Album: Dog, Man, Star
Review by Thomas McGrath
CD + DVD 3 disk set
Producer Ed Buller
Recently, a Headpress contingent descended on Brighton to visit Mick Farren, the latest exciting addition to our author stable (watch this space). Arriving in Brighton was strange, as I had lived in that distinctive seaside town for three eventful years, but hadn't laid eyes on it since 2003. When I say eventful, I should perhaps instead say traumatic: I had been grateful to eventually escape the city, coming to think of the place as similar to Pleasure Island in Pinocchio - somewhere kids can smoke and drink all they like, but incrementally turn into donkeys. I already had at least one drooping ear and a stub of tail by the time I left, and have since thought of the place as just a tedious, squalid city with some likable architectural curiosities.
What a surprise, then, to set foot again there, under a glorious blue sky. It was all so beautiful I was struck how familiarity can cake a place with experiential associations (in my case, comedowns, poverty, hangovers and heartache), making them increasingly invisible. During my long, unbroken absence from Brighton, this coating had been allowed to peel away, re-revealing the strikingly comely place obscured by all that hard living.
Compare this psycho/geographical phenomenon with our relationship to (if we no longer live there) our hometown, at least in those instances when a parent or two have stayed put in our wake, so that we have likely returned to it at least once, twice or thrice per annum since escaping. In this circumstance, we are incapable of seeing the place with any semblance of objectivity, as with every visit we add an additional layer of mnemonic crud, its layers sown with all our oldest prejudices, burying it so deep that it would require decades of separation to dig it up.
Of course, as Proust so voluminously expounded, it is not only places that undergo such temporal transformations, but works of art, with music being the aesthetic medium most vulnerable to the influence of memory. And if I was to apply one of my two geographical examples to Dog Man Star, Suede's recently remastered and reissued second album, I would have to confess that it has more in common with a home town, visited once or twice a year in the fourteen or fifteen years since I really inhabited it (during which time I generously daubed the band's name in Tipp-ex on my school rucksack, free of charge). As such, I find that my opinions have changed very little over all that time. Which I mention by way of a confession, because my taste certainly has. I'm almost certain that, were it a new album, and Suede a new band, their style would be the last thing my current ears, happily clogged with hip hop and jazz, would clamour for. Having given the album my full attention for this review, the only changes in my opinions are that, what I've always liked about it I like a little less, and what I've always disliked about it I now find pretty much unbearable.
Let's begin with the former. It is perhaps no accident that the proverbial 'special occasions' on which I still pay auntie Brett (Anderson, singer) and uncle Bernard (Butler, guitarist) the odd visit usually involve a cocktail of hallucinogenic drugs, as Dog Man Star is well-known for being a product of like indulgence by its creators, with Anderson feasting on acid in a Highgate mansion, leaving only to follow the white line around the mid-nineties pop star circuit. In this instance, the drugs did their job, creatively. And on tracks like We Are The Pigs and The Asphalt World, the band paint sonic arabesques brimming with vision and pout, sculpting a rock music both entirely English yet full of transatlantic, psychedelic swagger, like a super-fey Rolling Stones, or a Smiths that had been genetically spliced with Jane's Addiction. Oh yeah, and produced by Phil Spector.
Besides all the symphonic druggy lust, I also nowadays find myself quite charmed by Anderson's lyrical fixations, which, while distinctly humourless (whatever its charms, Dog Man Star ain't funny), are also resolutely empathic. Brett's muses are commonly "enslaved/In a pebbledash grave/With a kid on the way," and an underlying humanity softens all the stardust. It is this prevailing tenderness, I think, that enabled Brett to write the lyrics to the stirring and sonorous The Wild Ones, a beautiful love song that is very much the beating heart of this frequently icy record, and something you wouldn't expect to have eluded the clutches of all those drugs.
As a teenager, I admired the artistic integrity in the group not including Stay Together (the intermediary single between their first and second album) on Dog Man Star, on account of Butler's having left the group before the album was even mixed, let alone released (for many admirers, myself included, the post-Butler incarnation doesn't even warrant serious discussion). I also, however, thought that the single was missed, as it was a fabulous song entirely consistent with the record's sound. Furthermore, I thought that, had Stay Together been included, and a handful of other songs lopped off, Dog Man Star could easily have been the decade's greatest rock record, in which embodiment I imagine The Asphalt World, already clocking in at an impressive (and entirely engrossing) nine minutes, running to the twenty-odd minutes Butler had always intended it to, as well as concluding the album - preceded by, in this order, Introducing The Band, We Are The Pigs, Heroine, The Wild Ones, New Generation, This Hollywood Life and Stay Together. Fifteen years later, I still do feel it could have been the decade's greatest rock record! Excuse the self-indulgence, but try telling me that isn't a hell of a record…
As it is we're left with a handful of tracks on which Suede teeter over the edge of genius and go hurtling into the ocean of pompous and overblown pretension that inevitably threatens the entire project. Tracks like The Power, Daddy's Speeding, The 2 Of Us and Black And Blue sound like Brett solo efforts, with brittle musical cores that probably sounded, to Brett, very powerful on all those drugs (particularly when drenched, back at the studio, in echo and strings), but are dull, vapid, and almost manage to spoil the record. The same could not be said for Still Life, which I think is a strong enough ballad that might just make that master-cut of mine, but for the fact that the band brought in a seventy-two piece orchestra, making it a song even a middle-aged Michael Jackson might have deemed a bit over the top.
But these opinions, I repeat, are old ones, altered only by intensity over the years. Chances are that Dog Man Star is just an overblown indie record and appropriate only for provincial adolescents. On the other hand, I suppose I should also be open to the possibility that, as with Brighton, sufficient distance might see the years fall away and reveal something really beautiful. After all, if music is frozen architecture, then Dog Man Star, an audacious and grandiose blend of Englishness and exoticism, dripping with ludicrous ornamentation, sounds like Brighton Pavilion might, melted. And what could be better than that?