Yup, in my continuing quest to keep things fresh and not stick with one standard formula, I’m reviewing two singles of choice today. Both have made an impression in my playlist lately and I just fancy talking about them. One is from an artist I’ve long been an admirer of, and the other I once thought wouldn’t be worth hearing. Let’s start with the Modfather shall we?
Paul Weller – Brand New Start (1998)
My first taste of Paul Weller came when I was about three-ish years old, through the 1998 singles compilation Modern Classics – The Greatest Hits. Several songs made an impression on me; Sunflower, The Changingman, Wild Wood, Peacock Suit, Broken Stones and so on. It’s Paul Weller, you can’t go wrong with him. As I say it’s a compilation of a chunk of the singles he had released up to that point across his first four solo albums. Except for one track.
Brand New Start.
A standalone single you can only hear on compilation albums, Brand New Start is a song that I don’t have a lot of memories of so I decided that it might be a good idea to revisit it and see if it’s a song that just doesn’t stand out against the diamonds of the first decade of Paul’s solo career, or if it’s a hidden gem that I really should give more attention.
The answer is, of course, the latter.
The first thing that struck me about this song is that it sounds similar to the title track from Paul’s most recent album On Sunset (Which I love), setting the tone for this song being both gentle and uplifting. I don’t need to tell you that Paul himself sounds great here aswell, turning in a heartfelt performance. If you’re in a rough spot this song is one that can give you the urge to never let go of hope and stay on the right path toward that Brand New Start. It really hits home when you look into the context of the song; apparently it was written as a song for a charity concert for the homeless. Who else would be wishing for a Brand New Start?
While I’ll always prefer the aforementioned songs, Brand New Start more than deserves to be a part of that list and I’m glad it was included on the Modern Classics album. It’s a sweet, inspiring and easy-to-listen-to song, perfect if you’re having a downer period in your life and you need a boost. Anthem for 2021, perhaps?
Beady Eye – The Roller (2011)
I had no intention of listening to Beady Eye at all. When I’d had my share of Oasis, I jumped straight into Liam’s solo career which I’d been introduced to by playing Shockwave on the radio, a fairly decent effort from the man of a thousand and four parkas. But I knew of the existence of Beady Eye, the Noel-lite sequel to Oasis and a band who I was under the impression had just ridden off the coattails of their legend before falling apart.
But I had to relent at some point. You won’t know unless you try, so try I did. That’s how I found The Roller, the third single released by the band. It’s a song that encompasses the sound of Beady Eye and their debut Different Gear, Still Speeding; minimalist, retro-sounding rock with acoustic guitars, drums and the piano blaring away while Liam does what he does best. But it’s that last part that had driven me away from Beady Eye. See, I’d been under the impression that Liam was vocally shot at this point in time and if you listen to his efforts on Dig Out Your Soul he doesn’t sound that motivated. Here? He seems reinvigorated, almost excited to be making music his way, closer to the Beatles/Rolling Stones vibes that had inspired him across his career.
That’s not to say that this is a great song though. It’s not. Compared to half of the Oasis catalogue (Which it was almost part of; this song was first demoed during the Heathen Chemistry era, which speaks for itself) it isn’t great, and there are definitely some of Liam’s solo songs like Wall of Glass that I prefer over this. Plus, there’s those ‘oh’s’ that Liam lets out during the chorus, which at first really annoyed me. It took time but The Roller had to grow on me, and now I listen to it because it’s pretty catchy and you can tell the band are having a good time with it. I enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, and it’s not a bad way to kill a few minutes, but there are better songs to listen to. Good but not great.
If you’re just joining us you may want to read the previous entry where we delved into the first part of this double album from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
Ok and now that you have done that here we are on disc two of Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. So far so good, but I suppose I have higher expectations going into Lyre than I did Abattoir. Then again, what can I expect? I kept being confronted with twists and turns last time. All I knew was I was listening to the Bad Seeds do what they do best; make good music. Here? Well, I’m sure we’ll get more of that. Let’s just dive in shall we?
Track #1: The Lyre of Orpheus
I may very well be interpreting this wrong but this comes across as a dark comedy, with the titular lyre being the very lethal bane of everyone’s existence. When Orpheus reunites with Eurydice after the sound of it literally killed her, she simply warns him ‘If you play that f*cking thing down here/ I’ll stick it up your orifice!’. My other personal highlight was this mild understatement: ‘God was a major player in heaven’. This song makes me wish I had tapped into Greek mythology (instead of getting stuck with Shakespeare, Keats and Mrs bloody Dalloway) so that I could understand the story. From what I can tell, this is Nick’s own take on the tale, with Orpheus enamoured with his creation despite it driving both his wife and nature to death to the point where God literally goes, ‘Stop. Hammer time’. Like I say, dark but hilarious, and a good gentle tune to boot.
