So Young: Suede at 30

How the London band’s eponymous debut rebooted Britpop

Suede 1993 promo photo (Image: Columbia Records)

Suede originally set out to play something between the Smiths and David Bowie.

But their distinctive sound quickly took off as their self-titled debut album helped re-start the Britpop movement (Suede were not a fan of the term). The group, even as it settled on a lineup and even before it had released an album, became a hot band to watch at the start of the ’90s, at least in the United Kingdom.

When Suede came out in late March 1993, it stormed to the top of the U.K. chart. It did less well in the U.S., but still garnered considerable attention. Thirty years on, it remains as stunning as ever, revealing both the model for ’90s Britpop and the platform from which Suede would develop their sound in unexpected ways.

The early singles (all included on the album) generated the well-deserved buzz. “The Drowners” begins the whole movement – if such a thing could be said to have a beginning – with a big but steady drum intro. Bernard Butler’s guitar provides a change from then-current radio, moving away from grunge toward pop with a notable boldness. Brett Anderson gives the song its suggestive quality, centered around sexual ambiguity (an theme that would remain relevant in Suede’s writing). That sexual tension continued on second single “Metal Mickey.” The cut ostensibly describes a stripper, but as much as the singer enjoys the show (“she’s driving me mad”), he can’t quite embrace the experience, a commodification of both “heart” and “meat” that while creating an intense response doesn’t offer clarity of yearning.

Suede 1993 promo photo (Image: Columbia Records)

“Animal Nitrate” contains all the challenging topics, covered with a touch of ambiguity. The title suggests “amyl nitrate,” a drug used (outside the medical community) to, among other reasons, enhance sexual encounters. The lyrics mixes both sexual experiences with violence, either from a partner or from a father (generational issues come into play). Whether “he jumped on your bones” or “broke all your bones,” not much health seems to come out of the situation, and whichever way someone was “an animal.” Nonetheless, the single mixes destructive tendencies into a guitar-led sense of euphoria, making it one of Suede’s most memorable recordings.

When the full album arrived, that sense of danger remained. “So Young” began the record with a seeming ode to drug use that contains a hint of pending catastrophe, highlighted by the phrase, “Let’s chase the dragon from our home.” Suede could indulge and still recognize the risk, creating tense moments in their music that transcend the related lad culture they wished to reject by the middle of the ’90s. Butler’s guitar sounds phenomenal here, but the surprise piano part puts it over the top.

“She’s Not Dead” develops the drama even while scaling back the thickness of the album’s sound. Anderson relates his childhood experience of an aunt’s suicide, likely brought on by the stress of a transgressive interracial relationship. Suede develop the pathos in the song honestly, and the content speaks to the intersection of their various influences. Glam’s sense of taboo runs high through the band’s career, but often in a way would be immediately accessible to regular people. Suede’s stories could play out in working class British towns; they didn’t require the theatrics of androgyny on Mars so much as sexual confusion in Lindfield. Putting it all to massive hooks and thick production gave the experience an approachable force in a novel setting.

As one example, “Sleeping Pills” addresses a woman taking Valium to escape the emptiness of daily life. The track’s a little spacey, too rough to be a lullaby, While the singer tries to convince his “angel” that she doesn’t need the pills, he also tries to bum a few off her. The conflict in the song (and the interpersonal conflict that might provide subtext for the lyric) reminds listeners of “So Young.” Getting through Suede’s world isn’t simple; hedonism doesn’t offer a simple solution and isn’t to be trusted, even if it may provide temporary relief.

The album closes with a straightforward song to Anderson’s late mother. The piano ballad “The Next Life” makes a strange contrast to what came before it (particularly its immediate predecessor “Animal Lover”). Thematically it brings familial death back into the album. Suede, full of ideas and sound, overflows with emotion, and the transparency on this track stands out. Anderson put his own mess of thoughts and feelings into the record, and stripping the sound back for the finale countertuitively gave it a boost.

Suede Suede, Columbia Records 1993

After Suede, the band recorded more experimental sounds, as if resisting the rising Britpop culture. Tensions in the band eventually drove Butler out. Dog Man Star reached for ambitious art epics (“The Asphalt World” runs over nine minutes) and received mixed responses as the other Britpoppers won more widespread attention, especially as Blur’s Parklife and Oasis’ Definitely Maybe had come out earlier in 1994. Suede, though, made their own way, moving more toward strange pop with Coming Up, including the catchy and impressive “Beautiful Ones.” The band never quite caught on in the US and between difficulties in the music industry and Anderson’s drug addiction, they called it quits in 2003 after a decade of remarkable music.

They would, some years later, reunite, with Anderson and Butler coming back together, and they’d make more great music – most notably last year’s foray into post-punk, Autofiction. Suede’s influence not just on Britpop but on music adjacent to and following that particular scene remains hard to overstate.

The keys to that influence and their own enduring legacy all arise in that first album, from its meaty sonics to its bright tone to its thematic reach. That they seem as creative and ambitious as ever speaks to the spark that originated so much, both musically and culturally.





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Justin Cober-Lake

Justin Cober-Lake, based in central Virginia, has worked in publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing has focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music. You can follow him on Twitter @jcoberlake.

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