Belle and Sebastian, “If You’re Feeling Sinister”

if-youre-feeling-sinister-belle-sebastian

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #56 – released November 18, 1996)

Track listing: The Stars of Track and Field / Seeing Other People / Me and the Major / Like Dylan In The Movies / The Fox In The Snow / Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying / If You’re Feeling Sinister / Mayfly / The Boy Done Wrong Again / Judy and the Dream of Horses

Like so many other recordings, “The Stars of Track and Field” opens with just a vocal and an acoustic guitar. “Make a new cult everyday to suit your affairs,” sings Stuart Murdoch in a scarcely audible whisper, his Scottish accent nearly rendering “cult” as “coat”. The next line (“Kissing girls in English at the back of the stairs”) is a little louder and within seconds, the song’s melody clicks into place. Gradually, other instruments enter one by one: bass, electric guitar, drums (accompanying Murdoch when he intones the song’s title at the first chorus), then piano, violin and eventually organ.

This build-up is important, for when it reaches full flower, the melody shifts up a few notes with Murdoch exclaiming, “She never needed anything to get her round the track / but when she’s on her back / she had the knowledge / to get her into college,” with such conviction you feel every grain of how organically but effectively the song has blossomed into something profound and awe-inspiring. All this before you even get to the unexpected but strangely pitch-perfect trumpet solo that could’ve come from a Dionne Warwick record (of all things) or the song’s near-thunderous final chorus: “The stars of track and field, you are / beautiful people,” he sings repeatedly, not mockingly but tenderly, with the same veneration the song itself exudes.

Begun by Murdoch and bassist Stuart David as a university project in Glasgow in 1996, Belle and Sebastian (named after a 1970s French children’s TV series) had swelled to eight members strong by the release of If You’re Feeling Sinister near that year’s end. Though technically the band’s second album, it was the first most people heard as their debut, Tigermilk, was limited to a release of a mere 1,000 copies a few months before (it would be finally reissued to the masses in 1999).

That at the time, one had to actively seek out Belle and Sebastian’s music only added to their escalating mystique. With the internet in its infancy, there was nothing like YouTube or MySpace or even Napster to help people discover them; furthermore, Murdoch seemed to deliberately shroud the band in secrecy, doing very little publicity, not granting interviews and rarely performing live. If you were lucky, you might catch one of their songs on a college radio station or in an indie record shop. Thus, over two years passed before I first heard Sinister on headphones at a used CD store’s listening station; it only took one spin of “The Stars of Track and Field” to sell me on it. A week later, a friend and I listened to the entire album while snowed in at her parents’ suburban Chicago home. Confined to an enclosed space with few distractions, I think we both unabashedly fell in love with it by the moment that first trumpet solo rang out.

At this writing, Sinister remains among my most beloved albums. Of the 100 I’ve chosen for this project, it’s possibly the one that comes closest to perfection: ten tracks, 41 minutes and not one wrong or wasted note among them. But that’s not to say the music’s overly pristine or sterile—to the contrary, it pulses with life and the promise of release. Murdoch himself spent much of his twenties suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and credits this time of isolation as what inspired him to start writing songs. Both Sinister and Tigermilk (the latter a great record in its own right, but primarily a template Sinister richly builds upon) are comprised of tunes from this period and they view the world through a most distinct, often wistful lens—one looking back to a time when Murdoch could actively participate in it rather than be confined from it.  And yet, his character sketches are too sharp and perceptive to come off as nostalgic. The music of these early albums, while steeped in ‘60s folk-rock (I once described the band as if The Beatles and The Kinks had a baby together, with Simon and Garfunkel presiding over the birth), manages to sound timeless, as if it could’ve been recorded anytime over the preceding thirty years.

After “The Stars of Track and Field” sets a noticeably high bar for Sinister, “Seeing Other People” just about tops it. With its Vince Guaraldi-like piano and revved-up, Bossa-Nova rhythm, it superficially sounds nothing like the preceding song and yet strikes a similar, compatible tone once Murdoch begins to sing. The lyrics revolve around two teenage boys, “kissing just for practice” in private. One of them is the song’s narrator, whose confesses his conflicted feelings in the chorus: “Well, if I remain passive and you just want to cuddle / then we should be ok, and we won’t get in a muddle / cause we’re seeing other people / at least that’s what we say we are doing.” Those words tumble out of Murdoch’s mouth almost effortlessly in an instantly retainable melody. Although he later confirmed the song was not autobiographical (once identifying his sexuality as “straight to the point of boring myself”), the incisiveness with which he assesses the situation is slyly, masterfully observant—fed up with the situation, he tells the other boy, “You’re going to have to change / or you’re going to have to go with girls / you might be better off / at least they know what they’re doing.”

“Me and the Major” preserves the accelerated pace, chug-chug-chugging along like a high-speed train, complete with occasional “whoo-hoo!” harmonica blasts. That Murdoch himself can barely keep up with the tempo at times only adds to song’s charm. It’s the first instance here where he sings about something other than schoolkids, exploring the generational divide between his own and his elders. Naturally, he places blame on the latter, claiming “We’re the younger generation / we grew up fast / all the others did drugs / they’re taking it out on us,” eventually shifting into a most effective higher register on that last phrase as he did back in “The Stars of Track and Field”. And yet, like most Murdoch characters, the Major is not a totally unredeemable figure, for “He remembers all the punks and the hippies, too / and he remembers Roxy Music in ’72.”

