Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown #1: Suede, Coming Up

For the past week, I’ve been producing a series of posts counting down my favourite albums of all time, having been inspired to do so by Danny Baker’s Great Album Showdown on BBC4. That process has now reached its shuddering climax – or should that be juddering halt? – and today I get to tell you that my number one favourite album of all time…

…(at least for today)…

is… Suede, Coming Up.

Album cover

Album cover

Coming Up, released in 1996, was Suede’s third studio album, and the first to be written and recorded after original guitarist Bernard Butler had left the band. It reached number one in the UK charts, and remains the band’s most commercially successful album to date. It’s also the only album on my countdown to have reached the top of the charts, and thus represents the only time my taste and the taste of the record-buying public have been perfectly aligned (although, to be fair, the reputation of the band – and especially the album – have plunged in the time since, so our tastes are no longer aligned).

Coming Up is a celebration of supposed trash, both musically and lyrically. It embraces the trash aesthetic in its sound, and finds its subject matter in the lives of the urban dispossessed – those people demonised, then and now, as a lazy, brutish, intellectually subnormal underclass. It’s a swaggering, declarative record with room for moments of exquisite tenderness. It’s a semi-chaotic combination of a riotous pop sensibility (it’s no surprise the album spawned five top ten singles) with deceptively sophisticated songwriting, and it’s astonishingly prescient: there are lyrics here that could be riffing on something ill-informed and unkind written on a Daily Mail comments thread just the other day. The album works as a kind of collage, assembling musical and lyrical fragments and arranging them such that they create a whole immeasurably larger than the sum of its parts.

The album opens with one of its strongest songs, ‘Trash’, which is also a kind of manifesto for the record as a whole: ‘We’re trash, you and me/ We’re the litter on the breeze’. The characteristic tone of the lyrics – mocking the label ‘trash’, but defiantly revelling in it too – is pushed centre stage right from the start, and the slightly murky, muddy feel (the ‘cellophane sounds’, to quote the song itself) proves that the music also revels in its trashiness, in its distance from the over-produced precision of a corporate product. The lyric to this song also begins the work of locating the album in its minutely-observed social space – amongst the ‘lovers on the streets’ of ‘nowhere towns’ (that’s not lovers who’ve taken to the streets, it’s lovers who have nothing else to do on a night out except hang around on the streets).

That sense of the social space is only amplified by a song like ‘Lazy’, a bitter attack on the idea that the residents of ‘the flats and the maisonettes’ of ‘council estates’ (the ‘lonely dads/ Who drug it up to give it some meaning’, the mums who ‘really, really want to be loved’ and the ‘barking mad kids’) are ‘lazy’, and spend their time ‘getting satellite and Sky, getting cable’. It’s lyrics like this, especially the complaint that “work-shy scroungers” can afford Sky, that I called prescient, but I don’t know if they really are or if its just that the way rightwingers talk about poor people has hardly moved on at all in a decade and a half – although, these days, they also rant about them owning a mobile.

The bitter cynicism – and prescience – extends into others songs, too. ‘Starcrazy’ could be a savage parody of those knee-jerk reactions to the kinds of people who appear in “constructed reality” TV shows: ‘She don’t want education/ She got nothing to day/ She got no imagination’. The specific target will have been something else, of course – the earliest stirrings of reality TV were just gathering steam in the mid-90s – but the attitude being attacked is the same: the assumption that the people concerned have no inner lives at all, that they are consumed by nothing other than the desire for fame (they’re ‘star crazy’, in fact), and that they follow a “trashy” route to fame and fortune because they’re inherently trashy themselves, not because there are precious few other routes out for someone with no money who went to a bad school. (Mind you, I should be careful how far I pursue this line of thought. ‘Starcrazy’ mocks do-gooders wondering ‘Why does she feel this way?” with every bit as much savagery.) The song ‘She’ covers similar territory, being even more explicit about people who are trapped by their social background: ‘Nowhere places, nowhere faces no-one want to see […] it’s the arse of the nation’.

