BY his own admission, Suede’s Brett Anderson is a man of contradictions.
The elegant frontman is equally capable of primal performance and profound expression.
These are the contrasting qualities that make his band’s ninth studio album, Autofiction, a towering accomplishment.
Anderson calls it “a loud, noisy, nasty rock record but with the lyrical vulnerability that comes with being an older man”.
Thirty years after Suede’s self-titled debut, the 54-year-old is well aware of losing “the arrogance of youth”.
But then he says: “Without wishing to blow my own trumpet, I am going to say something pretty arrogant.
“I don’t think many artists manage to carry on making interesting music.
“We’ve found ourselves on a career path where we’re still doing viable work in our fifties.”
Maybe this is because Anderson is a perfectionist for whom perfection is always just out of reach.
“My motivation to keep going comes from looking back on stuff we’ve done in the past with a sense of dissatisfaction,” he says.
This from a man who sailed through the Nineties on the crest of Britpop’s wave in a band feted for a string of acclaimed albums… Suede (1993), Dog Man Star (1994) and Coming Up (1996).
‘A LOT TO PROVE’
Speaking via Zoom from the home he shares with wife Jodie and their children, Anderson continues: “I’m always slightly disappointed, even with the music that’s looked kindly upon by critics.”
“I’d like to think we might get there eventually, that’s all part of my quest,” he says with a self-deprecating smirk.
“It always feels like we’ve got a lot of prove. We have to keep looking for something better even if perfection is an illusion, like infinity.
“We try to make a great record but it’s never quite as good as I want it to be,” he sighs, before adding, “That’ll be the next one!”
Like any band you could mention, Suede have had their ups and downs, including breaking up in 2003 under a cloud of disillusionment.
Since reforming in 2010, however, it has been a more stable ship with Autofiction being the fourth studio album since the seven-year hiatus.
“Splitting up was the best thing we ever did,” says Anderson. “When you become successful, you become lazy and entitled.
“You think, ‘Oh, we’ll release a record and everyone’s going to love it’ so the shock of discovering you can’t coast was a good thing.
Being with a few blokes in a room, bashing bits of wood and smashing bits of metal, your child side takes over
“We’d run out of ideas and I didn’t really know what Suede was any more.”
Their return to the fray for a Teenage Cancer Trust gig at the Royal Albert Hall kickstarted the renaissance.
“I realised we’d thrown something away which was precious, something we shouldn’t do again. That’s partly why we’re making some of our best music right now.”
With that in mind, consider Suede convening at a rehearsal space in London’s King’s Cross to make their new album armed with 50 songs written over four years.
As the Covid pandemic subsided, it was like uncorking a bottle of fizz, a release of unbridled energy and renewed commitment . . . complete with deliberate imperfections.
Anderson says: “Autofiction is supposed to be a raw, primal howl of a record instead of a sophisticated, thoughtful one. We wanted to rip it up and burn it down to the stubble.
“There’s nothing quite as exciting for a musician as when you’re making a lot of noise.
“Being with a few blokes in a room, bashing bits of wood and smashing bits of metal, your child side takes over.”
The singer likens the process to Lord Of The Flies, William Golding’s story of a group of boys stranded on an uninhabited island and the feral behaviour that ensues.
“As I get older I can’t listen to over-produced music. It kind of bores me,” Anderson tells me.
“It sounds as if it was made by a computer and I want to hear music made by a human being.
“To me, Autofiction is a deeply flawed record, but beautifully flawed.
“I want the listener to feel like they’ve walked in on a rehearsal with all the count-ins, f***-ups and coughing.”
Save for breathers in the shape of a couple of ballads, the album sets a cracking pace in stark contrast to the complexities of Suede’s previous album, 2018’s The Blue Hour. I think every record’s a reaction to the last one,” says Anderson. “The Blue Hour was left field, odd and arty.
“We went as far as we wanted to go down that path and the pendulum has swung back. We just wanted to make something that felt really exciting.”
There’s no doubt that the band comprising Anderson’s fellow founder member Mat Osman (bass), Simon Gilbert (drums), Richard Oakes (guitars) and Neil Codling (keyboards) have recaptured Suede’s early spirit.
“But I didn’t want to be nostalgic,” affirms Anderson. “That was really key.
“It’s very consciously and deliberately a rock record made by somebody who’s 54 and not in their twenties.
“That might sound like a contradiction because rock music is conventionally the preserve of the young.”
When Anderson performs live, you get the impression of a confident, swaggering rock star with his audience in the palm of his hand.
