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Review: Suede’s Grandiose and Chilling ‘Night Thoughts’ Keep Them Awake

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 5, 2016
Label: Warner Music Group

The mark of a successful relationship is if its parties can evolve together. Britpop luminaries Suede proved theirs could be built to last when they reunited after a decade apart for Bloodsports in 2013, and lord knows they faced challenges during their ’90s heyday: industry pressure, member turnover (founding guitarist Bernard Butler acrimoniously left after 1994’s Dog Man Star), a frustrating name change (a lounge singer’s early ’90s lawsuit forced them to be billed as “The London Suede” in the U.S.), rampant drug abuse, and, ultimately, burnout. But breaks can lead to happy reunions, and on their second album post-comeback, Night Thoughts, the glam-rock revivalists again sound physically rejuvenated despite carrying an emotional albatross.

As with the sober but no less adventurous Bloodsports, the band’s seventh studio effort cares little for ’90s nostalgia. That’s on purpose; frontman Brett Anderson, who takes after the proudly alienesque David Bowie in his unabashed lack of conformity, has emphasized their wish to shuck off their implicit Clinton-era tidings before, with him telling Under the Radar a few years back, “I think Bloodsports could be the first stage of a creative rejuvenation of the band. Not just us jumping up onstage and playing songs from 20 years ago. Actually making new music.”

They certainly could’ve taken up a Britpop mantle in the early-’90s if they’d wanted. Described by Melody Maker in 1992 as “The Best New Band in Britain,” Suede laid the groundwork for Blur, Pulp, Placebo, and a host of others, but they had little interest in belonging to a burgeoning Britpop fraternity. So they relaunched with the seminal Dog Man Star — a murky, highly orchestrated, and experimental record whose fraught creation put them on the critical map but ultimately ended Anderson and Butler’s relationship (they would later rejoin for the frontman’s solo projects). But, like their forebears in T. Rex and Bowie himself, they do care about authentic self-expression and putting on a show.

So Night Thoughts honors Suede’s longstanding place in Brit-rock history as theatrical brooders with a penchant for pop and post-punk, while also celebrating the five-piece’s growth by supplying listeners with another round of swirling dance ballads (the gloomy, arena-filling “Outsiders” and the twinkling “No Tomorrow”) and operatic, Dog Man Star-ry ruminations (“Tightrope”).

But their priorities have clearly shifted. Instead of boozy-sloppy titles like “Trash” and “Lazy,” the self-anointed band of outsiders again let go of their narcotized past (Anderson has spoken openly about his addiction struggles with cocaine, crack, and heroin) and pour their energies into, well, stability and growth. New-ish father Anderson has said that Night Thoughts is about being a parent and revisiting your own childhood, and sings of the stuff that literally keeps a fortysomething up at night: facing your inadequacy and losing people you love — or, more specifically, losing your children. “Like Kids” and album opener “When You Are Young” come accented with samples of clamoring tykes and words of invincibility (“Oh, it belongs to us / Oh, there’s nothing we can’t reach”). On the jaunty, Blur-like “What I’m Trying to Tell You,” Anderson sounds like every parent who’s questioned their ability to keep their children safe when he sings, “I don’t know the meaning of much / I don’t know the right expressions / I don’t have too much intuition or too many credentials.”

At times, the darker, more anxious songs risk creating too long of a lull in Night Thoughts: It could stand to lose either the slow-churning “Learning to Be” or the overly dramatic “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants.” But for the most part Night Thoughts snaps the listener awake with thought-provoking contrasts of exuberant youth and limitless possibilities (“Outsiders,” “No Tomorrow”) and broken adult relationships (“I Don’t Know How to Reach You”).

Anderson’s nightly concerns might have changed with the inevitable passing of time, and Suede’s orchestrations might lean more toward opera these days, but his remarkable delivery hasn’t waned since their tight ’90s run. For all of its pomp and circumstance, Night Thoughts doesn’t shy away from pop — in fact Anderson uses it to soundtrack the earlier, more innocent chapters of his life (“Fight the sorrow like there’s no tomorrow”), saving a swell of climactic strings and a twinge of moody guitar to underscore the myriad ways he could lose everything (“When the wolf is at your door / Your child’s against your breast”). It’s the sort of doomsday scenario a therapist would advise troubled insomniacs to write out on paper. Fortunately for longtime (and brand-new) fans, Anderson already has.

Tags: Reviews, Suede