiction into a bedside fit of longing and desire. [Personal note: this was the first Suede song I had ever heard, off a promo CD for Dog Man Star; I remember exactly where I was and what I felt when it first tumbled out of the speakers. I’ve not been the same since.]
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4. “The 2 Of Us”
A piano ballad buried deep within the second side of Dog Man Star, Anderson takes on the role of a lonely housewife faced with bored reality as the hubby is off doing husbandy things, reminiscing about that increasingly distant moment when love first struck. Its poignancy packaged in a tidy little pill of a song, and one of the best cases of Anderson telling a tale from the perspective of the opposite gender. And it includes these lyrical gems: “The snow might fall and write the lines on the silent page/But you’re outside making permanent love to the nuclear age/Two silhouettes by the cash machine make a lovers dance/It’s a tango for the lonely wives of the business class.” Well fuck me sideways.
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5. “Still Life”
It was always odd to me that the first two Suede records ended with songs featuring similar monikers and familiar themes of escapism. But where Suede’s piano-led “The Next Life” at least alluded to a potential tomorrow, “The Still Life” is the abandonment of hope wrapped tightly in a symphonic crescendo that’s essentially a show tune. “She and I/Into the night…” And off it all goes.
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6. “New Generation”
A continuation of the Bowie influence of the first record, here on “New Generation” Suede fire off a bouncy, up-tempo rock and roll head-nodder about rave heads and the kids and the underground and the somewhat cliched notion of new drugs/new people/new newness. “She and I will soon discover/We take the pills to find each other” is still a pretty choice lyric, and the record label was correct in wanting this to be Dog Man Star’s first, introductory single rather than “We Are The Pigs.” A favorite of the indie dance party DJ who wants to shake shit up a bit, it still draws a smile. One of the lighter moments of the record.
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7. “The Power”
Legend has it this track was completely lacking Butler’s guitars, so they were added in after his departure either by Anderson or some other ringer. It’s hard to not imagine the heights Butler could have taken “The Power,” an amped up acoustic track with strings that exudes a bit of positivity but is ultimately saved by the swirling outro and the “la la la’s” that Anderson cycles over a slow fade. I’m still waiting for this bit of music to soundtrack a film’s grand finale when the main protagonist finds out he’s really the killer or some shit like that.
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8. “Introducing The Band”
I debated even including this, as it’s essentially a lead-in to “We Are The Pigs,” but it stands on its own merit with the especially-Suede-esque lyric “I want the style of a woman/The kiss of a man.” It basically shows folks the door within the first 110 seconds if the listener has second thoughts about what exactly he or she is getting into here. Anderson’s line “We kiss in his room to a popular tune” from 1993’s “The Drowners” got a lot of attention, but this line here flew under the radar. Maybe no one was really listening.
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9. “We Are The Pigs”
The first single off Dog Man Star and the album’s second track after “Introducing The Band,” “We Are The Pigs” is a dystopian bit of apocalyptic rock that just always fell flat. Not a terrible song, but definitely not in the band’s Top 25 overall. It always seemed like a forced effort to push past the punkiness of the debut, a fist-in-the-air assurance that the band matured and used horns and sang about important shit. Turns out they’d achieve that level through the music that followed “We Are The Pigs.”
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10. “This Hollywood Life”
A raunchy, fickle rock rollicker about the music business of Justine Frischmann or whatever. Wrote John Harris in the NME in ’94: “A record so couched in earth-shacking drama probably needs at least one spittle-flecked tantrum.” When this was the case in 1999, we got “Elephant Man,” which makes “This Hollywood Life” sound downright “Asphalt World”-ian.
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11. “Black Or Blue”
The story of a doomed interracial relationship under the unforgiving street lamps of the United Kingdom, the aim is true but it missed the mark musically. There’s just not much here, it always seemed like album filler and with b-sides like “Killing Of A Flash Boy,” “Bentswood Boys” and Stay Together’s “My Dark Star” and “The Living Dead” lurking in the shadows, Dog Man Star could have been an even stronger record with an entirely different Top 3, let alone bottom quarter.
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12. “Daddy’s Speeding”
We all become obsessed with James Dean at one point or another. But not all of us make it the fifth track on a near flawless record. A light, fluffy track that assumes its fuller than it is, it’s saved only ever so slightly by the noisy ruckus it becomes after a few minutes of boringness. Again, “Killing Of A Flash Boy” here would have made Dog Man Star a better listen, and provided another single opportunity. But it still beats anything on A New Morning.
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