Track #2: Breathless
Lovely and chirpy, the perfect song to listen to on a calm spring day. My only main gripe is that flute. While it suits the organic, natural feel of the song, it does sound rather tuneless. How tuneless? Well apparently the BBC refused to play the song because of it, and they ended up making Warren Ellis do a dozen takes with it before Nick overproduced the shit out of it to get it right. I can’t do the story justice, so here’s the full Red Hand File from Nick this past September: https://www.theredhandfiles.com/breathless-moves-me-beyond-words/
Track #3: Babe, You Turn Me On
Mainly spoken word verses from Nick makes me feel like this is him and the Seeds doing Pulp, which isn’t always a bad thing (I refer you to the Bad Cover Version b-side which saw Nick cover Disco 2000). We’re once again served a slice of vivid natural imagery which mixes very nicely with the delicate notes from the piano, and in keeping with the Pulp stylings of this song we have some innuendo. The last verse is especially full of this, with the narrator and the titular babe standing ‘awed inside a clearing’ and with ‘crimson snow/carpeting the ground’.
Track #4: Easy Money
So I thought this song was about a prostitute. I had to Google it to make sure I was right. And yup, it’s about the life of a guy who prostitutes himself to make ends meet and make sure that his family are both safe and secure. Easy Money? Total myth. This song shows the true skills of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, turning something so depressingly ugly into something so beautiful.
Track #5: Supernaturally
Right off the bat I knew I was going to enjoy Supernaturally as it starts with a very knees up intro that sets up the tone of chasing love. But much like the song before it, this one turns something ugly (A guy stalking a girl and not taking no for an answer) into something beautiful with a spectacular tune.
Track #6: Spell
Well this is deliciously romantic isn’t it? Like Hiding All Away on Abattoir Blues, Spell has that old-fashioned film vibe thanks to those faraway violins that come in to play after the chorus. In keeping with the thread of spiritualism that runs through both of the albums, this song more than any strikes me as the narrator’s love letter to God more than anything else, given the references to the sky and the stars and the lyric ‘I whisper all your names’.
Track #7 and #8: Carry Me and O Children
I’m bumping these two together because they do feel intertwined to me, both with similar sounds incorporating violins and backing vocalists. Carry Me feels like a calm before the storm, as the voices from below begin to rise and the narrator using weaponry in their imagery (‘Who will lay down their hammer?/Who will put up their sword?’). When we get to O Children, the song that exploded in popularity after Harry Potter and Hermione Grainger danced to it six years before its release, it feels like an acceptance of fate as the narrator asks for ‘that lovely little gun’. As the storm comes, he makes his final stand. Fighting fate.
This song truly feels like a finale, not just to The Lyre of Orpheus, not even Abattoir Blues, but the entire Bad Seeds discography up to this point. Of course we know that’s not the case, they’re still doing albums to this day but let me remind you what I talked about at the beginning of the AB review; with Blixa Bargeld gone and the middle-of-the-road efforts of No More Shall We Part and Nocturama, the Bad Seeds seemed on shaky legs. And of course, after this album Nick Cave started the Grinderman project. O Children could very well have been the Bad Seeds’ last stand. But let’s be honest, with a song as damned good as this, that was never going to happen.
In fact, with an album as damned good as this, there was not going to be a chance in hell that this was going to be the end. While Abattoir Blues was a good effort, The Lyre of Orpheus more than surpassed my expectations, which let’s not forget had been raised after I had listened to AB in the first place. I wanted something as good as the first part and I got something a lot better. And I think it confirms in my mind that I do prefer the slower contemplative ballads from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds over the fast paced rock. Lyre is chock full of classics, the only song that I wouldn’t add to my personal playlist being Babe, You Turn Me On. The rest? Get in there. While I say that The Lyre of Orpheus is a stellar effort, I’m not suggesting you should dismiss Abattoir Blues. There’s something for everyone across these two discs. If you want fast paced, borderline goth blues, then disc one is for you. If you would prefer more reserved and thought out affairs, then go for disc two.
Stayed tuned for more, folks! The next entry will be another single review, before we go into another instalment of B-Side Myself.
