It seems strange to review an album when it is already over 14 years old. Yes, really. God, I’m old. But something is compelling me to do it.
It is generally impossible to say that anything is a ‘favourite’. The concept simply doesn’t and shouldn’t exist. But you have to have stock answers. So when someone asks me my favourite band, I say That Petrol Emotion, (and to a large extent, the stats bear this out), when I’m asked by favourite film I would usually say The Wrath of Khan, or latterly, The Big Lebowski.
But what about favourite album? I’ve never really had an answer. There are obviously many, many candidates. From Rubber Soul all the way to the first Arctic Monkeys album, stopping off at Hunky Dory, Meat is Murder, The Queen is Dead, Rid Of Me, The Bends, Ok Computer (and many more) on the way. The trouble is, that no matter how much I love them all, none of them are the perfect album. Despite all the myriad of high points, there is always a track you’d skip, a moment that irks. Surely your favourite album should be devoid of these? That is why I always find myself coming back to Dog Man Star. It is, quite simply, perfect. ( and yes, the first Suede album is great too. But it’s not to the same level overall.)
Let’s set up some basic comments so I don’t repeat myself endlessly. The singing, guitar playing and lyrics are consistently excellent throughout. I’m not going to go on about Anderson/Butler and how sad it was they split when they did (and how they weren’t quite as good when they got back together), I’m not going to make Morrissey/Marr comparisons. I just want to try and explain why I like it. I might learn something.
There is a simple fact. While all my other CD’s are ripped and in the attic. Dog Man Star sits in the CD player next to my bed for those magical moments when I can lie in the dark and just listen.
“Introducing the Band” – 2:39
There was a time when albums were put together with a purpose, some sort of linear intent running end to end. Something akin to Sgt. Pepper or Ziggy. Not just “the latest 10 songs we’ve recorded”. The first track on Dog Man Star, short and sonically quite strange, Introducing The Bands sets out this purpose. This isn’t something you’ve heard before.
“We Are the Pigs” – 4:19
Built as a single, with a great chorus, the triumphal wailing of the end and the decidedly eerie footnote of the children singing “we all watch them burn“, this is a stirring start to the album proper. If you ever need to hear how a great guitarist can create a pop gem, then Bernard Butler does it here. A great riff and even better solo, layers of great guitars. This is what Johnny Marr was in the 80’s. And there’s horns. The best bit is definitely the build up to the last chorus with “But deceit can’t save you so…”
“Heroine” – 3:22
Dischord, clang. More layered guitars. Here we are with something that could have been a single (but wasn’t). These were the days when you didn’t release all the songs off your album as singles unless you were Michael Jackson.
“The Wild Ones” – 4:50
Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what is to come, it all comes down a notch. All the deep reverb in the world wouldn’t get my voice even close to this. I think some music magazine type would use the the word ‘luxuriant’ sometime soon. Here come the strings. Its just lovely, so it is. This was a single, and with good reason.
“Daddy’s Speeding” – 5:22
We’ve opened up with the more accessible songs, the singles (or potential ones). This is when this starts to go from a really good album to a great one. And this is when it gets better to listen to in the dark. A more paired-down, less guitar-driven song, just simple piano and an effects-laden chug – reflecting the sombre mood herein. This is what Bowie used to do. Obviously, we’re not happy unless we get a wee bit of cacophony action at the end. You’re not going to dance to this. But trust me, you really shouldn’t be dancing to anything at your age.
“The Power” – 4:31
Just when you were thinking you hadn’t heard much acoustic guitar. Brett Anderson has a great ability to great some really great harmonies with himself. A very simple song this, a great chorus with, yes OK, more luxuriant strings action. Again, memories of Bowie, maybe around Man Who Sold The World. There is no doubt that Suede own Bowie albums. No shame in that. Same great la-la-la-ing to finish. It’s as David would have wished.
“New Generation” – 4:37
After dropping down in mood for a bit, we’re back in single territory again (albeit a very slightly less successful one). Probably the simplest song on the album (certainly the verse) and we’re back to the backcloth of the winding riff. But when the chorus hits, oh yes, let’s get singing along. But it sounds bad coz it’s really high and we drop and octave in embarrassment. More horns. Altogether now “Oh but when she is calling here in my head…“. Make sure you get the “Oh” really loud. Nice solo to finish.
“This Hollywood Life” – 3:50
For a very long time this was my favourite song on the album. Why? Turn it up loud (before it starts) and just let the guitar kick into your head ( and is that Bowie on sax ). Definitely the ‘rockiest’ song on the album. Another stunning chorus. There was a time when I drove to work listening to this album endlessly. I had to stop. Singing the loud/high bit of the end of this song was doing me a damage. I was a risk of simultaneously ripping my vocal chords and passing out. Splitting the song in half is a proper tennis racquet of a guitar solo. And then you go for it. Go for it, I said… “Come take this Hollywood life“. Ouch. It was worth it.
