Brett Anderson has been fairly prolific since he disbanded Suede. He is currently on a self-imposed "album a year schedule." Freed from the commitment of a band and just being content to make music however it strikes his fancy, how and with whom being up to the moment, it appears he can come and go in the studio as he pleases and not contend with any democratic process. His initial reasoning for dumping Suede was that he had lost his passion for writing and was going to go out and "get his demon back." This was a rather Anderson-like announcement, the kind of "psycho for sex and glue" provocation that had made his band a tabloid darling and then quickly became the albatross by which those tabloids hung them.
Ironic, then, that this demon, as revealed on his third solo effort Slow Attack, is such a placid fellow. The songwriter has been quite forthcoming in identifying what is a fairly obvious trajectory in terms of creative development over the last three discs. The self-titled debut was his groundwork, a comfortable if underwhelming pop-rock starter kit; last year's Wilderness saw him struggling to shed the conventional and find something more classical. Pastoral. Yet, the final disc was tepid, never quite gelling. It almost seemed like a stopgap, what with two of its nine songs being retreads of material that was already out. (One of those, "Clowns," stands taller as a B-side from "Love Is Dead." In a rather Morrissey-like turn, the stuff Brett ditched from his first album was better than most of what was on the record proper.)
Whatever Anderson was fumbling for on Wilderness he has now gathered together on Slow Attack. Recorded with Leo Abrahams and a collection of classical performers--cello, bassoon, French horn, clarinet, oboe, and various flutes are listed in the credits--Slow Attack has a lush, classical atmosphere. Its sound is warm and natural, more like landscape than portraiture. Though the record is dedicated to Anderson's wife, I actually hear his father in this more than anything. The famous anecdotes of Mr. Anderson Sr. involve the old cab driver alternating his son's band on the tape deck with his beloved classical music. It also shows the influence of Abrahams, a musician I was unfamiliar with but whose resume speaks volumes--Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, Marianne Faithfull alongside dance acts like Pleasure and Ministry of Sound and popstars like Annie Lennox and Ronan Keating, a mix of Anderson's heroes and popular, commercial music. Not to mention the snippets of Abrahams' own ambient discography that can be found on his site.
The confident ear that Abrahams brings into the production booth is obvious from the opening track, "Hymn." The song starts out with a prelude of sound that is clear and distinct, warmer and more direct than on any of Anderson's previous records, achieving a beautiful dissonance before giving away to the most quiet, considered piano. "Shining through the plate glass," the opening line as much a descriptive as a lyric. By the time Anderson sings the pseudo-chorus, ""The climbing sun, the fading dawn, like a hymn to love," music and voice are in perfect unison. The aural sunrise comes full glow. I can't put my finger on what this reminds me of, some soundtrack song or other, another invocation of daybreak. It's lovely.
Brett Anderson's voice has matured beyond the nasally whine that defined his early sound. It's become a vibrant, honeyed instrument. Listen to the "oh ohhhhs" on the first single, "The Hunted," and tell me those aren't the most gorgeous tones he's ever committed to tape. He has noted that his goal with Slow Attack was to create an album that could have been an instrumental record, where his lyrical approach was not as direct or as obvious. He has dropped all of his tell-tale language, the glammed-up and drugged-out phraseology that was starting to veer toward self-parody in the late Suede days, and that he even struggled to find a way around in the Tears project. Tellingly, the mixing on Slow Attack gives nearly equal weight to music and voice. The commercial technique normally pushes the singing all the way up in the mix, putting the frontman literally out in front. On a track like "Pretty Widows," Anderson is practically trading off with the piano, engaging in a back and forth where at times one rises and the other steps aside to let it happen, but as the song increases in volume and pace, the pieces fuse.
As narratives, the Slow Attack songs continue the themes that were emerging on Wilderness: love and nature. Like I mentioned, these songs are more landscapes than portraiture. Gone are the lists of crazies and beautiful ones, the city streets all but abandoned for solitary creatures more in tune with a world that existed before man. Anderson has dropped his cleverness and his obfuscation, looking to create open abstracts with more plain language (something he has been trying to do since that last Suede album, A New Morning). "The Swans" is merely a description of what Anderson sees at a lake, set to a loping arrangement that sounds like it could have been lifted from a timelapse sequence in Koyaanisqatsi. While the predator in "The Hunter" could be one of Anderson's characters from days gone by (on, say, the Suede B-side "Killer"), the presentation completely changes the point of view. Old Anderson would celebrate this dangerous woman with desire and scorn, making her into something lurid; the new Anderson celebrates with admiration, longing for the more permanent capture she offers. Love and mortality are no longer transient poses, Slow Attack embraces the forever. In a song like "Ashes of Us," things fall apart only so the pieces can come together again--the true life cycle is death and decomposition giving way to enriching what comes next. The details are both natural and artificial, the plight of modern man. "Falling like feathers, drifting like petals, pieces of paper, the ashes of us; break like bone china, faces in mirrors, piece us together, the ashes of us." This is likely intentional, for as much as this record has warm images of life, songs like "Frozen Roads" or the iTunes bonus "Forest Lullaby" evoke the changing cycles of the seasons and the day to day, of things falling and passing.
If there is any criticism to be leveled here, it's that Anderson is too successful at his goals. In seeking to be less obvious, he has also become less accessible. In pulling back on his persona and folding himself into the music, there is less that stands out and thus less to gravitate to. The appeal of his previous style of writing was its instant effect. Like the drugs he often referenced, the contact instantly made you high. On Slow Attack, Brett requires you to work your way into the songs. He has gotten so specific in his detail--look at the second verse of "Scarecrows and Lilacs," for instance--that listeners have to sift through it to find what makes sense again. The old Suede nonsense poetry was so bereft of meaning, it was universal, it could be anything. Here, it's just as easy to ignore what is being sung, let the voice be just another member of the orchestra. Again, what he wanted, too successful.
At the same time, Slow Attack is like a Resnais film, peopled with distant figures that are beautiful and alluring, and despite the chill, we want to understand what they are on about, where they are going, what they plan to do. "Julian's Eyes" is like following X in Last Year at Marienbad, getting the sensation directly from his mysterious brain.
Slow Attack is not a perfect album, and it may not be the masterpiece that Brett Anderson is working toward. Then again, it may. It could be one of those records that makes more sense over time, when you've listened to it so many times, you've absorbed every nook and cranny and have found all the hidden elements. It's got that lush orchestration that never stops being inviting, something akin to the Style Council's Confessions of a Pop Group
or Elvis Costello's North. I've only had about a week of listening to it, and look at how much I've got out of the disc already; imagine what I might find in a year or two.
Current Soundtrack: Slow Attack
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All text (c) 2009 Jamie S. Rich