I wish Nick Cave was more appreciated than he is already here in England. The man is an absolute genius when it comes to making music, his songs are gorgeously rich, and he can flip a switch and smoothly move from one genre to the next. One minute he could be singing about twisted murderers and drinking to forget that he is the captain of his pain, the next he could be sitting at the piano for a gentle love ballad. But I think it’s the latter point that has prevented him from making more of an impact; his music has never been mainstream. The only time he has had a massive impact on the UK charts was the 1996 classic Where the Wild Roses Grow, but that was because it was a teamup with Kylie Minogue.
It’s a crying shame because while he isn’t my outright favourite musician of all time, he is definitely up there and is most certainly one of the most intelligent. So to give him the spotlight here on A-Side Glance and make sure it stays there I am going to be taking a look at his 2004 effort with the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.
A double album which came at probably one of the more curious times in the career of Cave and the Bad Seeds. Talk with any fan of the band and I’m pretty sure that the last albums that would come up in the conversation would be No More Shall We Part (despite its superb single As I Sat Sadly By Her Side) and Nocturama, from 2001 and 2003 respectively. Compared with previous efforts, they are very middle of the road and could have been taken as a sign that the band was slowing down. Not helping that perception was that after Nocturama’s release, original Bad Seed and all around magnificent bastard Blixa Bargeld departed. With all that in mind, their next effort would have to make a good impression and that was probably why it became a double album. As the title suggests this would see the band experiment with blues rock and gospel this time around, most likely tapping into Cave’s fascination with the Bible and Christianity. Going into it they all seem motivated and keen to make an impression. I’m all ears.
As it’s a double album, we’re going to be taking a look at Abattoir Blues to start off with and then in the next entry we’ll switch over to The Lyre of Orpheus.
Track #1: Get Ready For Love
If this had been a proper hymn or something I’d probably have been a lot more enthusiastic when singing them at primary school. Blending fast paced punk rock with gospel sounds like an oxymoron but here it works and works well. Right away we’re assured that Blixa’s departure isn’t going to be a detriment to the Seeds at all as James Johnston makes a good first impression, as does Jim Sclavunos on the drums. Great start to the album.
Track #2: Cannibal’s Hymn
And we calm things right down and go to the other end of the Nick Cave spectrum with a heartfelt ballad, starting with one of the more romantic lyrics I’ve heard; “You have a heart and I have a key/Lie back and let me unlock you”. I should mention that traditionally it’s hard to pry into Nick Cave’s lyrics so I am challenging myself during this review to work out what he is going on about. Here I believe it’s about someone close to the narrator who turned on him, but saw the light and came back before it was too late. Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to too much Radiohead but I find it sweet that instead of being vilified, this person is welcomed back and cared for by the narrator who warns her away from the titular cannibals. Why can’t more songs end this way?
Track #3: Hiding All Away
I feel like I like this one more than I should. It’s got the tone of a hunt, and the sound of something you may hear in a remake of a classic detective or gangster film. Here we have a girl trying to find the narrator, searching high and low and it’s a tale that unfortunately doesn’t have some sort of resolution. No finding of the narrator alive or dead, just a repetition of the line ‘There is a war coming’ for the last minute, with a loud clash of instruments that contrasts with what we’ve heard up to this point in the song. I can’t help but feel there should have been a resolution, an end to this girl’s quest. After all, she ended up pretty intimate with the butcher towards the end which would imply she was desperate for leads. Then again, maybe that works in the narrator’s favour, bigging him up by implying he is that damn good at hiding. Like I say, I probably like it more than I should.
Track #4: Messiah Ward
The piano makes itself known in this one, where we end up doing a bit of stargazing. Not much to say about this one unfortunately, other than its reiteration of the fact that it’s challenging to keep watching what is going on. In a way, at the time of writing this during the long and strange US election week, that does seem poignant.
Track #5: There She Goes, My Beautiful World
Loving the vivid imagery in this one, makes that beautiful world an understatement. Now is probably a good time to mention the guest backing vocalists on this one (The gospel choir if you will) who especially help to bring the chorus to life, not just on this song but on Get Ready For Love as well. Definitely the cream on the cake for this album.
Track #6: Nature Boy
Not my words, the words of Nature Boy Ric Flair. And also me upon hearing this song for the first time. Once again, a set of poignant lyrics in the first verse, both nowadays and back then. Frankly though I don’t think Cave is the kind of guy to talk of contemporary events at this point in his career so I’ll stop harping on about connections that aren’t really there.
