NIGHT THOUGHTS, Suede's seventh studio album, is a dark, ambitious, exploration of the fear and frailty of human relationships. The band will play the album in full as part of their performance at the Galway International Arts Festival, forming the musical backdrop — literally — to a feature film created by Roger Sargent to accompany the album.
The film will form the centrepiece of the performance, with the band playing behind a screen (though they will emerge for the second part of the concert to play a selection of hits ). Mat Osman, bass player with Suede since the band first formed in 1989, told us about how the album, the accompanying film, and this singular performance came about.
"It’s an album that’s meant to be listened to in one go, which perhaps in 2016 is quite an unusual idea," Osman said of Night Thoughts. "After we made Bloodsports, which was a comeback record, we wanted to stretch ourselves a little bit, like The Hounds Of Love or Low, that have that soundscape that you lose yourself in. We started shuffling the tracks and making pieces of music that ran into each other. We had 45 minutes before Brett [Anderson] had written anything."
Anderson's lyrics bring us on a journey of emotional upheaval, from the pain of difficult relationships in songs like 'What I'm Trying to Tell You' and 'I Can't Give Her What She Wants' to the explorations of regret and despair in 'No Tomorrow' and 'Learning To Be' ("Every word/That I’ve ever said/Is empty as air/Like gossamer thread" ).
But it is the musical arc that threads the album into a cohesive whole, with interludes that bleed from one song into the next. This is not an album to be consumed piecemeal.
"When we came back to making records, we started talking to record companies, and they said it’s not really about albums any more, it’s about YouTube clips and having seven tracks that you release early," Osman recalled. "I think, naturally, we’re fairly contrary about these things. We thought, what’s the least zeitgeisty thing we can do? And we said, let’s make a 45 minute record that you have to listen to in one go. We finished it, and we were realy proud of it, and thought, we’ll have to make videos, and now we’ll have to chop it up for public consumption. We were sitting around and thinking, how do you do that, and we decided to make a 45 minute film. It’s in pushing back against conceived opinion that these things happen."
And so the band called on Roger Sargent, the renowned photographer who had already created film projects for The Libertines, among others, to bring the album to life on screen. Opening with a man drowning at a deserted beach, Sargent's work explores the events that brought this character to his tragic end.
"It’s pretty dark," Osman conceded. "We’ve known him for years and years, and when we were looking around for directors we spoke to him, and we said the record's about family, and loss, and death, and decay, and he was going through a lot of the issues that the record brings up. He had a young family, he had just lost his mother, and he kind of dived into it. A day later he had a 20 page script with a beginning and an end. It was a real passion project for him. We didn’t want someone who was just going to make a video. He took the themes in Brett’s lyrics and took them further. It’s darker than the record, but it’s a beautiful thing.
"The nice thing of having someone else do something for you is, you don’t have to be modest about it," he added. "It’s a beautiful thing. There’s an evocation of run-down working class life that you don’t really see on TV and films very much. We've shown it in Paris and Berlin and people say it’s really exotic, it’s really beautiful. Some of the reaction is amazing, it must be so hard to do a 45 minute film that packs a lot of emotion in it and never really be able to say what’s going on. It’s one of these things we just came to by accident, and I’m really proud of it. It feels like you’re almost looking in on real life."
It's hard not to compare Night Thoughts to 1994's Dog Man Star, not least because the former represents the second-album stage of their comeback. While Dog Man Star was a monument to youthful debauchery, Night Thoughts is a decidedly more mature look at what Anderson has previously described as "the murky corners of life".
Night Thoughts is a more restrained album musically, and while Anderson's lyrics still explore the fringes of life, much of it is inspired by his role as a father. Basically, Suede have grown up in the intervening years.
"One of the things that was important to us as a band is that we sang about real life — the people around us and the beauty and the ugliness and the light and shade of those things," Osman said. "If you are 45 and you're still living that life, something’s gone horribly wrong. I was talking to Brett and he said he wanted to make a record about family, and it sounded awful, but he just has a knack of bringing the reality out of situations, the paranoia and the way people have a habit of turning into their parents. It’s not a joyful celebration of fatherhood, it’s just the fear and the emotion of it all."
After Suede split in 2003, Osman worked in film and TV, most notably producing music for programmes 8 Out of 10 Cats and Charlie Brooker's You Have Been Watching. He is also editor of the email magazine le cool London.
Since reforming in 2010, Suede have taken on board the difficult lessons learned in previous years, which saw the band slowly break apart after the commercial flop and lukewarm reception of A New Morning. This time, they're not compromising.
"When Suede split up I thought the music industry was a money grabbing, shallow, venal industry, and after six or seven years of doing other things — it’s all industries," Osman said. "That was quite a useful lesson. Since we came back, we kind of do everything ourselves now. We recorded and made the film, and went to a couple of record companies and said, this is what we’ve got, it's finished, and you don’t get to do anything to it. No one else is going to care about this stuff as much as we are. That was a lesson we learned after 20 years of making terrible mistakes. It's even less of a compromise now."