Give Me Head

By dean

Oh boy. You know what I really can't stand? What really gets on my nerves? What makes me want to tear out my larynx with a tongue depressor and jump into an ocean of sore throat lozenges and come up with really bad analogies? When a couple of albums come out that are so excellent, so refreshing, so emblematic of what can be good, gorgeous and -- dammit -- right in this world of music, that it makes virtually anything else out there (anything) seem like a punctured elephant testicle on a stick. It sorta blows. Until you look into it. So this world is full of disappointment? Fear? Outright evil? So everything can be a total fucking misery? So what. ULTRASOUND and SUEDE both just put out an album.

Wait. Come back. Don't let the hyperbole scare you. Yes, the ULTRASOUND debut is large and in charge (see "Reviews"), yes, deciding to talk about an album in a column is A Bit Scary And Incestuous, but stroll along with me here nevertheless. Sometimes new music hits you right in the ticker that all you can feel like doing is talking about every waking moment. And if the latest SUEDE offering is such a confusing little creature, and if it clicks and whirrs begging for juicier investigation to prove this, it'll be alright. Really. Just come with me and you'll see what I mean. Take a deep breath, take in that easy country air, and start off on an easy stride...because confusing little mechanical babies like this don't crawl across our path very often.

It was nearly a still-birth too. Brett Anderson rallies the droogs once more -- knowing full well that another upcoming exhilarating explosion (no matter how superb) would definitely instill mutiny -- and almost lost the plot and their potency for the first time in their career. Head Music nearly killed the band. Or at least, everything that used to be great about them. Where's the spine-brushing sexuality? Where are the insular epics? Where's the energy? It seemed that almost all was lost in Brett's world. It's fine for a band not to repeat themselves...but what if they completely play against all their strengths? Because, sadly, there's only so many ways they can go in startling new directions while still seeming to cover the same ground before the once-proud-supporters will consort with each other and plan to crack Brett et al with a huge, hard bottle of milk labeled: "Self Parody."

As much as any die-hard SUEDE fan would despise in admitting, the early steps in Head Music exude this impression. "Electricity" was the first single taster and is the album's lead in. It was not the best move the band has done. It certainly has a certain chunky-clomp of guitars and enjoyable zig-zagging lyrics. But by the time the song ends, something just feels a tad anti-climatic. All this wait for months, all this anticipation for theorized new directions, all for...a flaccid "Trash" knock-off? It may ring fine with repeated listens, but it seems its chorus needs a few thousand more volts to become a true SUEDE staple ("This chorus is deceased. De-MIZE-ed. Run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible..."). Hrumph. It (sadly) turns out to be a big dull first impression for what SUEDE are up to -- and easily the worst single the band has ever released. And it also kicks the rear of just about any other band's singles put out this year.

Gotcha. It's true, though. It's not that "Electricity" is a bad song by any means (and watch out, a big cliché is coming) it's just a bit weak for the band's usual talents (you survived). And if one picks out the other "difficult" songs on the album - "Hi Fi," "Indian Strings" - one would be in a bind to defend them against past SUEDE greats. But wait, isn't even this part of the point? It's still too soon to tell if these songs will cause marvel and wonder for any sane person's pair of ears, yet after the feeling of initial disappointment sets in, this seems to be their boon as well as their bane. This batch of songs is more clinical, more vague, more abstract than the usual goodies of the band -- I agree. Yet what's wrong with messing with somebody's head once in awhile? What's wrong with not being "instantly" good? And just because a number of songs off of Head Music sound like nothing the band has ever done before, we shouldn't mourn. These "difficult" songs are mainly problematic due to outstripping SUEDE's usual maneuvers, not due to inferior songwriting. I think.

It's hard to tell sometimes. "Savoir Faire," for example, is stupid. Just plain stupid. Inane lyrics, plinkety-plonky rhythms, argh argh. How could a band possibly be proud of a period in their career when they're writing a song with words like, "And she got everything she needs / and she got pretty, pretty feet"? I have no idea. And you know what? That's the fucking point. Take a minute to gauge what the song's subject matter is about. Take a breather to figure out what the band is trying to do. If a song is about an extremely dim-witted, frustrating, ice-pick of a woman, what better way to get something through her head than to write something down to her level? Whew. Nice one. Hmmmmm. However, if such a significant portion of this album is riddled with doubt, where are the moments to cause smiles of gratification and awe? Where's the SUEDE capable of "To The Birds", "Another No One", or "Still Life"? Still here. Thank the Lord above -- still here. The new album might have respectful, mechanical struts that excite the head, but there are still moments of pure, doubtless greatness that it leaves you with eyes as wide as an imprisoned Alex.

"Everything Will Flow" for one. As I'm sure every sane SUEDE fan has remarked before now, it is already a classic in the band's history. It starts with awkward strings but then lifts into a song of such emotional ingenuity that it unexpectedly turns into a breeze-laden, romantic force to be reckoned with. No doubt about the band's intentions this time. Utterly soaring and gorgeous and superb and grand. "He's Gone" even takes its similar sweeping imagery and cascading melodies and lets it stay locked in a room for 3 weeks straight in a straight-jacket. As insulated and claustrophobic as a ballad gets, but still just as strangely stirring. Less confusion, more elegance.

