The “difficult sophomore album” is a well-worn trope in popular music. It’s the rite of passage that proves that an artist’s early success was no accident. It’s proverbially difficult because it has to sound like the first album, yet different; it has to written in a shorter amount of time, yet be more expansive.
Most bands only have to go through this ordeal once. Britpop stalwarts Suede, however, have had to do it a second time.
Some context is in order. Suede reformed in 2010 after a seven-year hiatus, leading a wave of 90s revivalism. Among their also-reuniting contemporaries (Blur, Pulp etc), they were the first to attempt recording new material. But they were determined to make it more than a quick cash-in on their legacy, agonising over how to deliver something fresh, yet familiar. And they did it. Born of creative purpose, 2013’s Bloodsports was hailed as a return to form, creeping into the UK top ten.
With their comeback out of the way, Suede continue the project of renewing their relevance. Their ambitions are bigger this round: Night Thoughts is a sprawling concept album on middle-age paranoia, what-ifs, and communication breakdowns. Rather than shoehorning its messages into individual radio-pop nuggets, Night Thoughts is a seamless listening experience, replete with lush strings, interludes, reprises, and songs with extended codas. Brittle, ornate, glacial ballads (“Pale Snow”, “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants”) sit alongside more conventional stompers (“No Tomorrow”, “Like Kids”), strung together by Brett Anderson’s poetry of desperation. He amps the melodrama on several tracks, unleashing a rare falsetto not heard since the band’s early years. “I Don’t Know How to Reach You”, the album’s majestic six-minute centrepiece, features some truly sublime guitar work by Richard Oakes.
On the whole, it’s less immediate and accessible than Bloodsports, and depending on your mood it may seem overwrought at some points. But it is ultimately a very assured follow up. It’s clear that Suede are settling into their older selves and finding their latter-day voice.
With the rash of comebacks and reunions these days, the “post-reunion sophomore album” may soon become a norm. It’s not an easy feat, and is possibly harder the second time because of the weight of expectations, and the simple fact that rock is harsh vocation for senior practitioners. Suede, however, may have found a way to cut through that fog.