In an offhand comment that must have come to haunt him, Suede‘s Brett Anderson once declared to a journalist that he was “a bisexual man who never had a homosexual experience”. When he made that proclamation back in 1993, he was greeted with mild derision and the sound of several thousand suppressed smirks. If he’d said it yesterday, it would barely provoke even a slightly raised eyebrow. Has the world finally caught up with him? Judging by the sound of Suede’s latest album, Autofiction, it seems he’s finally caught up with himself.
Autofiction is album number nine for Suede. In an almost 30-year career, they’ve been on quite a journey. Initially, they were fashionably out of step with the prevailing genre of the day. They were far too windswept and interesting to have anything to do with the plaid-clad grungers who were currently the flavor of the fortnight. Instead, they clung on tightly to their copy of “Ziggy Stardust…” grabbed a few of Morrissey’s old blouses, and hoped for the best. They may not have sold as many records as Pearl Jam, but they’re still in the game and making outstanding records. Autofiction is a testament to that.
“Autofiction is our punk record,” says Anderson. “No whistles and bells. Just the five of us in a room with all the glitches and fuck-ups revealed; the band themselves exposed in all their primal mess.” Calling Autofiction “punk” is a bit of a stretch, but it’s certainly in the ballpark. With longtime producer Ed Buller at the helm, Suede have looked back at the dry, direct sound of their 1993 debut and applied that to a batch of 11 great tunes. Recorded with live performance in mind, overdubs are used sparingly, and there is a real sense of the band playing together in a room. This is a very good approach in this era of laptop exploration and band members in far-flung locations, miles and miles apart from each other.
The opening song, “She Still Leads Me On”, starts with a squall of feedback; drummer Simon Gilbert counts the band in, and off we go. Despite the song being written as a tribute to Brett Anderson’s mother – not the most rock and roll of subjects – the track is a great example of rock and roll. It’s a strong opener and declaration of intent.
“Personality Disorder” has a whiff of 1993 about it. “Our clothes are like an anthem of sorrow / And the words we use are like future ghosts.” Not many bands could get away with that, but Suede have never shied away from a little bit of playful pretension, have they? It helps that those words are bolted to a great tune. “That Boy on the Stage” ramps up the drama to stratospheric heights; “Oh, that boy on the stage, well, he can’t control it” goes the chorus. The irony is he can control it and manages to walk the line between epic and overblown with a cocksure swagger.
One of the few songs with any hint of “production” on Autofiction is “Drive Myself Home”. Backed by a minor key piano part and some sympathetic strings and horns, the song recalls “Still Life” from their 1994, lost classic album Dog Man Star. However, the 2022 song keeps a tight lid on the histrionics and gets the job done with taste and restraint. It may be just good fortune or an act of inspired programming that it’s followed by “Black Ice” – a garage band rocker, ushered in by a filthy-sounding fuzz bass riff and ending in a messy tangle of guitar noise.
Suede have wisely sidestepped any 21st-century tropes which would have diluted their approach. They stick to their specialties here. Their name may not come immediately to mind when you compile your list of great guitar bands, but it really should. Richard Oakes has been consistently excellent since he was plucked out of high school and flung onto the stage in 1994. His stock in trade is non-flashy but brilliant guitarwork, which makes good songs great and great songs into classics. He’s all over Autofiction, and the record is much better because of it.
When Suede first appeared in the hip rock tabloids of the UK, sometime in the early 1990s, sexual ambiguity was an exotic, illicit thing and guitar bands had to look like Black Sabbath roadies if they were to stand any chance of success. It seems that Brett Anderson had a different vision for modern popular music, which he was to pursue unswervingly for the next 30 years. In 1993, he was seen as a mouthy fop, but now he’s almost a trendsetter. He’s achieved that by hanging on to some simple core values and a tight, creative band. Tthat might not make him a prophet of the age, but it’s undoubtedly helped Suede make one of the best records of their career.