For all the hype around the band, in retrospect Suede’s self titled debut album was pretty damn ordinary, with only a few decent singles to mark the band out as anything above average. Despite this, in Brett Anderson they had a fine vocalist, and in Bernard Butler they had one of the UK’s hottest young guitar players, they just lacked focus and ambition. They were the new indie darlings though and the weekly music press and their impressionable readership adored them. Imagine then the surprise when Butler walked out of the sessions for their second album and the news hit that he had quit the band.
The resulting album, Dog Man Star, is one of those recordings where the immense amount of effort put into it is obvious. Where their self-titled debut had been a distressingly plain indie guitar album, Dog Man Star is an epic, its ambitious sweep totally shading everything that they had recorded previously. It’s obvious that Anderson had already made huge leaps forward as a vocalist and Butler was feeling liberated by the band being able to stretch beyond the limitations of cut-and-paste indiedom. The songwriting had improved as well, with “The Wild Ones” and “Still Life” being among the best songs of the 90s. The more grandiose song structures took in Butler’s fluid guitar playing as well as huge string arrangements where necessary. True, in places Suede’s ambition was far beyond their actual talent and they perhaps had to lean on Butler a little too heavily, but at least they were making a concerted effort to stretch themselves.
Of course as it turns out Butler stretched himself a little too far, and in doing so he snapped and he proverbially launched himself across the room and out of the door. Luckily they were far enough into the recording that his absence wasn’t totally detrimental during the final sessions, and Dog Man Star avoided being one of the great shelved albums in music history.
Dog Man Star is a big stately album that’s also dark and brooding. Parts of it are dusty and prone to fall into disrepair, and it’s a little overwrought and pompous in places, but it has retained both its character and its charm which is more than can be said for many early Brit-pop albums.
Brett Anderson would continue with Suede for much of the next decade, steering them through good times and bad, while Bernard Butler would become a guitarist without portfolio, before recording a couple of albums as a solo artist, and slowly transitioning to a whole range of behind the scenes musical roles. 25 years after its release, Dog Man Star remains the peak of Anderson and Butler’s collaboration, and arguably the high point of their individual careers as well.