For me, this song is very much the narrator’s bildungsroman, a tale of them coming of age and finding their place in the world, starting with the routine bloodshed on the news, branching out to meet a girl, a raunchy night at her’s, and time spent together around nature. A very uplifting song, and my favourite up to this point. I have seen a few people call it overrated and a little centred towards pop and I can see that, but I still think it’s excellent.
Track #7: Abattoir Blues
Title track time and this one isn’t quite my favourite. Musically it’s quite simple, but that just means the lyrics get a real chance to shine. Here are some of my personal highlights:
“I went to bed last night and moral code got jammed”
“My heart it tumbled like the stock exchange”
“The need for validation, babe, gone completely berserk/I wanted to be your Superman but I turned out such a jerk”
Track #8: Let the Bells Ring
As we stand outside the pearly gates for the penultimate track on Abattoir Blues, it dawned on me just how much of a lighter look this is on the usual topics Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds cover, in this case death. So much of their discography deals with death in a dark, wretched way. Here? Look on the bright side of death. Fitting upbeat and optimistic, here we mourn not the death of the person themselves, rather the world they have left behind. This album is very much one that subverts expectations.
Track #9: Fable of the Brown Ape
And what do you know, once I thought I had it all figured out and my expectations were that there would be another upbeat song to sign off, they were subverted all over again. We hear that classic Seeds sound with gritty guitar work, and verses steadily creeping along before culminating with a crashing of instruments as Cave bids “So long/Farewell/So long”. It’s a twisted yet accurate way of expressing nature being used and abused, which I suppose is a topic that you can’t really put an uplifting spin on. What bothers me though is that titular brown ape is an allegory for something but I cannot for the life of me think what. Just your standard test subject or something more perhaps? There’s something there, it’s a fable after all. A very Seedsian fable.
I must admit this has been the most challenging review I’ve done up to this point. As I said during Cannibal’s Hymn the lyrics of Nick Cave are difficult to read into with how vague they are. But I suppose that’s comforting in a way. With Nick and the Seeds you do and don’t know what you are getting into if that makes sense. Elaborate music, sure, but just how elaborate, and how consistently elaborate? You truly never know what to expect.
And I guess that’s a good thing. It’s an adventure. But to be honest, as long as it’s an adventure with good music I’m all here for it, and there isn’t a dull track to be found on Abattoir Blues. Not all instant classics but no duds either. That’s good enough for me. Helps that it more or less maintains its uplifting tone throughout until the last song, which works especially well in the drizzling shits of 2020.
Abattoir Blues had my curiosity. The Lyre of Orpheus is definitely going to have my attention.
At the end of my review of Head Music I stated that I would not be leaving it there as while the album was overall good, it was still very inconsistent. Songs like Elephant Man, Asbestos and Crack in the Union Jack all left a sour taste in the mouth and made me think that surely there could and should have been better songs to replace them.
Lo and behold, the answer seems to be yes.
The 20th Anniversary edition of Head Music that I have saved in my Spotify library comes jam packed with a whole bunch of b-sides and rejected songs. Both have fascinated me in an overall capacity since I got into music, providing an opportunity to explore new avenues bands couldn’t quite bring themselves to commit to.
Music is a subjective art and b-sides are the ultimate example of that. You get some people saying they were rightly left off the main album, and others cursing bands for not having enough faith in them. For me it started when I picked up the Oasis compilation album The Masterplan, a collection of b-sides from their first three albums (Well, two, seeing as the only one from Be Here Now is Going Nowhere). It’s my favourite Oasis album, and I think the reason for that is I had no expectations whatsoever going into it. After all these were songs that were rejected for presumably much better ones, but they are on par if not even better than most Oasis songs (For the record, Rockin Chair is my favourite).
So we come to the b-sides from Suede. The difference here is that instead I do have expectations going into this one. I expect some of the songs I hear are going to be at least somewhat better than Crack in the Union Jack. Surely it can’t be any worse, can it?
I’m not going to listen to and list every single song on the 20th anniversary edition, that would take far too long, so instead I’m just going to note down some of the highlights.
Song: Implement Yeah!
B-Side to: Electricity
Oh I really want to like this one more. It’s good and the opening made me think that this was going to be along the lines of Can’t Get Enough. But it’s not experimental enough for Head Music and initially I thought it would be better suited for Coming Up. Then Brett’s vocals came in. Lo-fi and blurted out in short packages, they’re better suited for something from the Prodigy than Suede. Catchy but best left removed from the final album.
