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Former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler finds his own niche among his Friends & Lovers

Yes, Bernard Butler was once the guitarist for Brit-pop phenomenon Suede. But he's quick to point out that his quantity of work post-Suede is now larger than his output as a member. For Butler it's an irritating association, like constantly being reminded of who you were in high school. He knows he was fundamental in founding the band at the beginning of last decade, it's just that he'd rather concentrate on the present. Especially since coming into his own with his new solo effort, Friends & Lovers, a giant, rocking step away from Suede's mix of Bowie-glam and the gauzy, androgynous pop of the Smiths.

So Butler is ambivalent at best when talking about Suede, mainly because whatever he says, or doesn't say, can be too easily misconstrued.

"You kind of get into this dilemma of either, if you say you don't want to talk about it, then someone will write, 'Oh, he's got a problem with it,' and if you do want to talk about it, sometimes it gets out of hand or too involving and they say, 'All he wants to do is talk about it.' It's a no-win situation, so it does make it difficult for me," he says. "But in theory, it doesn't bother me at all. I can speak very positively about it; it's more a problem for other people."

Wild one: Bernard Butler gets happy with his third solo album.
Tom Sheehan
Wild one: Bernard Butler gets happy with his third solo album.

Butler's positive outlook permeates his new record. In dealing with simplicities and grandeur of love and life, Friends & Lovers traffics in pop flights of fancy. The classic-rock-style mini-epics are generally upbeat, but the album runs the gamut of emotions via Butler's delicate voice and lush guitar phrasing. From the Up With People sentiments of "Smile" to the dark romanticism of "No Easy Way Out," every tune at least hints that everything's going to be all right. "Some days I might be feeling happy and I'll write something very deep and melancholy," he says. "I never really think to myself, 'Am I going to write something happy here, or sad?' I think you can work through all of these emotions within a song."

But the main emotion captured on Friends & Lovers is happiness. From the up-tempo power chords, organ and handclaps of "I'd Do It Again If I Could," to the bouncing beat and guitar textures of "What Happened to Me," it's a powerful record of hope. And why not -- he's proven himself a capable singer and songwriter, not just a hotshot guitarist. According to Butler, "I always viewed myself as a songwriter anyway. Even when I wasn't writing words [in Suede], I viewed that as writing songs. Whether you're using words or emotions, that's the same thing to me."

Though relatively unknown in America, Suede and Butler were and are huge in Britain. It's a level of celebrity that has put them under the microscope of the British press. As is their custom, the music papers built up the band and then took delight in tearing it down when Butler left the group in 1994.

Butler branched out -- working as a session guitarist, joining the Verve for a week, working as a duo with David McAlmont, and recording his solo debut, People Move On, in 1998. That year Butler performed a handful of well-received acoustic dates in America. On the last night of the tour, in Los Angeles, Butler became flustered by an overenthusiastic fan who had been disrupting the show all night. Understandably, Butler responded and the British tabloids played up the incident as a tantrum thrown by a self-important star. To hear Butler explain what happened is to understand how frustrating it can be to be at the eye of an ink-storm.

"It just happened that it seemed half the world was there -- or half the people who could write about me were there. It was really unfortunate. It was a shame because they spoiled my American tour in a small way by telling a lie, really. There was a guy who was really drunk and he was sitting in the front row. From the minute I walked onstage, he was screaming at me. It was so quiet that all you could hear was this guy. I mean, nice things, that's what was weird about it -- it wasn't heckling. He was screaming, 'You're a genius. You're wonderful.' Everyone was telling him shut up and stuff, and I started doing it. Then I got into this ridiculous conversation with him onstage and eventually they removed him; the bouncers came and lifted him out. Unfortunately, by the time it got home to England, everyone was writing about it as though just because I got one heckler I got all upset. It was just a bit of a difficult night and he kind of ruined the atmosphere, this guy."

Atmosphere has a lot to do with the enjoyment of Butler's music. By no means perfect, Friends & Lovers is nonetheless a buoyant ride with its grand pop ambitions out in the open, begging listeners to escape into the music. It's more about feeling and emotion than articulation, which adds to the isolating aspects of the music. The mellow, dreamy "Cocoon" even notes, "We've gotta learn to communicate/Get real, I will always be this way." And the upbeat "Let's Go Away" is all about protecting and nurturing a love by running from the outside world.

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