Getting a Big Head

The London Suede leaves behind its heart for Head Music

"When we recorded the album, it was much more a case of everybody playing as many instruments as they could," Oakes says. "We didn't just stick to our own roles. It's a good way to work, it's more exciting, and it lets you experiment and explore your own musicality."

If Suede couldn't erase the influence of Oakes' predecessor, Bernard Butler, on 1996's Coming Up, it has certainly succeeded now. "Electricity" pounds with the underpinning of wah-wah reverberation, but waves of echoing vocals and raspy, constant drumming threaten to beat it down, letting a guitar breathe only during a brief, heavily effected solo before it disappears under the epic drone again. It's catchy and disposable -- as soon as the song wraps, you've forgotten what just happened to the last four and a half minutes of your life. The next track, "Savoir Faire," continues this bent, urged on by Anderson's sneering couplets: "She lives in a house, she's stupid as a mouse...she's shaking obscene like a fucking machine and she's gone, gone, gone." It plods along under sticky computer-morphings and little else, a one-way trip to "circa-1990s."

"The way the songs were written was totally different," Oakes admits. "We wanted to change the way we work. It's just a case of everyone's taste changing. People have said to me, 'How come you've done less work on Head Music?' and that's not true. I did loads of work on this album. It's musically more instinctive; there's more to it. And the next record will be even more so."

Back in black: The London Suede is, from left, Brett Anderson, Simon Gilbert, Mat Osman, Richard Oakes, and Neil Codling.
Back in black: The London Suede is, from left, Brett Anderson, Simon Gilbert, Mat Osman, Richard Oakes, and Neil Codling.
The Butler didn't do it: The London Suede has been playing catch-up since guitarist Bernard Butler (third from left) quit the group in 1994 during the recording of the band's second album, Dog Man Star.
The Butler didn't do it: The London Suede has been playing catch-up since guitarist Bernard Butler (third from left) quit the group in 1994 during the recording of the band's second album, Dog Man Star.

It's a million meters from Suede's distinctive foundation of Butler's luscious, layered, thickly muscled guitars; once upon a time the band was associated with ear-stroking, six-string passages evoking the best of Johnny Marr and Mick Ronson, the kind of instinct-driven British guitar heroes spawned by working-class angst. Like Marr in the '80s, Butler's hyper-textured style informed or inspired nearly every British pop band that formed after Suede's 1993 self-titled debut.

When Butler departed during the recording of Dog Man Star in 1994 to pursue a solo career, his sound was gamely carried on by the late-joining, 17-year-old replacement Oakes, who sputtered out slick and technically perfect background to Anderson's devilish croon. Whatever soulful voicings Butler's guitar work had lent to the otherwise sex-and-drugs-and-fashion-obsessed band was lost when he left; Oakes struggled to fill those shoes. Coming Up, the first album featuring the rookie, not only betrayed that the band had lost one of England's most imaginative guitarists, but, on a brighter note, hinted at the promise of Suede's potential future with a new player who needed some time to grow.

"For the first year of me being in the band, I was just there to play the guitar parts," Oakes says of his joining during the promotion of Suede's second album. "Dog Man Star was very ambitious; it showed a lot of promise. But it was the sound of a band that no longer existed. I came along and had to tour with it. And then came the end of '95, the beginning of '96, I started to write my own sort of music and was able to contribute artistically. Because the band was really eager to do something new, and I was there to help them, really."

If the "new" Suede didn't show up on Coming Up, it seethes through Head Music. But Oakes doesn't believe his age or taste led the band down the new album's aural path. "Brett and Simon have both got a very young head on their shoulders," Oakes says. "I think with or without me, they'd have the same attitude toward the industry and toward music in general."

Suede's Butler-heavy early albums carved out an impressive, sensual niche for the band in the stagnant realm of early-'90s English rock and introduced the world to Anderson's fixation with Low-era Bowie and his slippery slide into dark and gorgeous melodies. Coming Up, however, was a pale imitation. Anderson still mused on about beautiful boys and trashy girls, Oakes ripped through his best Butler impersonation, and drummer Simon Gilbert and bassist Mat Osman walked through their usual paces, joined by new keyboard player Neil Codling. Suede's sonic stroll toward self-indulgent esoterica -- apparently Butler's influence -- was effectively derailed (or at least re-routed toward Butler's 1998 solo album, People Move On). Coming Up was accessible, blandly likeable, formulaic by Suede standards. It wouldn't win Suede any trophies for innovation, but it wouldn't let the band disappear from its fans' collective consciousness either.

Head Music could be the very thing the band's loyal following might have expected Suede to do next. It wouldn't be like Anderson and company to get left behind in the race against technology, and for those who don't like their Gucci smeared with the blood and sweat of a real beating heart, this album's a goldmine. But from track to track, "She's in Fashion" to "Crack in the Union Jack," the more attentive listener -- the one who hears a gleam of heaven and guts in the anomalous and wrenching ballad "Down" and longs for the more balanced days of "My Insatiable One" and "To the Birds" -- may think Head Music feels too skittish, like a pebble tripping lightly across a very big pond. Oakes doesn't agree that the record will fuel the band's albatross-like style-vs.-substance issue.

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