Pity poor Suede – when they released their comeback album Bloodsports three years ago, it rather sank in the wake created by David Bowie’s somewhat more significant comeback album. This time around, not only do they have Bowie’s Blackstar to contend with, but a full-blown global requiem for his passing.
They could be excused for thinking themselves cruelly unlucky – though that would at least be apt for Night Thoughts, an album which, in best Suede fashion, empathises with the put-upon and overlooked.
This is most immediately evident in “Outsiders”, the first single taken from the album, over whose muscular, pulsing groove and Edge-style cycling guitar riff Brett Anderson hymns a hapless couple “thrown like two winter roses into a broken vase”, seeking solace in romance, clinging to their shared moment like shipwrecked sailors clutching at flotsam.
I choose the metaphor deliberately, as the album, its songs segued together to encourage playing it in its entirety, is intended as the thoughts and memories of a man drowning off a deserted beach at night, reflecting upon his life – something like Kate Bush’s “The Ninth Wave” suite, though more direct.
There are precious few happy moments in his memories, certainly: as suggested by titles like “I Don’t Know How to Reach You”, “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants” and “What I’m Trying to Tell You”, the protagonist is racked with regret over the way his expressive limitations have chipped away at his chances of happiness and fulfilment.
“I don’t know the meaning of much,” he agonises in the latter; “All I’m trying to say is that this is enough, that you’re walking away.” The pumping bass and stomp riff embody his emotional constipation, while Richard Oakes’s guitar winds through the song like wire gradually entwining his heart.
It’s tragic, and it’s not the only such moment. “I bought you those pretty things, but you gave them back,” he laments over piercing shards of guitar in “I Don’t Know How to Reach You”, a depiction of alienation creeping implacably into a relationship until there’s nothing more to be said: “I turn away/ I fold the page/ I close the book”.
Elsewhere, the fluting strains of Neil Codling’s keyboard strings lend an epic sadness to “Tightrope”, evoking the protagonist’s anxieties over his inability to prevent that creeping alienation because “we know more than we used to”. Some partnerships grow stronger with the increasing familiarity of age; others just breed contempt.
There are a few brief glimmers of light illuminating the gloom, notably the children’s choir adding fragile hope to the refrain of “Like Kids” – though even here it’s a delusional attempt to shore up a collapsing relationship with fantasies of childlike freedom.
But they’re far outweighed by the overwhelming tide of emotional abjection, which reaches possibly its most heartbreaking expression in the way that the delicate guitar arpeggios of “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants” echo those of “Stairway To Heaven”, even as the female subject’s spirits sink into purgatorial misery as she returns glumly home – “all that’s left is ashes of her sorry little night”.
Night Thoughts, then, is about as far from a date album as it can get – which, with their louche glamour, couldn’t be said of earlier Suede recordings. But they were mostly about the exotic, transgressive appeal of youthful outsider-dom, while this is stained by the disillusion and regret of age.
The sharpest indication of this comes in “No Tomorrow”, whose outsider protagonist isn’t some Wilde-an gutter-dweller staring at the stars, but an aimless, moribund idler trapped in sink-estate hell. “How long will I shun the race, and sit around in my tennis shirt?” he muses.
“How long will it take to break the plans that I never make?” It’s a question that was inevitably begged by those previous celebrations of low-rent outlaw glamour, and, in attempting to answer it, Suede may have made their best album.