Suede were never really part of the oafish Britpop scene and their dark, dramatic new album makes this more apparent than ever.
The Blue Hour
Warner Music Group
21 September 2018
The word 'triptych', used to refer to anything other than a three-paneled artwork, should always raise red flags. And the advance publicity for Suede's eighth album made drunkenly liberal use of it. In naffness stakes, it's barely a whisker or two away from 'iconic'. Allowances can be made, however, when we're talking about a group whose music has always had such a pronounced, properly considered visual component, something truer of Suede than many of their peers. Never have they released anything without paying great care and attention to its packaging and presentation; it's an essential part of the Suede experience. This was more apparent than ever with the second 'panel' of the triptych, 2016's Night Thoughts, for which at least two of the band members were credited with 'art direction'. Packaged in an illustrated gatefold, its inner sleeves were adorned with photographs, and a 50-minute experimental film of the same name accompanied its release.
Few things in the musical calendar are quite so intriguing as a new Suede album, and this has been as much the case in their second act as in their first. They may have been lumped in with the Britpop movement, but it was something they always seemed to see through. They saw through its lumbering blokishness, its boorishness, its groaning, lead-footed, sing-a-long choruses. Suede were of a different color. Yes, you could hear a bit of Scott Walker and the odd Bowie-ism in their sound, but everyone has influences. Not everyone transcends them. Suede did and still do.
There's a singularity about Suede that remains very much evident on The Blue Hour. It's there in Brett Anderson's tremendous voice with its trademark yelp. It's there in the music, of course. And it's there in how they assemble and present their work -- the photography (many of the stark, morbid images in the booklet were taken by band members), the concepts, the typefaces, and illustrations. Paul Khera's atmospheric front cover (the band are credited with 'sleeve design') captures a sky about two hours paler than midnight blue, under which lies a wire fence and a junk-strewn wasteland in which an isolated child sits, face partially concealed by the hood of an anorak.
On to the songs, written by varying configurations of Andersen, keyboard player, Neil Codling, and guitarist, Richard Oakes, who famously joined the band at 17 years old, prior to Coming Up (1996), and immediately became a key contributor. The Blue Hour takes the catchiness of Bloodsports (2013) and the brooding, experimental noir of Night Thoughts and blends them. As with Night Thoughts, several tracks are fully orchestrated, but this time around, rather than relying on an external pro, Codling is responsible for the bulk of the arrangements (his work on "All The Wild Places" is particularly accomplished, lending the track a willowy beauty quite unlike anything Suede have done before), which are played by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
The result is possibly the most satisfying entry in what those of us of a less fanciful persuasion might call a trilogy. There's a concept, but it's worn lightly – lightly enough, in fact, that 'concept album' would be a misleading appellation. The story isn't fully explained or resolved, leaving room for the listener's mind to become part of the action. There's a missing child amid the menacing open spaces, fields, and woods of the countryside as night descends. Other characters emerge in the songs, though it's hard to determine whether for good or ill.
This is an album in which the pastoral is something threatening and dark, much like in the film sub-genre 'folk horror', typified by Blood on Satan's Claw (1970) and The Wicker Man (1973) (a quarter of the way into the album, the menacing chant of 'Chalk Circles' makes this abundantly clear). Much of this has been inspired by Anderson's relocation to the West Country. But the countryside of The Blue Hour is no rural idyll. It's a countryside of rubbish dumps, pitiless elements, bare trees, hostile, icy fields, discarded children's toys and dead animals. "Oh I'm your blue-eyed boy / I'll suffer your indifference / And you can teach me pretty words / And we will feed the sparrows" are the opening lines of "As One" and the first thing we hear as the curtain rises.
The change of producer from Ed Buller (who has worked on five Suede albums) to the legendary Alan Moulder makes for a slightly airer, less thickly-stuffed sound. There are several plaintive Suede ballads that recall the high points of Dog Man Star (1994). Of these, the most effective are "The Invisibles" and "Flytipping". There are angular, hook-heavy rockers, each of them impressive in its own way, especially "Wastelands" and "Cold Hands". Experimental interludes, gapless song suites, and a spoken word passage, "Dead Bird" ("Today I found a dead bird / crushed into the wealdland clay / brittle bones like snapped twigs/velvet for the scurrying things") usher the listener through the story.
Some of the band's most affecting melodies are to be found on "Tides" and "Don't Be Afraid If Nobody Loves You". "Life Is Golden", issued to streaming platforms as a foretaste of the album, is possibly the only track that some might regard as Suede-by-numbers. It's as if a band with whom you're already friends are trying, quite unnecessarily, to ingratiate themselves. It's a bit too knowing, like a cheery pop single shoehorned into an otherwise experimental extravaganza.
Suede's post-Bacchanalian second coming has been spot-on; a perfectly judged way of reforming without the hoary old 'come-back' tag. Even when it comes to their lighters-aloft anthems (hello there, "Life Is Golden"), they seem instinctively to know when to pull back from Gary Barlow territory. The scuttlebutt suggests that the group don't intend to go any further into experimentalism than this. I'd urge them to reconsider. Night Thoughts and The Blue Hour have the thematic cohesion and bracing ambition of the best of Kate Bush's work. It's a sphere of artistry that suits Suede, who've always been pretentious in the very best sense of the word.
This album and its predecessor will, in all likelihood, still sound good in 20 years' time. While it can be awfully tempting to want to deviate from orthodoxy (and indeed, a couple of titles have done just that by damning the album with faint praise and three-star ratings), I can only concur with what others have asserted; The Blue Hour is a terrific piece of work, not only in terms of its design and presentation but, most important of all, its music. The boxed version comes with a bonus track on 45, which I haven't heard, but given the group's reputation for quality b-sides, it's probably worth investigating.