Belle and Sebastian - If You’re Feeling Sinister
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Autumn 1997. The Britpop hangover sets in. Two golden summers of headless bliss and retro-viral sickness, and Oasis take their place in history, struck in stone and iron forever for the neanderthals that still love them, as damned kings of the genre. I really didn't know what had come over me. Yet some mysterious chemistry in my mind changed that year. I wanted to find out more. I wanted to go obscure and elitist. I wanted that sweet cache of knowing that something I owned was cool, despite the fact nobody else would know how damn cool I really was. When you're 18, such sweet and insane notions grip you with an insidious but irresistible lure. Maybe I just wanted to be different.
For me Mogwai (more on them another time) changed the outlook. I caught their thunder and light show in its infancy at Reading Music Festival. Sure, to some they may have been making a racket worthy of a cattery being torched, but to me it was beautiful. I NEVER knew a band I hadn’t read a double page feature article about in the NME, or seen interviewed on the pop programmes was actually any good (sadly a precept the vast majority of the record buying public will always labour under). The scan-the-local-HMV/Megastore for new releases modus operandi was gone forever. Now I would scan the small reviews with zeal, I would blind buy (the only way to lead your record purchasing life - the surprises and disappointments can do you only good) in record shops where the cashiers wore Yo La Tengo t-shirts, and I would go to that darned university CD lending library and get some darned obscure title, that I would take home and play and feel proud about in a really smug and twattish way. First time out, I was lucky enough to come across the interview-hating, reclusive septet of Belle & Sebastian.
This was before the JD Salinger ‘Hunt for B & S' stories, the Storytelling soundtrack, the Teachers TV theme song, the Brit award, the cult saturation point. I vaguely recognised them from a Select magazine (R.I.P.) search for the next big thing (errr, Belle et al being the winner). I thought the lady on the cover was called Belle. Yes, I was that naive. Remember this was almost six years ago. Six years (God, I'm getting so fucking old).
Stuart Murdoch's louche prickliness got to me first. This didn't sound good, did it? I immediately thought the lead in track – “Stars of Track and Field” - was dull, yet it has grown on me. I wasn't quite sure what I was hearing, being totally ignorant of the BMX Bandits/Felt school of swish Scottish sad pop. What the fuck was this trumpet and piano shit? But before long I was hooked, caught up in the momentum of the tracks that ran from 2 - 8. The others I would grow to love in time. The record swells slowly upward, taking only a reflective, delicate break for “Fox in the Snow”, before the dual comedown of “The Boy Done Wrong Again” and “Judy and the Dream of Horses”. This is the rhythm I have come to adore about the album. My enthusiasm never faltered for a second.
Wit and charm. A gentle touch. Tripping wordplay. A sour sweetness to die for. All of these showed to me a side of pop music devoid of destructive swagger and ego. I never believed 'twee' ever entered the equation. Instead there was that pull of the adolescent struggling to reconcile idealism with a world populated by ignoramuses and fools. But moroseness is never called for. It's doleful but self-deprecating. Stoicism is their shield. For those of us who grew up after folk and pop become the signifiers for flanneled, irrelevant beardies or bling bling boy bands, instilling us with ill-gotten prejudice, it was a clarion call and rallying point for people who liked education and feeling worn on their sleeves, done in like, a rilly rilly nice way.
The sadness is deft and beautiful. The lyrics infused with a pathos and sincerity: "If we all went back to another time/ I will love you over/ I will love you" (“Like Dylan in the Movies”), "Said the hero in the story/"It is mightier than swords/I could kill you sure/But I could only make you cry with these words" (“Get Me Away From Here I'm Dying”). In the end the powerful and subtle wording accumulate and form a great, spilling well of feeling. It makes sense the band never released any singles from the album because they thought it inappropriate to hear one track without listening to the whole. With Belle and Sebastian, sincerity has and always will flow from every pore, stemming from a defiant innocence that is at the heart of their appeal.
Listening to it now, I still cannot resist mouthing the lyrics, then singing along to every single damn word. Maybe it's the pop sensibility that runs through it like a seam of gold that helps with this involuntary oral act. Murdoch is the narrator who takes you aside and issues you with a warning of things to come and reminds you of mistakes already made, whilst riffing on the hoary old chestnuts of struggle between girl and boy, young and ancient, rich and poor, arty student types and townie philistines, beautiful fashionistas and the terminally unhip. The confusion has evaporated to leave a reflective and retrospective précis of emotional turmoil and amusing minutiae. We can all look back now, with a smile and a shrug. The mundane locations - the school, the bus, the church - provide extra colour; the kind that punches home the recognition vital to identifying with the songs' protagonists.