The great thing about these songs is that, despite their subject matter, they’re not in any sense lectures. They’re not po-faced, or serious, or gloomy. On the contrary, they’re big, bold songs that celebrate the people they feature, and they’ll make you, if not laugh out loud, then certainly smile. They’re acutely observed, but they’re the observations of a stand-up comic far more than they are the observations of a social reformer. And, in any case, I’ve grabbed fragments from the lyrics that illustrate the points I wanted to make, but looking at those fragments in isolation runs the risk of distorting the songs as a whole. These are observational pop songs in the style of a band like The Kinks (or even The Smiths, in their lighter moments), but they have a swaggering energy that escaped both of those bands. Most people listening to these songs would listen with less attention than me: what they’d hear are well-constructed, guitar-driven pop songs with the occasional pungent phrase in the lyric.

The album as a whole ranges wider than the angry/ funny register that dominates the songs I’ve written about so far. In fact, for me, it’s in its more reflective and tender moments that the album achieves true greatness. Perhaps the stand out song in this mode is ‘By the Sea’. It’s a beautiful evocation of the desire to escape, and a simultaneous recognition of the great difficulty of doing so – in the chorus, the aspirational words ‘when I start my new life I won’t touch the ground’ are followed immediately by the more realistic ‘gonna try hard this time not to touch the ground’. I love this song because it suggests that even if aspirations are unrealistic, they’re worth reaching out for just the same. It reflects a kind of dogged, bloody-minded optimism clung to in the face of repeated, bitter experience, and I find it intensely moving. Musically it builds from a quiet, contemplative opening to a soaring anthemic climax – and all of it in support of a desire, not for an impossible jet-set lifestyle, but just for ‘a room in a seaside shack’, and the freedom to walk out any time and look at the sea.

‘The Chemistry Between Us’ is another great song on the album, again in a gentler style. It’s a druggy song – not particularly anti-drugs, but certainly not pro-drugs. A kind of love song at its opening, by the chorus the narrator is wondering ‘Oh, class A, class B/ Is that the only chemistry/ Between us?’ By its end it’s wandered off into a kind of drug-induced reverie in which the narrator’s critical faculties have completely abandoned him, and he no longer even knows enough to worry if he’s deluded. It’s not a desperately sad song, but it’s filled with a kind of wistful regret, which is emphasised by the way that it doesn’t ever end, as such, but just gradually abstracts itself into silence. It would have made for a dwindling, unsatisfying end to the album – which is why I’m glad the album actually ends with ‘Saturday Night’, in which the narrator loses himself not in drugs, but in making someone else happy. It’s a powerfully consoling song, wrapping up all the threads of the album without ever feeling twee or forced. Whatever else – how ever we’re demonised and belittled, whatever problems we face – we can always go out dancing on a Saturday night.

Coming Up is an album that’s cinematic in its scope – by assembling a sequence of small, accurate details, it builds up a picture of a whole world. Coming Up is also an album that’s cinematic in its imagery – listening to this album, late at night, on headphones, I find myself forming vivid pictures to go with the sounds: I can see the people these songs are about, and the spaces they inhabit. And those people and those spaces still feel contemporary, even though the album is getting on for 17 years old. The people described in this album still exist, and they’re still spoken about and dismissed in all the same ways. The songs – in all their swaggering and anger, and all their tenderness and calm – capture something real about contemporary life, and the way it feels. That’s what makes this album great – that it focusses on the kind of people who are usually overlooked, and presents them and their lives in glorious, pungent, vibrant songs that celebrate them as they actually are, not as they’re “supposed” to be.

So, there you have it. Suede’s Coming Up is officially my favourite ever album. Although, truth be told, I love all the albums I’ve included in this countdown, and in a different mood I might have placed any one of them top. And this list doesn’t capture the whole of my musical taste, of course. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to write one last post in this series – a few concluding observations, but I’ll also mention some of the near misses, the bands that are nearly great enough to have featured on this list…

(Click here to read other entries in Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown.)

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