It existed for an all-too-brief period. Candle fire, a flicker in the breeze. And yet for a year or two, Suede were arguably one of the most important acts on the planet. A highly precise strand of magic; the interplay between Brett Anderson’s vocals – sultry, androgynous, bathed in the kitchen-sink dramatics of lip-gloss and cheap pharmaceuticals – and the fretwork of Bernard Butler; delicious hooks that almost dripped with enticement. As a relationship, there’s was a fragile one, defined from an early stage by the shadow of inevitable breakdown. And when that moment arrived, the magic dissipated like gas through the floorboard cracks, leaving behind a vista in which a sparkle-free Suede v2 awkwardly recycled the same old themes as if a caricature of their former selves, whilst Butler took up the nomadic status of glorified session musician; gunslinger for hire.
But ‘93/’94; there’s was a David Bowie / Mick Ronson dynamic, moulded to fit snugly with the musical needs and wants of the early nineties – which is apt considering how Dog Man Star is very much Suede’s Diamond Dogs moment. There’s the same discernible seam of hazy menace as the Bowie opus. A shared, warped glamour, right from the off (‘Introducing The Band’ carries a particular off-kilter poise; the type of track that yearns to catch you unawares). There’s such a swagger to all this, little glistening moments that travel way beyond any notion that the Suede of the Butler/Anderson axis was a victory for style over substance – the sleazy trumpet blasts of ‘We Are The Pigs’; the finger-picked refrains of ‘The Wild Ones’; the brash rockola of ‘New Generation’. And whilst this band’s trademark sound is that derived from cute riffs and pouting, there’s also (further) evidence, on the album’s second half, that this unit was well versed in the art of the ballad; ‘Still Life’ is overblown and blousy and utterly gorgeous.
Still; as persuasive as it is, Dog Man Star isn’t necessarily the most significant album of 1994. Neither, despite manifold attractions, is it the début Weezer album, the previously mentioned Pavement LP Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, records by The Auteurs (Now I’m A Cowboy) or Stereolab (Mars Audiac Quintet). And yes, the longer this series continues, the more convinced I grow that brief and flippant references to this LP or that is a disservice. One that needs to be rectified in some near-future.
Another aspect of these Significant Album pieces: not that it’s necessarily apparent, but there’s a sizeable degree of research poured before the words appear. An evening or two buried deep in the stacks of vinyl. Revisiting, reappraising through a fug flavoured by memory and gentle inebriation and the depth of online material more than handy for sofa-bound context. And the one thing that came immediately to mind when back-catting the music rags was the absence of any mention in the year-end “best of” lists of Pointless Walks To Dismal Places, the first (and possibly most incisive) album by Prolapse. This is a serious omission. The infectious yet finely channelled sense of anarchy. The throbbing, pulsing rhythm section, twin guitars that hack and saw across such slanted melody. This is music that grinds – and not unlike certain records by The Fall we could mention – acts as the foundation upon which rides the vocal’s boy versus girl theatricality – caustic and narrative-driven (Harold Pinter drunk, I scribbled in my notebook). An album full of punchy élan; there’s no question you should own. Hell, you should own this for finalé ‘Tina, This Is Matthew Stone’ alone – the finest all-out argument ever committed to vinyl.
Further mentions in passing; American Thighs by Chicago four-piece Veruca Salt. Soundgarden’s big and ballsy Superunknown. Worst Case Scenario by dEUS is, I’d argue, the best album out of Belgium in this ’90’s-styled decade (also: a wonderful band live). The eponymous record by The Cult proves they can do far more than the overblown shaman metal of their more popular vintage. And two albums by bands (perhaps unfairly) tarnished with the shitty brush of that whole Britpop thing; one refined yet almost forgotten (Strangelove’s Time For The Rest Of Your Life), and one still lauded (that’ll be Pulp’s breakthrough ‘His ‘N’ Hers’).
I also can’t not mention Grace by Jeff Buckley. I’ve written before of my problem with this album. The implication of connection lost, the disengagement between long-lost lovers. But fuck; that voice (insert sigh here).
Speaking of which; I’ve always been awfully smitten by a very particular type of female vocal. Remote, breathy, the subtle undercurrent of danger – that’ll be Beth Gibbons, then. I’d forgotten that Dummy is quite this old – some of the trip hop stylings are a kind of give-away. Yet the début Portishead album is quite simply arresting. Spooky and cinematic, like John Barry on a ghost train.
Nine Inch Nails next, and the biggest flaw with The Downward Spiral is that whole chunks of the lyrical content sound as if penned by a committee of anger-fuelled adolescents, set the task of interpreting HR Giger etchings via the medium of heavy-metal cliché. That, and the numerous Charles Manson references – some subtle, some less so (as a rule of thumb, should you plan a dark and brooding album loaded with implicit references to a certain notorious crime – then record it in the very house said crimes took place – I wouldn’t suggest publicly denying any link between the two).
That said, once you listen beyond the disenfranchised wailing, the exploration of musical theme is musky and fascinating, scoring deep groves across the convention of how such records are supposed to sound. This is no Charlie Manson concept album, regardless of what the previous paragraph is alluding to; from the harsh and crackly electricity of opener ‘Mr Self Destruct’ (a sample culled from George Lucas’ 1971 dark sci-fi movie THX 1138), through to tracks such as the sublime ‘Closer’ and the insectoid ‘The Becoming’, this is an album that’s as unsettling as it is complex. The original ‘Hurt’ may not be anywhere as moving as Johnny Cash’s version (whose first disc of his American Recordings series was also released in 1994), and as previously mentioned, some of the touches are a little ham-fisted, but at its best this is nuanced, riveting, and not a record I’d be happy about if I caught it lurking under the bed past midnight.
And so to the most significant album of 1994 – which as any fool can tell you, is Morrissey’s magnificent ‘Vauxhall and I‘. There’s an obvious temptation to pen a couple of thousand words here, delving into this record on a track-by-track basis. Forensic detail, and all that. Luckily, this is something that this blog has already accomplished – you’re now expected to click this link, which will deliver you into Morrissey’s arms like some ardent fan-boy who (possibly) should know better.
Suede / We Are The Pigs
Prolapse / Tina, This Is Matthew Stone
dEUS / Suds & Soda
Portishead / Mysterons (Live)
Nine Inch Nails / Closer