one of perhaps an ongoing series of brief observations on obsolete pop & rock grandeur
Sometimes, the keyboard intro runs for only forty seconds, like the album version. Other times, like on many of the wonderfully named (cf. Drown To a Popular Tune), often erratic quality bootlegs like Rising Camp or Thrilling Us Softly, it can run for two minutes or more, no crescendo, no false starts or false endings, just metronomic chords and reverb, the occasional mournful if not quite funereal bass breaking in; we’re in ballad territory, far from the flamboyant “rent boy chic” of Suede’s eponymous debut four years before.
What does it take to turn you on? Brett Anderson asked on that 1992 album, half truth-or-dare, half ambiguously bewitched and bothered: was he only worried about our perversions and perversities as a means of exposing his own to the rest of the world, or at least shabby old England with a few quid for a cassette? But where tracks like “Animal Nitrate” and “The Drowners” were preoccupied with death, drugs, and fucking—each tortuous, languorous, and obsessive by ways—“By the Sea” begins where previous albums never would: rather than a broken home or a locked car or the suffocating world of the caravanettes, our heroine here can walk out anytime, anytime she wants to walk out, that’s fine…anytime she feels that life has passed her by.
Where exactly she will end up—the chords becoming cobwebs, the vocals mere breaths—is unclear, the words vague: new life; I won’t touch the ground. We’re no more clear when it comes to the male, who can also walk out anytime, across the sand, into the sea, into the brine: a breakup, a move-out, a suicide, somewhere between the barely-legal delusions of the narrator of “The Drowners” (won’t someone give me a gun) and the doomed protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, literally drowning her lack of options in the Gulf of Mexico.
Where “By the Sea” takes off is where hero and heroine walk off together into the sunset, into the terminus, where the end of a life as known may become the end of life, period: So we sold the car and quit the job, shook some hands and wiped the makeup right off,/we said our goodbyes to the bank, left Seven Sisters for a room in a seaside shack, breaking the mind-forged manacles of London in exchange for some tacky offseason beach resort where no one knows your name or number. We can recall as omen Faulkner’s Wild Palms, whose doomed hero haunts the desolate coastal hospital where his lover is dying by his own hand and discover[s] that he really could smell the sea, the black shallow slumbering Sound without surf which the black wind blew over…It was the sea he smelled; there was the taste of the black beach the wind blew over in it, in his lungs, up near the top of his lungs…each fast strong breath growing shallower and shallower as if his heart had at last found a receptacle, a dumping-place, for the black sand it dredged and pumped at. Of course we know the two won’t return, or won’t return intact.
We fade out with more ornate keyboard, more metronome and cobweb and breathy growl—by the sea we’ll breed becoming into the sea we’ll bleed—until the last note drops off and, in concert versions, Anderson bows and waves mechanically, wiping away the nightmare ending like his own makeup, or hers. (Faulkner again: a tremendous silence…roared down upon him like a wave, a sea.) It’s pornographic and tragic in black and white, as Suede sang on a different track on a different album two years before “By the Sea,” or maybe for once it’s just tragic, but like the sea, Suede’s tragedy is ours too.
Photo courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suede,_royal_albert_hall_2010.jpg.
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