Turn back the clock 25 years, and for a brief period, sandwiched between the twin behemoths of grunge and Britpop, Suede were the most popular, critically acclaimed band in the UK. Their deft, androgynous blend of glam rock and Morrissey-indebted indie angst helped make their eponymous 1993 debut the fastest selling first album in British history, and even in the mid-’90s, with the Blur/Oasis-led Britpop juggernaut at full speed, the Londoners repeated the feat with the hit-packed Coming Up. But their ongoing personnel issues, including singer Brett Anderson’s crack addiction, eventually caught up with them, and Suede went on indefinite hiatus in 2003.
The band’s second act, which began in 2010 when they reunited for a Teenage Cancer Trust show at the Royal Albert Hall, has given us two albums of new material – 2013’s Bloodsports and 2016’s Night Thoughts – both of which successfully re-established Suede’s signature sound, but also introduced a tinge of world-weary maturity in place of the wide-eyed zest of their youthful first incarnation.
The songs on Night Thoughts had a clear, linked narrative arc, and new release The Blue Hour expands this approach further into the realms of true concept album territory. Eschewing their usual producer Ed Buller, who worked with Suede throughout their 1990s heyday and on the first two records of their comeback, Anderson and bandmates Richard Oakes, Neil Codling, Simon Gilbert and Mat Osman have this time teamed up with Alan Moulder, best known for his work with Nine Inch Nails and My Bloody Valentine. The end result is a record that’s hugely ambitious in scale, but veers from place to place stylistically.
The Blue Hour seems inspired by Anderson’s recent relocation to rural Somerset, focusing throughout on the perils faced by the English countryside – quite a shift from Suede’s earlier, quintessentially metropolitan song writing. We get titles like Wastelands, Beyond The Outskirts and Flytipping, and two spoken word interludes called Roadkill and Dead Bird. Many of the tracks are soaked in ominous strings (courtesy of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra), distorted, otherworldly noise and eerie choral voices, which give the record a portentous mood akin to a horror film soundtrack.
Yet from time to time, a welcome shard of melodic light appears through the apocalyptic gloom. The Blue Hour opens with the moody atmospherics of As One, with Anderson giving us his best Scott Walker impression, but next track The Wastelands, with its piercing guitars and irresistible hook, is classic Suede. Cold Hands is an uncomplicated, straight up rock out, while Life Is Golden and the closing Flytipping are the kind of epic ballads they’ve always excelled at. On songs like these, there’s always the sense that Suede know when to put the brakes on and prevent their inherent sense of drama becoming overblown.
While there are other occasions – notably All The Wild Places’ excessively grandiose orchestration and the ridiculous gothic chanting on Chalk Circles – where it all feels just a bit much, all in all The Blue Hour is a bold, accomplished effort from a band who still have plenty of ideas more than a quarter of century after they first emerged.