B-Side to: Electricity
Here’s a song Neil not only wrote by himself but actually sang lead vocals on. And you know what? He does a pretty good job, lending the song a bittersweet tone. At first as this song started with the acoustic guitar, I started to get flashbacks to Crack in the Union Jack but then the bass drum crept in after the first verse and my mind was put at ease. While like Crack it is a very minimalist song, it has additional bits and pieces that make it sound like it was more than just a demo, especially Richard’s electric guitar solo in the middle eight. I feel like this should have been the final track on the album instead. I know that Brett has sung all the a-sides in the Suede catalogue and it would be jarring to end an album with Neil instead, but Head Music was meant to be the band’s most experimental record up to that point right? I’d say ending with a change in vocalist is pretty damned experimental!
Song: See That Girl
B-Side to: Electricity
I actually misheard the lyric “She likes the steel inside her” and thought Brett had sung “She likes Neil inside her”. I nearly lost my shit.
Regardless of that though, this isn’t a favourite of mine. Inoffensive is probably the best way to describe it. However, given it’s all about a girl Brett describes in itty-bitty detail, this could probably replace Savoir Faire.
B-Side to: She’s in Fashion
Now onto the b-sides from She’s in Fashion and this is a high energy one to start off with. In fact, given the title, it feels like the band are acting out against the feeling of boredom and going ‘F*ck it, let’s make some music!’. If it had add some additional Head Music-style electronic noises from Neil then I think this could have easily been slotted into the second half of the final playlist, maybe in the place of Elephant Man. Not a spectacular effort by any means but still not a bad way to kill a few minutes.
B-Side to: She’s in Fashion
Not to be confused with Blur’s effort from Parklife. Mind you, I’m willing to bet that’s why it was left off, people would have inevitably drawn up comparisons. I’ll refrain from doing so here.
This should have been on the album. While it recycles the ‘we’re the litter on the breeze’ lyric from Trash which struck me as pure laziness, I had a blast listening to this one and credit has to be given to Brett’s performance here. It’s one of the best he’s ever done, especially during the climax of the chorus; the way he sings ‘Come take my hand’ is majestic. Just change the title and this would have easily been one of the highlights of the album had it been included.
Song: God’s Gift
B-Side to: She’s in Fashion
Capping off the She’s in Fashion b-sides, this song proves that if you bought the single in 1999 then you would have got more than your money’s worth with the b-sides. After a few seconds of what sounds like faraway industrial sounds we transition into a piano piece with Neil doing his usual bit of magic. I have a feeling that this song was particularly personal to Brett and was aimed at someone specific who thought they were the titular God’s gift. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t included. Originally I wanted to advocate for it replacing Crack in the Union Jack (at least until I listened to Waterloo) but then I realised that would mean the main album would have finished with a trilogy of separation songs. It’s a shame because this is definitely finale material, being a quiet and sombre end. Maybe some strings being added to the mix would have done the trick and given the track a little extra pizazz. Then again, I am not a professional musician so perhaps it’s best left how it is.
Song: Since You Went Away
B-Side to: Can’t Get Enough
This barely feels like Suede. I’m pretty sure if you played just the instrumental to someone who had never head this before, they would say the tune came from Oasis. While lyrically this is one of the better efforts from the Head Music sessions, musically it is severely lacking.
B-Side to: Everything Will Flow
We start once again with delicate piano sounds that soon give way for the familiar electronic synth sounds we’ve heard across Head Music. This song very much has the same DNA as He’s Gone, being one about a breakup. Unfortunately, maybe it’s because of that that I don’t like this song as much. I’m probably burnt out on this subject matter and want to hear something new. This song does sound beautiful but it brings absolutely nothing new to the table and by the halfway mark we’ve just gone round in circles. If I’d heard this before He’s Gone, Indian Strings and God’s Gift I’d probably like it more but as it stands, I’m tired of this kind of song.
B-Side to: Everything Will Flow
I should have known from that title that this was going to be a darker, more personal one considering how Brett was at the time but boy howdy. I get the impression that he was looking at himself in the mirror while writing this one, lucid and angry. And there is a lot of passion behind his vocals too; during the verses he sounds bitter about how crack robs you of your social life, your mates and replaces all the plans you have as ‘you sold your life for a big white rock’, and then we get to the chorus where he is damn near screaming furiously on how ‘you can’t give it up’. I wanted to argue that the music itself is a bit bland but it feels like they were taking a backseat to let Brett do the work here, as if it were some sort of twisted Suede-style intervention. Great song, but too hard-hitting for the main album.
