18 October 2011

Brett Anderson: "Black Rainbows"

Many years ago I fell in love with (The London) Suede; while most of the people around me were obsessed with grunge, I was devouring every bit of Britpop (and shoegaze) I could get a hold of. And during those formative years, when I first heard “The Drowners,” I might not have known it then, but I fell in love with Suede for all the right reasons. Musically, with or without Bernard Butler, they have always been tight, writing classics that are now become influential tracks to a new generation of musicians. Lyrically, Suede was witty and introspective with a definite style. Couple that with one other thing: Suede had amazing vocals. Let me say this plainly: there aren’t many great male vocalists out there anymore. Sure, many can (simply) carry a tune, but that is by far not singing; Brett Anderson, though, is truly a vocalist. Anderson proves this once again on his fourth solo album, “Black Rainbows” (26 September 2011 in the UK; 4 October 2011 in the USA as an import); full of witty metaphoric lyrics, catchy hooks, and incredible vocals, it left me thinking of something I have stated before and will again: when you want something done right, ask a veteran to do it.

This album comes after the recent Suede reunion, so I am sure there are many that were expecting more “So Young” and “The Beautiful Ones” – and I for one am happy that this is far from the case and could care less for their collective disappointment. “Black Rainbows” does not capitalize on the recent Suede reunion because it was conceived prior to that. Anderson, instead, continues to demonstrate his strength as a solo artist, displaying his continued growth, maturity, and mastery of craftsmanship. And this growth and maturity is most apparent in his voice. This is not a fledging artist with a good voice struggling to control it while showing off. Anderson is a mature artist who knows the power of his voice, his complete range, and ability to emote conviction and emotion, yet all the time pushing his limits. Anderson has never sounded better. Furthermore, lyrically “Black Rainbows” – a beautiful oxymoron – is full of metaphoric stabs and the introspection we have come to expect. Right from the top, Anderson sings in "Unsung," “Plans, all those intricate plans, left like gloves on the railings slipping through your hands. Clouds, those impossible clouds, are gathering now. Soar like a love song that stutters, life-long unsung.” Always finding witty ways to state the obvious, he breathes a sorrowfully, soulful resignation to perfection in this track.

I can’t imagine composing an album entitled “Black Rainbow” and not write a collection of songs that are purposely anticlimactic. There is plenty of energy to go all around the album; what I am alluding to is the fact that with maturity comes the presence of mind of not always being anthemic. These tracks are not meant to uplift you, but rather make you ponder on your own experiences and bring back those emotions – much more powerful than any ole anthem could ever hope to be. Even with the lead single, “Brittle Heart,” there is a conscious feel that the song is lulling you into pensiveness, while caressing old emotions to the forefront. In “Brittle Heart,” Anderson shifts from the resignation of the opening track to matter-of-fact tongue-in-cheek (like no other can do it) as he sings, “Give me your brittle heart and your ashtray eyes, I’ll give you carpet burns and a slanted life.” Though comical, the delivery makes the reality of this so often seen scenario more poignant. What I love about this song musically is that there is no attempt to create a thick wall of sound; though there are touches of details, the song is essentially bare allowing the rhythm of the music to subsist as the background to the vocals.

My favorite track on the album is “Actors,” the post-punk faire of the album, which demonstrates Anderson’s own indebtedness to early 80s British rock. The constant collocation between the bass and vocals is very interesting, because they don’t mirror each other at all. While the latter is aggressive, his vocals are as stoical as I have heard Anderson sing. “In the House of Numbers,” the following track, continues to infuse some that post-punk in a more ethereal way, while demonstrating Anderson’s pop sensibility and flirting with glam. The song’s arrangements can easily be divided in two: the bass, drums, and guitars generating a sense of physical urgency (as all good pop music does), while the keys and vocals generate the warmth needed to hook a listener.

The “biggest” moment on the album comes in “This Must Be Where It Ends.” Employing the timeless clichés of not being able to stops the rain or tide, Anderson pines away over a “Mistress.” This is the one song, though, where the music is directly responsible for the visceral reaction in the listener, and not Anderson’s voice. The song has a sonic background that just generates emotional undertow, while “shoegazy” guitars rip into the tranquility. The most interesting moment on the album is the shortest and penultimate track on the album, “Thin Men Dancing.” In the hands of a less experienced musician this song could easily become a dissonant experience. Definitely in the sensual glam rock tradition, this song is the evidence that Anderson has moved away from his Suede’s day as a songwriter. This is not the glam of the 90s Suede; “Thin Men Dancing” is provocative not in its seediness, but rather in its murkiness – a new twist in his glam repertoire. This track slips right into the closing track, “Possession.” A dark ballad, which brings out Anderson’s emotive qualities as a vocalist, the song continues to build from beginning to end, and thins out instantly in the last forty-seconds … an apt musical metaphor for the album - a continue buildup that leads to the tranquility of emotion purging.

The most unfortunate thing anyone can say about Brett Anderson is that the specter of Suede continuously haunts his solo work. Bluntly: if Anderson wanted to write another Suede album, he would do so with Suede, not as a solo artist. Therefore, to place those expectations on his solo work is misplaced. Artists often embark on a solo career to expand their artistry and repertoire in ways they could not with their bands, and this is what Brett Anderson has been doing for the past five years. From his best vocals to date to his mature subtleties, “Black Rainbows” is both musically and emotionally dynamic, putting all the feigned indie anxiousness out there to shame.

Track Listing:
1. Unsung
2. Brittle Heart
3. Crash About to Happen
4. I Count the Times
5. The Exiles
6. This Must Be Where It Ends
7. Actors
8. In the House of Numbers
9. Thin Men Dancing
10. Possession

Keep up with Brett Anderson at his homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Here is Anderson’s video for “Brittle Heart” and a live rendition of “Unsung” at the Sonorama Festival in España from his YouTube Channel: BrettAndersonVideo.

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