“The 2 Of Us” – 5:45
That’s it folks. The fun is over. Stop rocking. Stop even vaguely being cheery. Sit back, gets the lights out and well, luxuriate. Stripped back, piano. Great singing. And there it is again, a the big finish, the triumphal ending. It almost sounds hopeful, happy, but it remains sad, laconic. Small piano, fade out. “sickeningly pretty” – brilliant.
“Black or Blue” – 3:48
In the same stripped back piano territory, the vocals remain class (and very high!) but we’ll throw in some strings. In any other album this would stand out. But you know what’s coming next…
“The Asphalt World” – 9:25
It is genuinely difficult to describe how much I love this song. I like guitars, I like loud, I like ‘up’. This song is very sad, depressing even, but is beautiful at the same time. I can’t deny it. If you get me drunk enough, I’ll cry when this is on. It is just such a complete sound experience (careful now, that’s quite a lot wanky). Everything works. The wandering guitar is stunning, a bit of hammond but, above all, its the harmonies in the vocals that makes my spine tingle. Similar to “I Will” by Radiohead, there is something about the harmonies in this song. A music scholar would be able to tell me what it is I like. But OK, let’s go back to the guitar. The solo is just great. And then you get to this song’s greatest trick, the prog-rocky quiet bit, the slow, slow build up and the Whoomp! as it all crashes back in again and you get another great solo. Mamma Mia! ( no, not that one). “Cos that’s where I go, and that’s what I do“. Lie down in the dark and listen to this. Please.
“Still Life” – 5:23
Imagine that The Beatles had got a grip of Paul and said he wasn’t putting “Your Majesty” on the end of Abbey Road but instead they had all settled for something else almost as good as the “Golden Slumbers” medley bit. This album could easily have ended with The Asphalt World (it has that big long track end of album thing) but throwing this in at the end is just showing off. It starts off so simply and builds up into a quite beautiful ballad, although again, don’t be fooled by how lovely it all sounds, the lyrics fight back again.
Why did I do this review? Well, more than anything I got to sit and listen to the album end to end (something I rarely do with my random approach) but it also gave me the chance to try and work out what I like it as much as I do. I can tell you why. Listen to this track and wait for the bit as it builds up to the first chorus, the crescendo rising to the vocal peak and bit orchestra hit. That’s what I love because the music drags you up with it. This album does that a lot. You can have all the depressing subject matter you like, the sounds alone make you happy.
I’ve just listened to the whole thing again. It is my favourite album. What a great Friday night. Right then, back onto random.
Can I register my absolute disagreement with your suggestion that a favourite album shouldn’t have have at least one dodgy track?
That’d be like saying that your best mate shouldn’t be allowed the odd irritating or twattish affectation.
Whereas it’s the endearing nature of these little imperfections that contribute to the greatness and likeability of the whole.
The best part of my daily commute to work is the chance to re-acquaint myself with some old albums that have fallen off the playlist over the years.
Standout favourite for the month of November (somewhat surprisingly) has been “Himself” by Andy White – and half the reason for that has been the wide variance in the quality control factor.
So you have the wistful serenity of “A Million Miles Away” and the couldn’t-have-put-it-better-myself definition of growing up in smalltown NI (“wanting to leave is like learning how to breathe”) that is “Birds Of Passage” mixed in with the throwaway “St Patrick Today” and the cringeworthy “Gilford Four” and a range of production tweaks that sometimes work and sometimes don’t.
As a whole, you end up with an intensely listenable and indeed likeable album experience that you simply wouldn’t get just by hearing the occasional single track thrown up by the randomiser.
Mahatma Ghandi was undoubtedly a swell fellow, but I doubt he’d ever be my top pick for a company down the local boozah.
And so it should be with your favourite album. “Favourite” and “best” are very different things, and hurrah for that.
That’s a fair point. I suppose I was struggling with the notion of ‘favourite’ and was trying to find a way to classify it. Or maybe I was just tired of “I’m a Celebrity Let Me Eat Beatles…” and spouted off a bit…
I’m not sure if your definition works coming from the other direction either. I can think of several ‘perfect’ albums off the op of my head, without a single bad track – ‘Unknown Pleasures’ by Joy Division, ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ by Eno, ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Ziggy’ and a couple of others by Bowie, even David Sylvian’s ‘Secrets of the Beehive’.
Each of these has been listened to a lot at various times, but my favourite album, in the sense of the one I’ve listened to most in recent times is – as you know – ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ by Frightened Rabbit and that’s a got a couple of weaker songs and two interlude tracks which add little to the album. Like the fist Artic Monkeys album and Gene’s ‘Olympian’ before it, massive over-playing will probably mean I go off it and can’t listen to it for years, but at the moment – flaws and weak moments and all – it’s my absolute favourite album.
Also – ‘what Bowie used to do’? Still does, fair weather fan, still does…
my fav album ever as well
Depeche Mode Violator