B-Side to: Everything Will Flow
When listening to a song I make notes on the experience. I think the ones I have here for Seascape sum it up nicely:
Another piano piece?
Wait. It’s an instrumental?
Oh my God it is.
I’m not sure why the band felt the need to do this. Was this the result of a jamming session or something?
I’m here for it though
It’s good for thinking, for contemplation.
Oh hang on. What if this was a case of the band doing a Happy Mondays and forgetting to write the lyrics?
Ah whatever. It’s a nice and calm track.
B-Side to: N/A
The only completely unused song on this list, it caught my eye thanks to its title seeing as it was at one point speculated to be the album’s name thanks to Suede’s strategy of revealing the title one letter at a time. Plus, after listening to Crackhead I want to see if they have the balls to keep going down that route. But after hearing Heroin for the first time…I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s the mirror image of Crackhead. A calmer Brett reflecting perhaps about coming down, how it’s ‘taken everything’ ‘as the clouds come in’. Or is about the experience? The music certainly seems to back up that theory; gentle, calm, makes you want to forget all your troubles.
At the end of the day, Head Music did what it set out to achieve; be a commercially viable, groovy pop record for the dawn of the millennium. But looking into these songs, it makes you think just how different the album could have been.
I’ve said that the first half of the record is brilliant and should not be changed at all. Yes, even Savoir Faire should stay. It’s rubbish, but I think it’s stylistic rubbish. The second half, there’s a lot of room for improvement. But the sad thing is the songs that I would happily include are the ones that wouldn’t suit the overall tone of the album. The best ones here are the slower, more personal songs like God’s Gift, Crackhead and Waterloo, but as I said they wouldn’t suit the pop vibe the album is going for. While they’re experimental, they would cause a severe mood whiplash.
So here is me going into smartarse mode.
If it were up to me, I would have leaned more into the experimental style and made Head Music a double album in the style of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins. Have disc one (‘Day’) filled with the poppier, more easy-on-the-ears songs like She’s in Fashion, Electricity, Seascape (Yes I’m including the instrumental), Jubilee and Waterloo, and the more personal and/or gritty songs like Can’t Get Enough, Down, Crackhead, Head Music and Hi-Fi on disc two (‘Night’). Having the two discs would set you up for that whiplash.
Now I’m not saying that would work. But I think it would be more interesting.
This is an album I’ve been wanting to delve into for a while. See, I loved Coming Up, it’s my go to Suede album and one that commercially took the band to the top during the latter days of the Britpop era. With Blur fading into the background in the aftermath of The Great Escape’s release, Suede now seemed like the next best thing after Oasis and Pulp. They appealed to the misfit with their loud glam-style rock and scored a series of top ten singles with Trash (Which I’ve already covered on this blog), Beautiful Ones, Lazy and Saturday Night. Needless to say, the crowds wanted more and it was more they got in 1999, after Britpop’s demise and with dance pop groups such as the Spice Girls and Steps now making waves in the charts. The cynicism of Britpop had made way for a more optimistic approach as the 21st century loomed, and Suede were set to capitalise on it with what they called a more groovier approach in their next album Head Music.
There was just one problem though.
Perhaps you’ve heard this tale before. A band creates an instant classic of an album that becomes one of the crown jewels of the Britpop genre, they have the world at their fingertips eager for more, and the more they get is mired by drugs, inner turmoil and some frankly dodgy lyrics. Thus, response is lukewarm and the band’s momentum stalls.
Yup, this is Suede’s Be Here Now. But that’s doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad thing. Be Here Now in the modern day has a reputation as a drug-fuelled flawed masterpiece. Maybe Brett’s crack addiction won’t spoil the experience too much and in fact create an underappreciated album with some hidden gems. Or maybe we’ll get a load of Magic Pie. Let’s find out, shall we?
Gorgeous. The colours and the imagery encapsulate the album perfectly. Favourite Suede cover bar none.
Track 1: Electricity
Fun fact, this was the first song by Suede I ever heard. November 5th 2019. I know the date because it was bonfire night and I came down with food poisoning. Roller coaster of a night. Anyway, I may look at this through rose-tinted spectacles as a result but it is a pretty energetic opener for the album. It’s not spectacular, especially in comparison to other openers Trash and So Young, and on the surface it is just a one-dimensional love song built on similes, but I’d still say it’s a decent way to start the show.
