In 1994, I met the love of my life. She says she knew it right away. It took me a bit longer, but I’ve always been a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to stuff like that.
She was this quiet girl dressed in black with her hair in her face in poetry class. She had more style than the rest of us put together, and certainly more experience writing and reading poetry than I had, but she seemed shy and unassuming. I don’t remember many of the conversations we had up until the time, maybe a month at most after class started, when she showed up at Drama House.
I’d been made a House Officer my junior year (I hate responsibility, but I like when things are done right, which is the only reason I can think of why people keep putting me in charge) and we had a couple of vacancies open up. This girl was one of a small number who showed up to be interviewed. It seemed to us she’d fit in just fine; the question was whether she could survive us lunatics. We decided the answer was “yes” and brought her on board. I got to know her a bit better. I found out how cute she was without her hair in her face, and how much fun she was when she warmed to you and let her real personality out. Passionate, funny, literate, and also spontaneous, as I discovered one evening when her roommate was out and she grabbed me by the necklace I was wearing, pulled me in, and kissed me.
The story took a few more twists and turns before it really got started. There were all sorts of reasons we didn’t jump into a full-fledged relationship right away. I’d just ended a long-distance relationship and was determined not to jump into another one until I worked through the mistakes I’d made. She had some history from her home town to work through as well, some of which was still going on. On top of that I was technically her RA, a situation that led to a conflict of interest to say the least. But none of that could really stop us from growing closer and closer over the next 18 months or so, and even when we were putting the “drama” in Drama House, the chemistry between us was unstoppable, the gravity inescapable. Eventually it got through even my thick skull that we belonged together, and the details we’d have to work out were just details. But that’s a story for tomorrow.
You might have already guessed that one of the things we had in common, apart from a predilection for wearing a lot of black, was music. There were a lot of the usual suspects: The Cure, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Smashing Pumpkins…but two in particular stood out. First and perhaps foremost, there were the Smiths, who are not exactly obscure but who tend to produce a feeling of instant camaraderie between the people who love them. She adored Morrissey at a time when I wasn’t paying much attention to him, and was eventually the reason I gave some of the albums I’d been ignoring a second listen (chiefly Vauxhall and I and Southpaw Grammar) and wondered how I could have overlooked them at all. But somehow it was realizing that we both had Suede in our collections that initially sold us on each other.
At the time, Suede seemed like the natural heir to the throne of the Smiths, which had long been vacant. Flamboyant, androgynous lead singer, check; shy virtuoso guitarist, check; solid rhythm section, check; witty observational lyrics about modern Britain, check; fucking great A-sides and even better B-sides, check and check. They were looking back to 70s glam rather than 60s pop and soul, and most crucially they were their own bands — you could draw the comparisons, but there was zero sense that one was copying the other. They just happened to have the same winning ingredients, and boy did they win us both over.
Dog Man Star is probably my third favorite Suede album, maybe a fraction of a point below their nearly perfect self-titled debut, and a point or two below their incredible B-sides collection Sci-Fi Lullabies. Like the Smiths, Suede intentionally or unintentionally saved lots of their best material to be used as B-sides (sigh, okay, kids, it used to be that you could flip a single over and hear a bonus song on the other side…never mind, just Google it), and as a result Sci-Fi Lullabies is just an embarrassment of riches. But this ranking still makes Dog Man Star one of the best albums ever recorded.
It’s almost a concept album, the main concept being the confluence of drugs, stardom, sex, and class — so basically Suede’s usual concerns, but elevated more than before or since to the very highest level of glamour and myth. The stardom is of the fading Hollywood kind, the almost-lost-to-nostalgia trajectories of the likes of Marilyn Monroe (one of two referents of “Heroine”) and James Dean (the subject of “Daddy’s Speeding”). The class concerns are apocalyptic and revolutionary (“We Are the Pigs,” “Power”), except when they’re just about finding love amid hopelessness (“The Wild Ones,” “The 2 of Us”).
The record is mostly ballads and smoldering guitar solos; there’s a hysteria even to the brisker tracks that makes it less than suitable for throwing on to sing along to while you’re doing the laundry. But they’re some of the very finest ballads you’ll ever hear, and even the 9-plus minute “The Asphalt World” earns every minute of that time.
It is, if you’re the type of person who finds romance is better when it blooms in the dark, an absolutely fantastic record to fall in love to. I am. I think it’s safe to say we are. And I know it’s true to say we did.
Morrissey, Vauxhall and I
I borrowed this from a friend in college, listened to it once, decided it was too quiet, and ignored it. I have no idea what I was thinking. There’s a gentleness to some of the melodies, certainly, a gracefulness that was in short supply after my previous favorite Morrissey album, Bona Drag, but the songwriting is top-flight and it’s now one of my favorites of his. I’m a little jaded with his obsession with serial killers, but “Spring-Heeled Jim” isn’t awful, and every other track knocks it out of the park.
I never liked Blur quite as much as I might have, but this album perfectly splits the difference between the spiky stuff I loved on Modern Life is Rubbish and the pop/orchestral stuff on The Great Escape. Plus I have happy memories of listening to this during a too-rare dorm hangout with a group of friends I always wish I’d gotten closer to in college. The highlights for me are “Tracy Jacks,” “Badhead,” “To the End,” and “Clover Over Dover.”
The Auteurs, Now I’m a Cowboy
I didn’t really know about the Auteurs until a few years later when my girlfriend received a mix CD with one of their songs and I decided to poke around and learn a bit more about them. I picked up a used copy of this album and fell in love right away. I still don’t know quite what to make of Luke Haines — when is he serious, when is he joking? — but the music’s great.
- Kristin Hersh, Hips and Makers
- Milla, The Divine Comedy
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Let Love In
- Sophie B. Hawkins, Whaler
- Ani DiFranco, Out of Range
- Liz Phair, Whip-Smart
- R.E.M., Monster
- Dead Can Dance, Toward the Within
- Madonna, Bedtime Stories
- Echobelly, Everyone’s Got One
- Laurie Anderson, Bright Red