Night Thoughts has all the elements that make Suede one of the most important bands of the last 25 years.
When veteran British rockers Suede released their fifth album A New Morning in September 2002, it should have been obvious to anybody paying attention that the end was in sight. A New Morning is a mess that was savaged by critics and largely derided by those fans who didn’t simply ignore it. Even frontman Brett Anderson has disparaged the album. Perhaps it was fate. A New Morning might have been salvaged had the band made better choices about what material made the album -- some of the best tracks were relegated to b-side status. They also chose the wrong lead single. “Positivity” is a strong but mellowish track that might have worked as a third or fourth single, but by far the most commercial option to give the album its much-needed initial boost is the melodic rocker “Obsessions”, a song much more in line with Suede’s prior hits. Alas, the album was a catastrophic failure, and the band fractured shortly thereafter. They may have done so anyway, given internal conflicts, a long history of drug abuse, and the changing landscape of the music industry, but it was the failure of A New Morning that slammed the stake through Suede’s melancholy heart. Brett Anderson posted on the Suede website, “There has been speculation about record sales and chart positions, but the bottom line is I need to do whatever it takes to get my demon back.”
That demon was evidently tricky to ensnare, as it took Anderson seven years to finally chase it down. In 2010 Suede returned to the stage, supposedly for a one-time charity gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London. There was cause for excitement, yet trepidation. Years had passed, and Suede seemed inescapably linked to the ‘90s. Would this be a tired reunion where they dutifully trot out the old hits with half the firepower of their heyday like so many other bands have done? No, not Suede. The enthusiastically received show prompted the band to perform a long string of dates throughout 2010 and 2011, until they finally hit the studio and emerged in 2013 with their first album in a decade, Bloodsports. The album was (mostly) showered with praise by fans and critics alike, and it launched another successful tour. Two decades since their brilliant debut, Suede was once again relevant.
Any lingering doubts about the band’s continued viability should be erased by their second post-hiatus effort, Night Thoughts. Suede has always brought a sense of dark theatricality to their work, but with Night Thoughts they amp those impulses to a new level of grandeur. With a full string section bolstering their brooding, cinematic rock, Suede has never sounded so epic and massive. Night Thoughts is easily the band’s finest album since 1996’s Coming Up, and one could make a strong argument it comes close to their 1994 masterpiece Dog Man Star. Very close.
This is, indeed, music for night thoughts. The album begins with a shadowy swirl of strings, like a midnight wind shearing over black waters. The orchestral flourishes billow skyward until a sudden descending shriek like a razor wire slide flares with electric guitar, followed by a pounding drumbeat and Brett Anderson’s carefully mannered and theatrical voice, as potent as ever. “When You Are Young” alternates between the stately guitar-rock of the verses, somewhat reminiscent of “We Are the Pigs”, and sighing suspensions during which Anderson effortlessly ascends to his agile falsetto. A few seconds of strings exhale, and we’re suddenly hurled into the ominous guitar intro for the raucous anthem “Outsiders”. It’s one of those Suede essentials with a sweeping chorus and inherent drama and tension. Anderson’s voice soars above Richard Oakes’ portentous layers of guitar. “Outsiders” churns along quickly and before you know it, we’re right into “No Tomorrow”, another searing rocker with a glam strut reminiscent of the band’s classic debut mixed adroitly with the melodic sensibilities of the post-punk/new wave era.
“Pale Snow” begins with icy strings and a haunting piano straight from a horror film score, before an echoey guitar pattern emerges and Anderson follows with his feverishly intense vocals. A massive layer of synthesizers merges with the strings as the song approaches its climactic ending, and Anderson once again proves he has the gravitas and emotional depth to pull off a vocal strong enough to stand up to the majestic sonic universe his bandmates assemble around him. The songs all fade into one another like one long complete work, and this approach works wonderfully with the strings acting as gauzy connective tissue. “I Don’t Know How to Reach You” begins as a mid-tempo rocker until the chorus kicks in a savage rock 'n' roll fury with one of those instantly memorable melodic hooks we are so used to hearing from Suede. It rambles on for over six minutes but it rocks so hard it never outstays its welcome. “I Don’t Know How to Reach You” is destined to be a behemoth in concert.
“Tightrope” is a swooning rock ballad with a deftly woven ribbon of strings coursing through its midst. Anderson delivers a wrenchingly dramatic vocal on a song that will go down in history as one of Suede’s most powerful. The atmosphere remains tense on the long string and synth prelude to the lovelorn “Learn to Be” -- when Anderson leaps into his falsetto near the end, it's chill-inducingly beautiful.
“Like Kids” is Suede back in familiar hard-rocking territory, big riffs, bigger choruses and sinuous melodies. This is Suede in arena-rock mode, with drummer Simon Gilbert propelling the band like a powerhouse. “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants” is a somber emotional ballad, starkly arranged, with acoustic guitar over glimmering synthesizer and the sound of wind drifting in and out. The song ends with a heated finalé worthy of the most extravagant Broadway psycho-dramas.
After a short reprise of the song’s opening track, in which the evocative strings glaze over ragged electric guitars like ocean waves lapping on a beach of stones, comes “The Fur & The Feathers”, Night Thought’s epic closer. It begins with Anderson reminiscing over terse piano and gliding strings. Then at the 1:04 mark, a bombastic blast of molten rock shatters the solemnity. Then another quiet verse follows the earlier pattern, before the hammering drums and guitars burst forward again and from that point forward the track is the musical equivalent of a mighty battle scene to close an epic film, with the hero at his most earnest and his mystical would-be bride at her most lovelorn. The piece closes with slightly over a minute of full-throttle cinematic rock, Anderson’s wordlessly wailing like a specter until it fades to black. “The Fur & The Feathers” is a final act worthy of the tensely personal romantic turmoil that provides Night Thoughts with its emotional engine.
Produced by Ed Buller, who’s worked with the band on all but their two most uneven offerings (1999’s Head Music and A New Morning), Night Thoughts has all the elements that make Suede one of the most important bands of the last 25 years -- ambitious cinematic grandeur, Brett Anderson’s uniquely expressive vocals, and a superb group of musicians who create jagged and melancholy rock on which the lofty string arrangements rest. Sometimes it takes years to fully appreciate an album or understand where it stands in context of the artist’s catalog. Night Thoughts grabs hold immediately and only tightens its grip with each listen. Suede doesn’t get enough credit. They released three of the most vital rock albums of the ‘90s, and then returned after a long absence with a compelling comeback. Now they’re off into another level entirely. Suede’s second act is proving to be very nearly as electrifying as its first.