Suede Bloodsports(Warner Music Group/Suede Ltd.) Buy it from Insound
Hindsight is a very powerful idea. There are an infinite number of alternative histories of popular music where artists, labels and the public did things differently. How would the musical landscape look now if Bob Dylan had been dropped by Columbia after his first album? What if Lennon and McCartney had never met? What if – and let’s dare to dream for a second – LMFAO were still together?
One particular scenario that’s bubbled to the surface over the past fifteen years or so concerns Britpop forebearers Suede – just how would the group be revered if they’d called time on their career three records in? That opening trio of albums – Suede (1993), Dog Man Star (1994) and Coming Up (1996) – encapsulated Suede; a band full of melody, wit and intrigue. They took the druggy, androgynous glam of 1970s Bowie and brought it hurtling into the 1990s, even more nihilistic and debauched than before. In a world where Suede acrimoniously split in 1997, these albums have been elevated ever higher into classic status, the group’s never-to-happen reformation is rumoured monthly, and they’re spoken about in the same what-could-have-been terms as The Smiths, Joy Division and Nirvana.
Of course, this didn’t happen, and Suede limped on into the new millennium, desperately seeking to rediscover their muse in a variety of narcotics, and slipped away practically unnoticed in 2003 following two disappointing albums.
All of which means the announcement of a new record must have filled even the most ardent of Suede fans with a pang of apprehension. Get it right and it’s a triumphant return that proves Suede are once again a force to be reckoned with. Get it wrong and they’re a band that’s been in decline for over a decade and a half, and one that has released as many bad albums as good.
Initially, anxiety is dispelled. It takes roughly one second of Bloodsports to ascertain that this is Suede, as the introductory riff of opening track Barriers bears the hallmarks of the group’s guitar sound. In fact, Barriers is a sonic time capsule to the mid-90s and while we can’t wallow in nostalgia forever, it’s a thrilling ride. The chorus explodes into life and the chord change that occurs as the phrase, "Jump over the barriers" is repeated jolts you into life as if you’d previously been sleeping. It may be simple but it’s an enormously effective turn of pace in a clean and concise pop song.
While it has its moments, Bloodsports rarely hits those highs again. The world is a different place now to the one that Suede departed almost a decade ago and while the band themselves have matured, it looks as if us and them may have grown in opposite directions. It certainly demonstrates more craft and knowledge than the majority of guitar music currently doing the rounds, but it sounds as if Suede have lost the hunger that made their earlier work so vital. You used to feel as if their paeans to industrial wastelands, intoxicating women and mindless hedonism were being put to record through sheer desperation. Their songs are still often sexy with that alluring hint of something darker and destructively erotic, but they’re a band no longer driven by need.
It’s the lack of dynamics that’s the most disappointing thing about Bloodsports. 99% of guitar bands are consistently terrible when it comes to ballads, yet Suede always displayed the right balance of feeling and melodrama to succeed where so many others failed. Bloodsports is too often content to chug along in mid-tempo with all instruments playing rather than take any risks. When it does venture away from this safe territory, like on Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away or What Are You Not Telling Me?, the results are atmospheric and disarming, but it’s not enough.
All said, there certainly are a number of positives to Bloodsports. Firstly, hooray! They’re back! Secondly, they’ve improved their legacy by ensuring they’re no longer destined to be the band that finished with A New Morning. Also, while it’s difficult not to be disappointed when comparing Bloodsports to earlier work, it’s easy to forget just how well constructed these songs are. There’s a real sense of professionalism throughout the album and while that doesn’t always set pulses racing, it’s always going to make for something listenable at the very worst. Next, Brett Anderson’s vocals really are fantastic here. Lyrically it may be hit and miss – he no longer seems obsessed with ‘gasoline’ but ideas are hinted at rather than explored in vivid detail – but at 45 years of age, he’s fully grown into his voice.
Bloodsports is unlikely to win Suede any new fans, and its impact on their existing ones is difficult to gauge. In esteemed quarters, this record has been garnering praise, high scores and florid prose, but one can’t help but wonder how much of that is based on former glories.
Time for one final hypothetical world – how would Bloodsports be received if it were a debut album and Suede had never existed? It would probably be seen as polished and promising, but out of step with what’s happening now and inessential. Bloodsports isn’t going to make anyone start a band, it’s not going to be anyone’s entry route into a life of musical obsession and it’s not going to provoke anyone into an all-night session of drug-fuelled lasciviousness with their lover. Really, Bloodsports is fine, pleasant even. And in whatever world you live in, whether it’s one where Suede have been an important part of your worldview for two decades or one where Suede didn’t exist until five minutes ago, ‘fine’ is never going to be a cause for jubilant celebration.2 April, 2013 - 04:50 — Joe Rivers