Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn by Brett Anderson – a cold eye on Suede’s glory years
27 Sep 2019
‘We overdid it.’ In the book he swore he’d never write, the singer-songwriter reflects on debauchery, the limits of his talent and his band’s best songs
Last year, Brett Anderson – the lithe and elegantly brooding frontman of Suede – revealed himself as a lithe and charming memoirist. Coal Black Mornings was an anti-rockstar chronicle, dedicated to his eccentric childhood on a housing estate in Haywards Heath in Sussex; his gruff, depressive, Liszt-obsessed father; his arty, stifled mother; his first forays into music and creativity. It detailed the early days of Suede, in the late 1980s and early 90s, the poverty, the failures, the bad decisions and inept songwriting. It ended, with admirable perversity, the day the band got signed.
The book was at times a little unpolished, but it brimmed with emotional authenticity and a kind of studied guilelessness: Anderson above all wanted to avoid a hackneyed inventory of salaciousness and surfeit, the usual tale of “coke and gold discs”. But he had a problem – the memoir was a success. And the publishers, presumably, wanted more. Now he has gone back on his word, producing “the book I said I wouldn’t write”.
Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn follows Anderson through the next decade of triumph and disintegration. It begins with the motley crew-members “blinking from the debris of our rented rooms” into the glare of celebrity. In 1992 Suede were hailed by Melody Maker as the best new band in Britain. They were yet to release their debut single. Some saw them as overhyped poseurs; others lauded their androgynous aesthetic, their David Bowie and Lloyd Cole-influenced blend of leftfield rock, wiry pop and punkish lullaby, their songs of love in the gutter, jealousy and dissipation, trash and glitz.
Anderson developed a distinctive (and easy to parody) lexicon of urban decay and addled ardour, and, following the band’s eponymous first album – assisted by guitarist and fellow songwriter Bernard Butler – branched out to produce the gutsily wide-ranging second album Dog Man Star (1995), filled with soaring choruses, virtuosic guitar solos and, at one point, a 40-piece orchestra. Rolling Stone derided it as “pretentious”; fans lapped it up. By this stage Butler had jumped ship. Yet the next album, Coming Up (1996), proved they could do it without him. Further fame, infamy and fractiousness were to come. Not to mention lots and lots of drugs.
Anderson writes with a combination of guarded introspection and detachment that will be familiar to readers of the earlier book. In many ways he has stayed true to his promise: this is not a tale of glamour and stardom, of backstage shenanigans and adoring fans. The author is less concerned with the events themselves than with the atmosphere that produced them, what he refers to as “the machinery that whirrs away, often unseen … to create the bands that people hear”.
He is under no illusions about the contract between artist and audience (“any performance is essentially an elitist act”), and writes lucidly about the construction of his persona, the “unholy loop” of reflection and refraction as he posed for a media that fed its portrayal back into him (“I don’t think I was ever particularly in control”). He is very good on the imaginative mechanics of his songwriting, on the relationship between his lyrics and the music, on the way a band can work together, and apart, on the lengths gone to between the spark of inspiration and a piece’s layered construction in a studio.
He is generally more rueful than celebratory, and is especially self-critical about the curation of his albums. As he acknowledges, several of Suede’s best numbers were B-sides. His “lightest”, poppiest hit, “She’s in Fashion”, was “born from the ravages of utter despair”; the chart top-fiver “Electricity” is “shouty, pointless, hollow … signifying absolutely nothing”. His favourite lyric is “Asphalt World” and the song he’d choose to define his work is “The Wild Ones”. He is sober about his ability: “I’m not an especially talented musician nor an artistic visionary nor even a particularly gifted storyteller … I simply never give up.”
There was debauchery, but Anderson does not glory in the details. His overriding mode is euphemism: “Inevitably we overdid it.” Crack cocaine and heroin are never mentioned; the philandering remains in the shadows; names are never dropped. He observes himself with a cold eye: “I staggered between bizarre dalliances and sticky, gaudy dramas … I was trapped in a Futurist painting”.
These distancing devices, and their invitations to read between the lines, imbue this book with an almost novelistic quality. Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn is most memorable for its mood. Anderson may be no “visionary” but he is gifted at creating worlds. Here, he conjures a cracked and confused persona, fumbling his way through a bizarre early adulthood, by turns gleefully hedonistic and wantonly self-destructive, hardworking and profligate, egotistical and insecure, a character more likely to be seen shuffling around in a dressing-grown smoking fags and staring out the window than prancing on the stage.
He achieves his effects with a Suede-ish patterning of recurring words: “enervating”, “visceral”, “intoxicating”, “artificial”, “scruffy”, “brittle”. Sometimes he overdoes it; at worst his prolixity carries shades of Russell Brand (“those denizens of the upper echelons”; “the Dionysian sagas of glut and madness”). But at its best, Anderson’s writing feels fresh and distinctive. Following their disappointing fourth and fifth albums the band split in 2003 – where this memoir ends – only to reform in 2010. Suede’s subsequent three albums have been increasingly impressive. Their live performances have bristled with energy. Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn is another milestone in a flourishing latterday career.
• Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn by Brett Anderson is published by Little, Brown (RRP £18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/ ... sH9sAya5Ec
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