Track 2: Savoir Faire
Apparently, the choice for the lead single was between this song and Electricity.
Thank Christ they went with the latter. More than any other song on the album, this feels like it was penned by an incredibly horny Brett having just taken a hit on the crack pipe. A common criticism of the album is that his lyrics take a turn for the worse and this would more than likely be the first place critics would look, with the opener “She lives in a house, she’s stupid as a mouse”. I’d argue that this would make the song so bad it’s good but it is accidentally saved by a halfway catchy tune that exhibits the dance sound of Head Music.
Track 3: Can’t Get Enough
Maybe it’s because I wasn’t expecting much after the previous song but this one took me by surprise as to how good it was. We start off with an electronic beat and a lush guitar riff before entering what is a fast-paced borderline indie rock style of song. There’s an added bite behind the music and Brett’s vocals, like they’re all pounding you in the face as if to make up for Savoir Faire. The lyrical content itself also strikes me as almost a throwback to the first album, and I must admit I’m particularly fond of the line “I make dead space look like a headcase”. My interest is certainly piqued after this, and I wouldn’t mind a bit more of this.
Track 4: Everything Will Flow
Always been one of my favourites from Suede, this one. There’s an elegant and uplifting tone to this one that contrasts nicely with the hard hitting electronic rock of Can’t Get Enough and whatever the hell Savoir Faire was. Considering the band’s mood at the time, everyone just seems at ease; Brett’s vocals, Richard’s guitar, Simon’s drumming, the strings peppered throughout by Neil, it all just seems so gentle. Not traditional Suede per se and it could be classed as just melted cheese, but I’d argue it’s one of their more accessible singles.
Track 5: Down
The longest track on the album by some margin at over six minutes, which means it could risk overstaying its welcome in comparison to the previous two songs. However, I’m happy to say that it doesn’t and despite the opening instrumental making me think it came from the main menu on a Gran Turismo game, I do enjoy the subtle nature of the tune’s build. Everyone involved is making use of those six minutes and slowly working their way towards a melody that smoothly allows the song to flow towards its conclusion. This is another exhibition of Suede’s experimental efforts a la Savoir Faire, but Down clicks for me with how personal it sounds. While the ending does drag a little for my liking, Brett and Neil step up for an outro that to me carries some implications; “all the people in your life say you’re down”, and the creeping piano notes both give the impression that the feeling of being down never goes away. An appropriately downbeat end coda.
Track 6: She’s in Fashion
I can’t help but feel we’re already repeating themes here; singing about a lover with metaphors aplenty. Another one to add to the pile. But it’s got that same laid back feel of Everything Will Flow which works in She’s in Fashion’s favour. From what I’ve gathered, this was also a song back in the summer of ’99 that would get airtime constantly, so I can imagine long-time listeners may be burnt out on this one considering it can sound a little repetitive. But you know what, I actually rather like it. Neil Codling’s work on the synthesiser keyboards create a lovely little whirlpool in your ears, and succeeds in creating a song that matches the poppy vibe Head Music is going for.
So now that we are halfway through the album more or less, I must say that apart from the misfire that is Savoir Faire I am really enjoying this album. Whether I end up calling it better than Coming Up remains to be seen; there are no singles from the second half of Head Music so I’m going to be in unchartered territory for this one. A good chunk of the songs from this point onwards are also written solely by Brett. The only other one penned by him alone from the first half of the album? Savoir Faire. This is going to be interesting.
Track 7: Asbestos
Ok. Not a good start.
I feel like Brett listened to His n Hers from Pulp, thought ‘we can do that!’ and the result was Asbestos. Remember how I said earlier on that Can’t Get Enough seemed to be touching upon the subject matter of the first album? Well this song feels like it’s trying it again but the result is considerably half-arsed. Perhaps if the narrator were more actively involved in the goings on in this song then we could a faster, more catchy and more engaging song. However, because the point of view is voyeuristic we have to settle for a ‘stealthier’ slow tempo, which doesn’t work here at all. The lyrics are also especially dull to the point where you could a play an almost dangerously lethal drinking game whenever Brett mentions ‘suburban boys’, ‘making noise’ or ‘making eyes’. I know that noting how repetitive the lyrics are is, well, repetitive, and that it’s a common theme throughout the album, but they’ve been well hidden on previous songs by great music. Here, left in plain view.
