Once upon a time, the British music press was deeply enamored with Suede. Or more precisely, it was enamored with the idea of Suede. Here was a David Bowie/Smiths-indebted, guitar-driven four-piece that flirted with homosexuality, basked in an indie-friendly yet magazine cover-ready glamor, and could write proper songs, which gave early ‘90s British alt-rock followers the first new glimmers of nationalist excitement following the invasion of grim-faced grunge from America. The Suede honeymoon didn’t last long, as far more belligerent, more populist challengers soon emerged to congeal Suede’s rhetoric into a proper genre (Britpop), while the group was vexed by lineup changes (crucially breaking up the songwriting partnership of singer Brett Anderson and guitarist Bernard Butler), drug addiction, and seesawing commercial fortunes before finally disbanding in 2003.
Inevitably, Suede has recently reunited for a tour (it’s almost mandatory for defunct bands to perform such undertakings these days). And with a reunion tour comes the compulsory new Suede career retrospective to explain to the kids what the fuss is all about. The two-disc set The Best of covers the same ground as previous compilations Singles (2003) and the b-sides collection Sci-Fi Lullabies (1997), while also making room for fan-favorite album cuts. The end result (handpicked by Anderson) is a rather excessive 35 tracks that—for a good while, at least—make a sound case that the garlands heaped upon Suede by its champions aren’t overexcited ravings.
Removed from the overenthusiastic critical hyperbole of the early days as well as the subsequent up and downs that coincided with Britpop’s fortunes as a whole, the first half of The Best of offers Suede an opportunity to argue convincingly that it was always a capable, consistent singles-driven band. Devoted to covering the hits, the first disc steps up admirably to the task, kicking off with the band’s signature song “Animal Nitrate” and then moving on to the billowing 1996 single “The Beautiful Ones” and onward, maintaining an infectious forward momentum throughout. Now, Suede was not a band that endeared itself easily—Anderson’s caterwauling, high-pitched vocals are certainly an acquired taste, and the production didn’t always illuminate the compositions adequately—so it takes a few listens for the songs to work their magic. But if given a chance, the band’s florid, glam-redolent aesthetic can be properly appreciated.
Aside from the occasional glam stop and Beatles-esque bass fill, Suede followed a similar path as its Britpop contemporaries by pushing its rhythm section (bassist Mat Osman and drummer Simon Gilbert) into the shadows in order to fix the spotlight on the guitars and Anderson’s vocals. Anderson’s swooning, occasionally camp delivery and teasing lyrics defined the Suede image. The singer’s words predominately fixated on sex and narcotics, frequently entwining the two into a seductive whole—see Anderson’s sensual sigh of “Let’s chase the dragon home” in “So Young”. But it was the Suede guitar style—pioneered by Butler and continued by his replacement, Richard Oakes—that The Best of reveals to be the group’s most exemplary trait: wispy, flowery, and sexy, built upon hammer-on runs and sustained notes of that emulated sensations of ecstasy. Butler in particular was a fantastic riff-writer, a skill that many of his Britpop peers overlooked in favor of leaden chord-strumming. All the band’s strengths are at play in the 1994 non-album single “Stay Together”, a melodramatic and self-indulgent ballad that is nonetheless strangely alluring, standing as the apex of Suede’s output.
Sure, there are aspects of the first half of The Best of you could niggle over: latter-day Suede songs such as “Filmstar” and ”Can’t Get Enough” are coated in a crass, overdone production, “Obsession” features some of Anderson’s weakest lyrics, and the much-vaunted reputation-making single “The Drowners” is merely alright. Ultimately, though, it’s as perfectly-realized a summation of Suede’s artistic triumphs as could be crafted. The same can’t be said for the second disc. While filled with some fine songs, the deft running order found on the first disc is supplanted on the set’s latter half by a rather haphazard arrangement of Anderson’s favored album cuts and rarities. Tellingly, the disc opens up with the formless “Pantomime Horse”, the very definition of a deep album cut that should never start a record.
The second disc of The Best of illustrates that the slow ballad was Suede’s Achilles heel. Suede always worked best at mid-tempo or above, and the slower the band’s songs got, the harder it became for the group to make them compelling. At more sedate tempos Suede’s omnipresent undercurrent of pomposity easily turned into pretentiousness, with Butler/Oakes twiddling into the void as Anderson crooned ponderously. It was bad enough that the band liked to cluster these sorts of songs together on album tracklists, but here they overwhelm the disc, with only the cracking “My Insatiable One” and “Heroine” to break up the monotony. With such yawn-inducing uniformity, it’s hard to appreciate the merits to be found in the more accomplished examples of this area of Suede’s songbook like “Still Life” and “The Asphalt World” included here.
If halved, The Best of would have risen to become one of the superior compilations of the Britpop genre. Suede does overreach itself here by opting to fill out two CDs when one was enough, but to be fair the band was never afraid to go out on a limb. That was part of Suede’s initial appeal, after all: the band was ambitious in a time when most British alt-rockers were content to stare at their shoes. Being ambitious means mis-stepping now and then in the search for creative glory, and in that regard The Best of paints an accurate portrait of a talented group that sometimes failed to hit the mark. But when Suede was operating at full-effectiveness (“Metal Mickey”, “The Beautiful Ones”, “Stay Together”, and so on), the ensemble could go toe-to-toe with Britpop rivals Oasis and Blur any day.