The Great Britpop Play-Off of '02

Suede, A New Morning; Supergrass, Life On Other Planets

Back at the height of Britpop, the British press whipped itself into a frenzy about which new album released on the same day would debut the highest, What's the Story, Morning Glory? by Oasis or The Great Escape by Blur. Trivial though that moment in history seems now, it's an interesting one in hindsight: Oasis won that particular battle, their best album trumping the weakest of Blur's 'English' trilogy through force of emotion and music, if not by logic of lyrics. But Blur went on to win the war—not because Noel and Liam Gallagher make the Three Stooges look overstaffed (two stooges clearly being sufficient), but because none of their later albums have matched their first two.

Two weeks ago, another simultaneous release by Britpop giants went more or less unremarked. Nobody cares much any more, and, it seems, nobody expects a new album by Suede or Supergrass to be anything like as important as those they and their peers released in the mid-'90s. It's a shame, but, on at least some of the evidence presented here, not unjustified.

Critical darlings Suede performed one of the most breath-taking of great escapes themselves in the mid-'90s, when they followed the departure of guitarist and linchpin Bernard Butler with, not self-destruction, but a career high in the form of Coming Up—still one of my favourite albums of the decade. While the subsequent Head Music was something of a retread, there was every hope that Suede could overcome producer troubles and re-invent themselves once again.

Nope. A New Morning is Head Music Lite, an over-orchestrated, over-sweet confection that loses almost all of the urgency and power of their nineties neo-glam. Not until the fifth track, 'Beautiful Loser', do we hear the passionate voice of old, and it's gone again almost immediately. The rest is a mix of noodling piano, tinkly strings, and slow ballads. 'You Belong To Me' isn't bad, but when the bonus track sounds more like what you'd hoped for than the album proper, you know you're in trouble.

It was with some trepidation, then, that I slid Supergrass's Life on Other Planets into the CD tray. Early reviews had been lukewarm, and the now-familiar charge that their new album wasn't up to their first gave me pause; I Should Coco was another classic, and 'Caught By the Fuzz' one of my favourite singles ever. But their later albums didn't lose that pace too much, and the third, Supergrass, was downright excellent. So I remained hopeful.

And this time, those hopes were repaid. Life is full of it (life, that is—not 'full of it' as in... never mind). Cranked up to an appropriate old-lady-next-door-annoying volume, it's a rocking, happy, retro-'70s set, full of memorable hooks, musical jokes and sheer fun, with Elvis impersonations, fake sheep noises, concise songs that start and finish in two or three minutes, and a wig-out Floydian finale. The Britpop boat may have sunk underneath them, but Supergrass are still well and truly afloat.

Happily, then, the Great Britpop Play-Off of '02 wasn't the Great Britpop Write-Off. And even more happily, I got partial credit at the CD store by trading in two older Britpop disks, Menswear's Nuisance and Mansun's second album Six, which is definitely a result in my book—even if A New Morning wasn't quite the result I was after.

First published at Records Ad Nauseam, 18 October 2002.


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