Why Be Blue?
Rating: 5, bonus disc: 8
US release date: 14 December 2004
UK release date: 31 January 2005
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Suicide vs. Live
Much of the acclaim surrounding Suicide, the collaborative work of Alan Vega (vocalist and visual artist) and Martin Rev (keyboardist and sound-sculptor), is grounded in a hate-love discourse. They were infamously despised at the outset, but now boast accolades from all points of the pop circle, from R.E.M. to The Revolting Cocks, from Moby and R.E.M. to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Given this end-to-end history—a band both reviled with bile and as revered as the burning bush—listening to First Blast/Mute’s continuation of the Suicide reissue series, A Way of Life and Why Be Blue?, may appear a daunting task. However, Suicide’s road to relative success has been paved by their insistently confrontational approach to recording; a wide swath from the group’s catalog can provide insight to both newcomers and fans.
These two reissues find Suicide at a quasi-crossroads. A Way of Life was originally released in 1988; Why Be Blue? in 1992. They are mid-career documents that find the band struggling to succeed (commercially) and struggling with (critical) success. But they are consistent in how they reveal both the maligned and the respected qualities of the group’s music: the pulsing synthesized rhythms, the amorphous compositions, the oblique and raging vocals. All of these are either negative or positive traits, depending on your perspective. Life and Blue are not as effective and lasting as other Suicide records, but nevertheless contain the prime elements of the group’s ethos.
Upon its initial release, Life represented Suicide’s first proper collection of new material since their 1980 sophomore LP. During this interim the landscape of popular music changed (arguably partly due to their groundbreaking lunatic beat work). Their return coincided with the mainstream acceptance of guitar-less bands, synthesized instruments, and loop-based composition; in theory, these developments made Suicide more accessible, at least in terms of form. These albums can certainly be viewed as a response to the ongoing critical praise and commercial scorn. For both Life and Blue, Rev and Vega returned to the studio with Ric Ocasek, who also produced their second album, and applied a glossier finish to the blood-spattered Suicide coat. However, the two continued to push the bar, bloody thorn-stemmed roses affixed in their mouths.
“Wild in Blue” kicks off Life, barreling with lock-step kick drums, ringing keys, and filtered guitars, making an ideal joint for Goth Tuesdays at the Cabaret Voltaire. However, Vega cuts his trademark growls and gnarling vocals, more speak-shout than sing-song, into the seemingly deliberate dance grooves, and creates a stark contrast to the melodramatic sensibilities of Suicide’s poppier descendents. In a similar manner, Suicide renders likeable ‘hits’ like “Jukebox Baby ‘96” and “Rain of Ruin” un-likeable; bouncy melodies and gym work-out rhythms are actually a subverted foundation for the vocal gusts and twisters careening above. Similarly, Blue adheres to this blueprint on tracks like “Mujo” and “Pump It”, where proto-nu energy becomes disoriented by panned effects and echoes. The up-tempo pace and subtly subversive elements of Life make it the Lost Highway soundtrack that should have been; imagine Thunderbird headlights cutting through the blackness to “Dominic Christ”, where Jesus cool is captured with only a controlled modicum of hysteria. Even on the deliberately gorgeous “Surrender”, replete with soft female coos and northern soul chimes, the composition is less a pop stab at the Cocteau Twins market as it is another filter for the band’s myriad influences. If they can do Jerry Lee Lewis freakin’ Bauhaus at the sound clash on “Love So Lovely”, who says they can’t run doo wop through tons of EQ? Ultimately, Life adheres to Suicide’s focus on an end, a result. The means are simple—monotonous beats, blunt rants, random noise—yet provocative. In this sense, these albums are as exemplary of Suicide’s ethic as any other.
However, Life and—especially—Blue are flawed by an inability to completely enthrall or agitate the audience. Vega and Rev still push the buttons, but they have been pushed before, and the reaction has dulled. Blue‘s title track is remarkably similar to the dance numbers in Life, but the lack of variance and Vega’s sardonic delivery make the song sound lazy. Worse still is the incorporation of schlock timbres from the I Don’t Love the ‘80s Production Guide, notably on the red herring track “Last Time”. This song bears the feint aroma of cash; with a piping synthesized woodwinds and corporate ragga bounce, it attempts to co-opt commercial viability with Vega’s strained delivery, but the hooting, blowhard track defeats its concussive force. The song sits in a netherzone, failing to elicit a response or outline a purpose. In short, it is not good music because it cannot speak. By the time “Hot Ticket” and the sludge meanderer “Universe” roll around, the album’s 40-odd minutes feel twice that. Not to say that Life draws upon a wellspring of creativity; it sustains a degree of interest, but does not hold the most remarkable batting average. The remake of Vega’s ‘hit’ single “Jukebox Baby ‘96” creates an air of tension as hit honka-honkas his way over cheeky drum programming, but the electrobilly bounce sound is forced by the record’s end. “Rain of Ruin” is “Lose So Lovely” is “Wild in Blue”... and so forth. While each album provides a body to analyze, one only really needs a small sample to get to the DNA.
The prime draw to these reissues, in addition to the re-mastered albums, is the live material. Documenting impassioned performances for intimate yet enthusiastic audiences, Vega sounds reinvigorated in these sets, while Rev turns the tracks up to 11 and sets out to disable all ears. Life‘s bonus disc, Live at Town & Country, London, 1987, stands out for its debut of new material. “Dominic Christ” sounds even more sinister with boosted levels and flurries of skittering drums (note the influence on Aphex Twin), as Vega invents the Fly for Bono, crooning, “I got a cigarette / What more do I need? / Jesus…”. Rev steps up on the early ‘classic’ “Johnny”, increasing the effects and deepening the bass, burying Vega’s caterwauls as he tries to climb out of the mix. “Devastation” is extended into an inspired twist-and-turn session; incredibly, it is more intense than its album rendition.
Even more impassioned is their performance on Live at Le Palace Paris 17 April 1989, the bonus addenda to Why Be Blue?. The crowd roars with approval, curses at Vega, and eggs him on, as the singer lurches between graciousness (“So great to be back… a Paris, huh? Most beautiful city in the world”) and surliness (”...except for New York. Oh, what the fuck; New York sucks”). Several non-studio songs are featured in this set, including “Mambo Train”, introduced as “the new hit song in France; not this one, but someone else doing it”. Once again, Vega grrrr AHHs! the verses and croons the mush-mouth choruses to utter delight. Songs are extended, such as “Rock Train”, where the two proceed to pummel the absurdist moog line and thumping beat with moon person oohs and hysterical roars. While the sound on both sets is relatively loud, it is not particularly clean. Nevertheless, the material is supremely entertaining.
In tandem with the re-mastered albums, the reissues are worth adding to a Suicide fan’s collection. Newcomers will likely know Suicide by the trail of their devotees, but should be provoked to take a look back. Life and Blue are not ideal starting points, but they do at least illuminate the subtle subversion Suicide preaches. After all, this is a band that jokes, “I’m George Michael in disguise”.