Track 8: Head Music
Eh up. A title track? On a Suede album? Well I never.
Not too much to talk about here honestly, it’s a short and sweet piece with a great bit of guitar work from Richard and Neil adding some sci-fi style noises that almost made me think the song came from Doctor Who. I felt like I was close to getting vibes of Trash from this track, with the narrator being a Suede fan, or indeed just a music fan in general. Or is that a bit too meta? Anyway, like I say, can’t complain all that much, maybe it could have been improved by a middle eight or one more verse, but it’s an easy improvement on Asbestos so I’ll take what I can get.
Track 9: Elephant Man
Here’s a quote from Brett in a 2011 article for Filter Magazine; “I still don’t know why the hell we put ‘Crack in the Union Jack’ and ’Elephant Man’ on there”.
Nor me, Brett, nor me. This is a load of bollocks, and I think even the band realised it considering how abruptly the song ends. Almost as if they wanted to stop as soon as they could. Let’s move on.
Track 10: Hi-Fi
Namedropped in Head Music two tracks ago, this sounds more lo-fi to me. It’s dark and mysterious, helped by the fact that Brett’s vocals have had some distortion added to them. But of course, there’s that elephant (man) in the room again, those damned lyrics. Back in the city again singing about a whole lot of nothing. I guess it might be about a drug trip or something like that? This is probably the most experimental track on the album though, and I think that’s the main reason why I like it. It definitely gives off the vibe of stalking the streets of London completely tripping off your face. This one gets a pass.
Track 11: Indian Strings
With that title you would be forgiven for thinking that this was going to be another track focused on sounding experimental and give the band an excuse to piss about a bit with new sound. The opening keeps that implication going, with Simon’s drumming guiding us in along with the strings (Which, frankly, came as a relief to hear). And then to my absolute surprise, this one was coherent! This is the best song on the second half of the album without a shadow of a doubt, and probably the best overall since Down. Like that song, this one feels personal, dealing with the subject of heartbreak and even tiptoeing around the subject of domestic abuse, a few steps away from Animal Nitrate. I wish this had been a single. There’s two songs left to go here, and the finale has started off strong.
Track 12: He’s Gone
‘You pour all the love that you keep inside/into a song/like “He’s Gone“’. Getting a bit meta there, Brett and Neil? I’m not sure if this was the right song to follow Indian Strings considering this is another one that deals with heartbreak and is sung by Brett from a different perspective, switching from first to third person. It’s two sides of a coin and while this is the lesser side, this is still a decent song. In a way it makes me feel like it’s a sequel to Saturday Night considering both the tempo and the tone. The couple have partied, they have danced, they have pranced, they have been to freak shows and peep shows, and now it’s over. He’s gone. What really strikes me about this track though is the fact that the music itself actually sounds in pain. That’s legitimately impressive.
Makes me wish this was the final song of the album.
Track 13: Crack in the Union Jack
But it’s not. It’s this song, the other one that Brett said in that article I quoted earlier that he wished he hadn’t included on Head Music. It’s not a bad song, in fact I’d say it’s middle of the road compared to some of the tracks we’ve heard here. But this song is so unlike everything on Head Music. It’s not experimental, it’s minimalist, yet ironically it’s the least Suede-sounding song on here. The acoustic guitar, while pleasant, makes Crack in the Union Jack sound like a demo more than anything else. If you absolutely had to include it on the playlist, then it should be either in the middle or after Indian Strings. Not at the end. Weakest Suede finale by some margin.
So I began this entry by dubbing this album Suede’s Be Here Now. Do I mean in the classic way in that it’s made of absolute nonsense? Or in the modern way of it being underappreciated?
The first half of the album, Savoir Faire aside, is brilliant, containing some of my favourite tracks from Suede and is an absolute must-listen. The second half is inconsistent at best, and it makes me question whether I could recommend Head Music as a whole. I guess I would, seeing as the offending tracks do at least go by quite quickly, but it does mean that at the end of the day I prefer Coming Up. I do have to commend Suede for taking Head Music in an experimental direction, but I think it’s an album I respect more than I like. And I just like the ‘safe’, more consistent option that was its predecessor.
I have read that there were other, far better tracks that went unused or ended up as b-sides that didn’t make the final cut, and I’m willing to bet they would have made a better impression than Asbestos and Elephant Man. So I’m not done with Head Music yet on A-Side Glance. I’m going to be back soon looking at some of the b-sides in what is going to be a recurring series.
See you next time for the first part of B-Side Myself.