And how's this for strange? Even though it sits itself third on the album, Head Music doesn't even feel like it truly begins until the blistering "Can't Get Enough" torches the place. Really fantastic. Probably about as loud and present as anything off of Coming Up, but with a regained sense of brutality and menace. It's so damned good that you can even forgive it for nicking it's backing vocals (again) from the band's "She." And if that's still not enough (yikes), the album takes off into another electronic-fueled piece of splendor. After all, admit it: "She's In Fashion" will be the lightest, most uplifting single in the next 12 months. Oh yes. Put it on well-placed loops and never feel an ill emotion ever again.

Until "Asbestos" creeps in, at least. Another very odd moment on the album. Slinky and slithery. Like a snake that just got out of SlitherFest '99 only to find he stepped in a puddle of Slinky. Just when you think you can get a handle on the album, it sneaks up on you. Again and again. "Asbestos" is only another such turn. Right after this slippery creature, a song like "Head Music" stirs it up again. With a deliriously nasty chorus reminiscent of those JAMES shirts clamoring, "Get Laid," the band not only coin a phrase worthy of life-long chanting, but also release a song so uproariously grand that anybody who doesn't see the nasty greatness of the song shall be systemically wedgied.

And then it gets weirder. Honest. Right off the heels of such manic-depressive maneuvers, the bug-off, weird-ass, stomp-monster of "Elephant Man" growls into view. Completely written by second-or-first-mate-you-decide Neil Codling, and a lot like b-side "Implement Yeah!," this leery FALL piss-take is both the most un-SUEDE-like song ever written and one of their most thrilling. Looking for an album capper to put all into perspective? Good luck. The concluding, solo acoustic number (how many of us would've seen this coming back in the Bernard Butler days?), "Crack In The Union Jack" goes many lengths in proving songwriting class, but is so obtuse that it fails to solidify the album to a comfortable degree. It still works for the song, though. Like "Elephant Man," it's nothing like the band has ever done, but unlike that hooligan, it's quite a reflective and unnerving moment. Echoes and fading vocals. Strummed guitar and wisps of peril. Yes, the most disturbing production on the album. Less flag-burning political (than the interviews and press has let on) and more...apocalyptic. This is very, very good stuff.

Dang. But still -- still -- don't forget: the band even topple all of this with "Down." A beat as crystalline as imaginable, muted swirls of decadence and despair, wow. The less specifics about the song the better. How many near-perfect, beautiful-beautiful-beautiful ballads CAN ONE BAND WRITE? This is what reflection is about, this is sadness, this is loneliness. This is how it feels when your world means nothing at all. This is music.

It's also -- for good or ill -- music that's not for casual fans. Head Music is an album blissed out in white, occasionally wearing cartoonish masks, but still a precise, extremely sinister villain. It's not for the "Drowners"-obsessed casualties, and certainly not for the doubting Thoms of the's too cold and digital and -- well -- a bit odd. No plaintive whining or future-phobic revelations this time. Just incredible hooks, muck-with-you fiddlings, and breath-taking melodies. It's not dog man star episode two, it's just plain...consistently inconsistent. Fact: Head Music stands on that triangular point between "Ingenuity" and "Actual Songs" that few other bands have ever slithered to before (Psychology Supplement Alpha-4: Any person in love with phrases even remotely close to, "Nice sound-scape, right?" or "13, man...genius" shall be routinely analyzed for severe neural chemical imbalance).

There's only one other problem...and never you mind that it hasn't been brought up since the's hard to listen to anything else but the album right now. Along with ULTRASOUND's monstrous Everything Picture, this release is so good, so gorgeous, and still so must-be-played-again-so-I-can-get-it confusing, that any band that doesn't have a really fat lead singer or start with "Sue" and ends with "de" seems to only get in the way.

Why must such phenomenal music make just about everything else feel so limp? Why does something so good, actually have a "negative" side effect? It's not very comforting to realize that excellence can...ruin everyday music. I'm not sure that feeling the need to play only one or two albums whenever in the mood for music -- instead of, say, 50 -- is a healthy one. It's like the curve for personal taste gets shifted every once in awhile, and less and less musicians can reach a passing grade. Stupid fucking nerds. Did they have to do so much good to make it harder for the rest of us? At least my CD player now likes that I'm no longer constantly opening and closing its mouth to change its guts. But that's just lame. It's still so strange and fantastic and terrifying and phenomenal that one can fear good music. It doesn't make sense. Dammit, what does all this mean?

I don't know the answer this time. Don't have a clue. And I apologize. It's just still too confusing. Still too unsettling. And still too much work when I could be smiling and listening to lyrics like, "And she's got pretty, pretty feet."

Which probably says it all.