“But these songs are very much about the cracks behind the mask,” he says. “The complexes, the flaws, the neuroses, the anxieties and the insecurities that one is confronted with as you get deeper into life.
“There’s a tendency for people to believe that, as you get older, you get more comfortable.
“I have a family who I love and I’m relatively well-off but that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges.
“A family is such a fragile thing. You have so much responsibility to its members which can be a huge burden.
“No life is easy, life is hard, and I always look for frictions and tensions to talk about in my work.
“As a father and husband, I don’t let darkness into my reality but as a writer and as an artist, I do.”
‘My amazing mum’
Anderson accepts that the lyrical themes explored on Autofiction make it one of his most personal albums, partly inspired by his recent memoirs Coal Black Mornings and Afternoons With The Blinds Down.
“This album is much less veiled,” he decides. “Much more stark musically and emotionally.
“I’ve tried to confront things about myself face-on in a much more brutal way.”
Though the anthemic opening track She Still Leads Me On serves as a moving tribute to Anderson’s late mother, Sandra, it also strikes a forward-facing tone.
“I wanted it to be about loss but not grief,” he says.
Rather than being a lament about the void she left in his life, he’s talking about “someone still having a positive effect even though they’ve gone”.
Anderson continues: “My mum was an amazing, unique woman. Three decades after she died, she is still my guiding light.
“Like with everyone’s mum, she’s the most important person to me or certainly in the top three. It’s your mum, your wife and your kids, isn’t it?”
She Still Leads Me On acts as a companion piece to Life Is Golden, on The Blue Hour, which is about his son. “One is written from parent to child and one from child to parent,” he explains.
“Family is where my passion lives now. In your twenties, it’s all about girlfriends that you’re splitting up with.”
Anderson brings his edginess to menacing Personality Disorder and shimmering Shadow Self.
He takes a long hard look at himself on That Boy On Stage, which, he says, contrasts “my stage persona with the real me. The older I get, the two sides drift further and further apart.”
Then there’s 15 Again, which is about “allowing space at the table for your younger self.
“The song is less about nostalgia and more about a state of mind that can happen at any point in your life. You can feel 15 when you’re 50.”
But Anderson is at pains to point out: “It would be a massive personal failure if I wasn’t very different to the me of 40 years ago.
“Something would be terribly wrong and I like to think I’ve evolved a bit!”
These songs are about the cracks behind the mask
The beautifully poised Drive Myself Home serves as a moment of reflection among the mayhem.
“Even though I’ve called it our ‘punk record’, we can write interesting ballads,” says the singer.
“On this record, Drive Myself Home and Shadow Self are about taking it down, so you can take it up again. If it was one tone all the way through, it wouldn’t be a Suede record.”
‘Stumbled on stage’
Autofiction ends in emphatic style with Turn Off Your Brain And Yell . . . something we should all try occasionally.
Anderson says: “There’s this child inside you who just wants to scream and rock music allows you to do that. It gives you license to behave like a toddler.”
He really is still like a kid in a sweet shop when it comes to singing live and says: “I enjoy being on stage more than I used to. If you can keep yourself vaguely in shape and last the 90 minutes, then you can use all your experience to understand the psychology of crowds.
“When I first stumbled on stage in the early days, I did’t know what the f*** I was doing and I found out the hard way, like being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool. I love the flow of energy between band and audience which starts going on a loop.”
Next up for Suede is a string of album launch events followed by two gigs at the Electric Ballroom in their old Camden stomping ground as well as European and American dates.
Anderson affirms: “We’re going live in Autofiction world for a bit but we’ve already started writing the next record.
“I’d like it to be very surprising and avant-garde… not just Suede but Suede collaborating with someone else maybe.”
Finally, I ask this restless soul, still on his search for perfection, to pick his favourite creation.
“If I had to choose one song, it would have to be The Wild Ones on Dog Man Star,” he replies, referring to the haunting classic written with long-departed Bernard Butler.
“Dog Man Star is a pretty special record but, again, it’s not perfect,” he decides.
“I shall keep trying to make that perfect record.”
AUTOFICTION – TRACK LISTING
1. She Still Leads Me
2. Personality Disorder
3. 15 Again
4. The Only Way I Can Love You
5. That Boy On The Stage
6. Drive Myself Home
7. Black Ice
8. Shadow Self
9. It’s Always The Quiet Ones
10. What Am I Without You?
11. Turn Off Your Brain And Yell