Album Review: Suede – Autofiction

[BMG; 2022]

If you weren’t a Suede fan in the 2010’s, you might be wondering, “Why should I care about an aged Britpop band?” The simplest answer would be “You shouldn’t”; however this particular band is more than just ‘some guys from the 90s’. Even back then their music was a lot more innovative and nuanced than that of their genre colleagues. Most importantly, Suede found a winning approach to nostalgia which seems to be a theme with most musicians over 45 years of age. The best album to view it though 2015’s Night Thoughts. That album explores the anxieties of becoming a parent, though not longing for days past. It comes from the perspective of a parent that is excited for their child to experience the wonders of youth, in the process of which one’s own youth gets revisited. Night Thoughts is a gentle, energetic at times, record that also lets the younger audience hear the things that are important to them at this age. The lyrics that would otherwise sound corny, on that album, come across with the earnestness of a teenager. After a more experimental 2018 effort The Blue Hour, Suede have entered into a new era with Autofiction.

This record is fueled by a view of music that contemporary British outfits, such as black midi, express. It is the desire to capture the magic of live performance on a studio record, and Suede are a vivacious live act. While listening to Autofiction, one notices the background noise of conversation, guitar feedback, and even sounds of velcro. Brett Anderson, the band frontman, calls this their ‘punk album’ in its idea of being direct and raw — though there are more grandiose and rehearsed moments on it such as the orchestral “Drive Myself Home” and “What Am I Without You?”

Musically, this album evokes the mood of their early works such as “The Drowners” or “Animal Nitrate”; however, it is not as youthful, of which the band is completely aware. Autofiction is not an attempt to recapture the magic of their most successful records such as Dog Man Star or the self-titled debut. Rather, it is a full recognition that this time has passed, though they still have reason to think back on it and remember how exciting it was. Nostalgia for most bands means returning to the sound that gained them fame in the first place, but Suede decided to reincarnate the things that surrounded the creation of that sound for them: the simple rock band instrumentation, the channeling of emotion rather than being focused on production, naivety, excitement of being a new band (Suede even considered entering Battle of Bands tournaments under a different name). This proved to be a great way of utilizing the band’s signature nostalgic sound, which they did not apply randomly, but rather grew into; it changed and developed from the fresh style that it used to be as the band aged, while still remaining in the vein of ’90s British pop that is ever modernising.

This album shows the purpose of Dolby Atmos mixing, which expands the sound for the music to seem as if it is all around the listener as opposed to just in the stereo’s left and right channels. Autofiction uses such obvious elements as a drum count-in on most tracks and ambient noise outros, building towards an experience that truly makes one feel a part of the recording session while listening. Suede realize that a great part of the energy of a live show comes from being unable to do ‘another take’, which is why this record feels like a single breath, and even the orchestra seems to always have been there in that recording room. We just never paid attention to them until they began to play. Autofiction also remembers the music that inspired Suede to become a band in the first place, and its ’80s synth wave aesthetic is present on such tracks as “It’s Always the Quiet Ones.” Lastly, this album shows the band in complete confidence in their sound and songwriting, perhaps due to playing together for so long. Autofiction feels like a rehearsal session where we, the listeners, are an accidental audience, which is why we get a glimpse into the intriguing intimate world of a record coming together.

If Night Thoughts saw nostalgia and youth as something general, yet so gentle that it spoke to most listeners, then 2018’sThe Blue Hour was more experimental musically and left the nostalgia aspect to the lyrics on such tracks as “The Invisibles”. Autofiction combines both approaches in a way that doesn’t sound like either. The more raw tracks such as “15 Again” and the opener “She Still Leads Me On”, which is dedicated to Anderson’s late mother, evoke the feeling of a classic rock band playing at a parents’ garage, though with finely tuned lyrics which do not let us forget that they were written by an experienced songwriter and fully expose the emotion of the experiences that they are based on. The more grandiose tracks like “Drive Myself Home” and “What Am I Without You?” take it so much further from tracks of a similar nature on Night Thoughts or The Blue Hour that they could almost be part of a musical theatre production.

Autofiction in no small part comes from Brett Anderson’s experience writing two autobiographies Coal Black Mornings and Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn. As opposed to its predecessors, the lyrics on this album cover significantly more ground with the artist recounting their life or purposefully creating fiction that gives freshness and more intrigue to this nostalgia. This album delves into familial loss, personality crises, feelings of inadequateness in relationships, nostalgia that hurts more than it consoles, and the primal emotion of letting go of thinking and giving in to pure unrestricted feeling. Anderson’s lyrics have always been brave and open about everything he wants to impart about himself and what he has witnessed even if he might not find acceptance in these disclosures, which fuels the drive and confidence of Suede’s music.

On Autofiction he uses, well, fiction, to resurrect his own memories and let us in on them as if they are happening right here and now. Anderson is never afraid of coming across as naïve in his lyrics, for he knows that it is not an artificial device but rather his way of putting himself back in the mindset of a wide-eyed teenager — as well as taking us along on this ride, during which we fall into our own memories of youthful experiences.

Suede understand that they are not pioneers they once were when Britpop was first emerging, but they’ve always looked rather inward and continuously developed their own already existing sound as opposed to chasing to break new musical ground. Some might think that it is a detriment, but if one were to listen to their discography in full, it becomes apparent that their sound has changed significantly throughout the past 30 odd years; maybe it didn’t overshadow the developments of alternative music that took place in that time, but that isn’t what matters to them. They want, first and foremost, honesty and sincerity out of their music, and that they have been consistently achieving. They love their music regardless of what the reception is — which is why in 2003, they played five nights at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The band performed each of their albums to date in full per night, including those that were commercial failures.

Their earnestness is something that never truly seems to fade, and that is why you can be a fan that was hoping for a complete reinvention of the band on each of their recent albums or someone that couldn’t care less about this kind of music. You still feel the sincerity that the band puts into their music, and Autofiction does us one better and puts us in the recording room with the band while it is happening. It highlights the irresistible excitement that most everyone get when they are at a live show of band that they might not even heard of. If the band is energetic and is absolutely in love with what they do, it is contagious. Autofiction is a modern album in many ways, such as the DIY approach to recording when studio quality is available even on laptops, the preference of rawness of emotion to production value, and so on. This album is not served to us on a platter as a radio-ready hit record, and it is not made ‘for us’, but it gives us something better — the feeling of being a part of this music and not a mere recipient.