This was clever. That's what I realised, as if someone had flicked on floodlights in my head. They weren't self assured, they were self aware. My grey cells were actually being teased, massaged, and given a strenuous work out. Menswear, Shed Seven - illiterate dunderheads who had polluted the musical sphere with songs so moronic and depthless, they were like spitwads ejected in the intelligent listener's faces - were finally shown up for being the criminals they were. Yet the band speak of it as a missed opportunity; a messy sophomore wankathon about simpering and schoolgirls that they wish they could re-record. After all, it was recorded in a mere ten days. Guitarist and harmonicist Stevie Jackson said of the album: "It was Stuart's baby and whatever it was, for better or worse, is what he wanted - but I think he undersold a lot of the songs". These are probably the best songs they ever wrote, but somehow they believed they screwed it up.
I can see why the years make it look uglier. How the onset of maturity make their early efforts appear rash and error-ridden, but that entirely misses the point. These songs were probably fermenting in Murdoch's mind for years, already being perfected in a process that took far longer to produce tunes as winsome and forgettable as “Legal Man”. And maybe, just maybe, it's a slight on the people they used to be. I understand why a band thinks the future holds far more promise and scope for satisfaction, but just because we grow older doesn't necessarily make us better people or more imaginative musicians. A common malady amongst us all: the progress of time only amplifies our regrets and smothers the good.
The album did its work. Without it, the follow up, The Boy with the Arab Strap, would never have shot straight to number 12 in the UK album charts. But since my ambivalence towards them has gradually overwhelmed me. Somewhere along the line my crazy love for them died a slow, quiet death. Once Murdoch shared out songwriting duties, I never felt the same about them again. It saddens me a little, and I can never blame them for it; it was probably all my own fault. Did too many people 'get' them? Or did people love them too much, crushing the will to stretch their wings? Yet they never had the guitar licks or genius-radiating imagination to become the next Smiths. They were always small time, but in a big way - if you know what I mean. Success has had this destructive effect; it's plain to see. Perhaps their time has passed. And now, in the UK at least, Belle and Sebastian are stuck with the stigma of their most popular song being the four year old The Boy with the Arab Strap, all because it is the theme song for a comedy drama series about a group of immature and sex obsessed teachers. Funny that.
So I choose to remember Belle and Sebastian before their spiralling discography took its toll; when they were still a cherished secret spreading an electric excitement among the blessed few. What If You're Feeling Sinister is though, is a snapshot of a band that never set out to rule the world, but instead provided a security blanket for those of a wistful and romantic disposition. Something that lacks ambition, but riven with the innocence and spontaneity of youth, and blends their inchoate obsessions: music, intelligence, books, social awkwardness, broken hearts, to produce an album that seemed to sound so out of kilter with the surrounding music-scape, that its permanence is assured. What's strange is this album is almost a secret love amongst those who are ready to admit it is a fantastic album. Many admit their fondness at gunpoint. But why feel ashamed? Why say, as some sort of apologetic proviso, this isn't your cup of tea if you're used to Radiohead or Roni Size? What exactly do you open yourself up to if you do? Death by firing squad? Teeth extraction with pliers? Maenad-style tearing apart by Iron Maiden fans? I can see their point. People fear exposing their vulnerability for ridicule's sake, and it does linger in me. I suppose there's this dichotomy in myself that has to balance the maudlin and melancholic with the volume and anger. I acknowledge this. And I acknowledge the fact I love wussy songs about boys feeling sad and bad about the opposite sex. If you don't like that, as Ed Hamell would say: Go fuck yourself. Sinister pulled my music tastes level with the petulant scream of catharsis that fuelled my love of grunge and rock, as well as wipe clean my Britpop besmirched psyche. It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration for me to say, it changed everything. Now when I hear Murdoch sing: "Nobody writes them like they used to so it might as well be," I still feel like applauding. And despite my ensuing disappointment, my gratitude stands proud and unflinching. I will treasure this record as long as I draw breath.
By: Olav Bjortomt
Published on: 2003-09-01