Blackstar isn’t the only album released this month to take on added poignancy in the wake of David Bowie’s passing. Suede are releasing a new album mere weeks after Bowie did the same—just like in March 2013, when both parties released comeback records following decade-long hiatuses. And while the timing may be purely coincidental, it’s an uncanny circumstance for a band that, throughout the ’90s, provided the most resounding reminder of Bowie’s early-’70s supremacy, and helped rehabilitate his rep amidst a career nadir for a new generation of pretty things.
Listening to Night Thoughts now is like hearing a eulogy from a favorite son—from its quasi-conceptual structure to its stardust-speckled guitar riffage to its abundance of misfit anthems and concert hall-crumbling ballads, the record is a testament to Bowie’s steely determination to make every song a seismic event.
That said, Suede are like the faithful scions who inherited the old family home, but didn’t do much redecoration. They never shared their godhead’s flair for radical reinvention and experimentation; their discography effectively imagines an alternate 1975 where Bowie never went to Philly and continued to mine the dark majesty of the Aladdin Sane/Diamond Dogs era on through the ’80s. The parameters of their sound were pretty much set with their first two albums—1993’s snappy, scrappy self-titled debut and 1994’s darkly ornate Dog Man Star—and the records that followed slid back and forth between those extremes. Bloodsports, their laudable 2013 return effort, hedged its bets by positioning itself smack dab in the middle of that spectrum, with the album’s invigorating first side balanced by a weightier second act. Their comeback now assured and their bravado fully restored, with Night Thoughts, Suede once again leap up off the dancefloor to swing from the chandeliers.
Night Thoughts isn’t a rock opera per se, though it gamely assumes the form of one. Several songs bleed into one another through swirling interstitials; the opening track is reprised in the penultimate position, Sgt. Pepper’s-style; and it sounds like at least half the recording budget was spent on the orchestra. It’s also accompanied by a fitfully bleak feature-length film (directed by NME photographer/Libertines documentarian Roger Sargent) that shows a drowning man’s reminiscences about the familial tragedy that’s driven him to commit suicide in the sea. (The band previewed the album last fall with front-to-back live performances synced up to the film.) But the songs themselves don’t actually form a linear narrative arc, reference specific characters, or directly correlate to the visuals. They’re more discrete portraits of passion, ostracization, betrayal, and depression—hardly uncharted territory for a Suede record. But the sheer, fetishistic intensity with which Brett Anderson delivers his lascivious lyrics—coupled with the balcony-baiting, pomped-up performance of the band—makes the wounds feel newly opened and the bruises freshly pressed.
That Night Thoughts’ cinematic companion piece centers around the story of an unglamorous middle-class family—rather than, say, the freakish, fashionable deviants that populate the band’s signature songs—underscores an essential truth about Suede today: They are no longer young people, and no longer speaking for them. Once the poster children for porcelain-skinned druggy excess, they’re now the embattled survivors sharing cautionary tales of bad decisions and dreams unfulfilled. Night Thoughts is framed by the opening “When You Are Young” and its late-album echo “When You Were Young”—shore-crashing surges of symphonic psychedelia that dissipate into Anderson’s rueful ruminations about the idealism of youth and the impossibility of recapturing it. While the album’s title may hint at seedy suggestion, Night Thoughts is more about those traumatic, sleep-depriving memories that have you tossing and turning and “tumbling out of a single bed.”
It’s a record about addiction, to be sure, but to an intoxicant more elusive, potent, and damaging than any street drug: desire. And like any stimulant, the highs are ecstatic (see: “Outsiders,” a stained-sheet celebration of odd-couple consummation, or the nostalgically trashy “Like Kids”) and the lows are crushing (see: pretty much everything else). The titles tell you exactly what you’re getting yourself into—”I Don’t Know How to Reach You,” “What I’m Trying to Tell You,” “Tightrope,” “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants”—each song more desperate and depraved than the one before, culminating in the latter’s intimations of violence (“The keys are falling from her coat/ As I weave my fingers around her perfumed throat”). Though a master of evocative detail, Anderson doesn’t care much for narrative exposition—rather than set a scene, he prefers to thrust you into the thick of the moment where it’s all about to fall apart. And depending on your disposition, Night Thoughts concludes with either with a happy ending, or a dispiriting one. The swashbuckling, orchestro-ballad finale, “The Fur & the Feathers,” finds Anderson valorizing “the thrill of the chase”—an optimistic suggestion that even the most bitter, agonizing breakup can’t diminish the rush of romance, or the brazen affirmation of a damaging, heart-ravaging habit that’ll inevitably lead to more sleepless nights. For the sake of Suede’s ongoing renaissance, let’s hope it’s the latter.