Monday, October 10, 2016

Happy Birthday Dog Man Star

Suede, the debut album from the band of the same name, came out in 1993. It topped the album charts, spawned a top 10 single in Animal Nitrate, and arguably laid the foundation for the Britpop movement that would come to dominate the mid-nineties.

However, as much as I love Suede, but I'm not a particularly big fan of Suede. I find the production a little too murky, and the songs - bar the exhilarating Moving and one or two other exceptions - never really grabbed me as tightly as it seems like they grabbed everyone else.

Perhaps my opinion would be different if I had heard the album at the time, when it presumably sounded fresh and new and exciting, but I wasn't even two years old when Suede first appeared on the racks at HMV. In actual fact, Suede wasn't even the first Suede album I heard when I eventually *did* get around to investigating them: that was Dog Man Star, the band's sophomore effort.

Dog Man Star was released on 10 October 1994, which means that today is the record's 22nd birthday. A couple of months earlier, Oasis released Definitely Maybe, one of the defining records of the Britpop era and an album so overrated that it makes Suede, which I find somewhat overrated, look not at all overrated. But while Oasis were codifying the sound we now think of as standard Britpop fare - swaggering guitar rock with no interest in moving hearts, minds or feet - Suede were working on something far more ambitious, far more grandiose, and...well, far better.

No, as a matter of fact I *don't* like Oasis very much. Why do you ask?

I bought Dog Man Star at a car boot sale towards the end of 2005. This was during the earliest part of my musical growth: I had only started buying CDs at the beginning of that year, and I was still in the process of hoovering up everything I could get my hands on, desperately trying to catch up on the last 50 years of popular music history. I had only vaguely heard of Suede at that point, but the Dog Man Star CD was going for just 50p so I decided to give it a go (I also picked up Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. for £1 at the same boot sale - that day was something of a watershed for me).

Now, to be fair to Suede's first album, the production on Dog Man Star is kind of murky as well. But whereas that murk leaves the songs on Suede feeling kind of muffled and damp, it works really well on DMS, lending the whole piece a sort of noir-y feeling that's dreadfully enticing. This album has a bit of everything: songs like We are the Pigs, Heroine and New Generation (the latter being a personal favourite of mine) build on the guitar-based stuff from album #1 but do it a heck of a lot better in my opinion, while Black or BlueThe Wild Ones and The 2 of Us are soaring, moving, sumptuously-contoured numbers that really show off Brett Anderson's considerable vocal abilities.

The real jewels in Dog Man Star's crown, though, are the last two songs on the CD. At nearly 10 minutes in length, The Asphalt World is a dramatic epic - just the right side of psychedelia - that sort of serves as Bernard Butler's last hurrah (he left the band during the Dog Man Star sessions, but not before he had laid down his parts for the album's sprawling penultimate track). And then there's the orchestra-assisted Still Life, a torch song that pulls out all the stops to end the album on a heart-stopping high. It's still my all-time favourite closing track, and the only finale that's ever come close to it in my estimations is the stunning São Paulo from Through the Windowpane by the Guillemots.

Suede would take a poppier, more radio-friendly direction on their next album, Coming Up, which I love almost as much as DMS in an entirely different way. However, for me and for numerous other fans of the band, it's Dog Man Star that will forever remain the band's masterpiece; it's a great testament to the skies that the album format can scrape given enough ambition, showmanship, and songwriting talent.

And, I suppose, a budget that's big enough to pay for an orchestra.

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