Arts: The songs remain the same

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The Independent Culture
THOSE SUEDE boys just keep swinging. Taking - and take it he does - the stage with a mincing swagger, Brett Anderson's first words tonight are: "I feel real now, walking like a woman and talking like a Stone-Age man." The song is the rampant "Can't Get Enough" and the words aren't a huge leap from their 1992 debut album's "Moving", with its "so we are a boy, we are a girl" line - but Suede are nothing if not consistent, nothing if not their own hermaphrodites.

So does their fourth album, Head Music, constitute a progression? Lyrically, Anderson is still trying to tease out what's real from a world of chemically induced confidence, murky sexualities and cracked metropolitan beauty. Musically, it's the same knife-edge guitar pop, its drive cushioned by tender torch songs and sent skywards by Anderson's elastic yelp.

But while Blur, say, keep piling up implausible transformations with every album, Suede aren't so much guarding their constituency as juicing it up and clarifying it from within. "She's In Fashion" is summer pop at its purest, "He's Gone" an almost abstract weeping wound of a ballad. In addition, the contribution of coolly comatose keyboard player, Neil Codling, has given Suede a chic, retro-futurist veneer, with a lean and focused result that consigns the melodramatic, orchestral excesses of 1994's album, Dog Man Star, to history.

They are history live. Suede are so sure of their new material that no songs from ex-guitarist Bernard Butler's period taint the set, meaning that one-time new boy guitarist Richard Oakes - now all of 23 - needn't play cover versions. It makes for a skin-tight show, with Head Music's fidgety, insidious "Savoir Faire" every bit as brash and bony live as the ragged glam stomp of Coming Up's "She".

Anderson is enjoying the Butler-free zone. Whip-thin and moving like a speeding ferret, his commanding performance recalls how Suede shattered 1992's moribund pop world with sheer lustiness as much as that fey challenge to Loaded-lads. As a result, they were once seen as blousy outsiders. Now they're pop's main squeeze, and they play the outsider card with blustering and triumphant self-vindication. Coiled around a pachyderm of a riff, "Elephant Man" is an instantly, wonderfully ridiculous live classic.

But there is a new scope, almost a sublimity, to Suede's romantic embrace of pop's alchemical capacities. The urban balm of "Everything Will Flow" is elevating live, its clean and clear-sighted keyboards attuned to the quietly optimistic sense of growth and continuity in its lyrics. It reminds you of how Suede were meant to crack after their first album. Well, they're fantastic live and their fourth album is their best yet. Still swinging, then.

Kevin Harley