Despite antagonizing him, Murdoch’s not above heavily mining the Major’s generation’s music and cultural signifiers for inspiration (although one wouldn’t detect a whiff of Roxy Music in Belle and Sebastian until a few albums later). “Like Dylan in the Movies” precedes its title with the line, “On your own, if they follow you / don’t look back”, those three last words referencing the title of D.A. Pennebaker’s zeitgeist-capturing ‘60s documentary. Musically, however, the song has nothing to do with Dylan; instead, it’s just more of the same literate indie guitar-and-piano pop with orchestral leanings (a sawing violin here, a tingling percussive touch there), adding heft but not necessarily heaviness. Murdoch may suffuse his songs with crafty peculiarities (in addition to the titular phrase, after he sings, “When the music stops,” it actually does stop for a beat), but they rarely distract from how sincere he comes across with regard to his characters: “It’s not your money that they’re after, boy, it’s you,” he advises the song’s purportedly famous but ambiguous central figure.

“The Fox in the Snow” could be Sinister’s strongest case for Murdoch’s sincerity. Fully conforming to the “sad bastard music” tag later flung upon the band by Jack Black in the film version of High Fidelity, it’s also the likeliest song on the album to be labeled as “twee”, a derogatory British slang meaning “affectedly quaint, pretty or sentimental.” Actually, “The Fox in the Snow” is unapologetically twee—a melancholy but achingly beautiful piano ballad with Murdoch’s pleading vocal front and center. It first references the titular figure (“Don’t let yourself grow hungry now / don’t let yourself grow cold”) before shifting to other variations: “girl in the snow” who’s looking for a lover or a friend, “to tell someone all the truth before it kills you”, or the “boy on the bike” who is forever spinning his wheels without getting anywhere. “It’s not as if it’s fun / at least not anymore,” sings Murdoch, and while such lyrics run the risk of being too enigmatic, his delivery, along with some effective chord changes and delicate instrumental touches (shimmering vibes, acoustic guitar arpeggios) channels enough feeling for the song’s urgency and poignancy to shine through.

The album’s second half kicks off with the cautiously jaunty “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”. Murdoch’s most explicit reference to his extended illness, it has just as classic a chord progression as “The Fox in the Snow” but a far more conversational tone; it’s also the closest he comes to a personal statement of purpose: “Play me a song to set me free / Nobody writes them like they used to / so it may as well be me.” While Murdoch’s far from the first soul to ever find salvation in music, it’s an obviously significant part of Belle and Sebastian’s ethos and a theme he’ll fixate on throughout the band’s twenty-plus year career. During its outro, he repeats the song’s title until it becomes a mantra, his conviction vindicated by his bandmates’ deeply felt support.  And for all I’ve written about Murdoch being his band’s mastermind, the key word here is band. “Get Me Away…” may be Murdoch’s composition, but everyone here contributes to its sparkling, full-bodied arrangement, the solid, traditional guitar-bass-drum foundation lovingly enhanced by piano, strings, horns and vibes. One’s left not with a singer + backing band, but a true collective. Indeed, on subsequent recordings, Murdoch will split singer/songwriter duties between himself and a few others (most notably guitarist Stevie Jackson and violinist Sarah Martin).

Sinister’s title track is its most expansive: stretched out over five minutes, its extended intro slowly fades in with isolated electric guitar chords and ambient noise of kids at a playground. Briskly strummed acoustic guitar and nimble percussion eventually take over as Murdoch relays a near-epic tale mostly concerned with a girl who “was into S&M and bible studies / not everyone’s cup of tea she would admit to me.” Looking for meaning or at least direction, she turns to the Catholic Church but fails to find any easy answers. Over the years, Murdoch has spoken of finding salvation not only through music but also via a higher power; exploration of and occasional struggles with his faith increasingly permeate his lyrics as time goes on. At this point, however, there’s mostly skepticism. “If you’re feeling sinister / go off and see a minister / he’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever,” goes the chorus, which is at least less cynical than the song’s final couplet, where he derisively concludes, “Chances are you’ll probably feel better / if you stayed and played with yourself.”

The following “Mayfly” offers some respite by simply being a straightforward pop song. Effortlessly cheery and autumnal, it comes complete with a numerical count-off, a chiming guitar riff and hooks straight out of the classic folk-pop songbook. It’s familiar, but neither derivative nor dull, thanks to such personal touches as the intermittent slight wobble in Murdoch’s vocal, a brief, buzzing synth solo that comes from out of nowhere (but fits in anyway) and a deft false ending. “The Boy Done Wrong Again” is just as comfortingly recognizable. A pastoral acoustic ballad, it builds slowly like “The Stars of Track of Field” but less intensely, opting for sort of a miserablism tinged by warmth. Closing couplet “All I wanted was to sing the saddest songs / If somebody sings along I will be happy now,” is yet another Murdoch manifesto that succinctly sums up his musical raison d’être.

Still, packed as it is with bedsitter images and bittersweet childhood memories, Sinister does not end awash in desolation. For Murdoch, music is still his salvation, and “Judy and the Dream of Horses” is a loving depiction of such. Like Murdoch, Judy once “wrote the saddest song” but then “gave herself to books and learning.” After falling asleep reading one night, she has a wonderful, transcendent dream about “the girl who stole a horse.” “Judy never felt so good except when she was sleeping,” he sings, and encourages Judy to make her dream of horses a reality by writing a song about it. The song itself unfolds like a dream come to life: after two verses of just vocals, acoustic guitar and a recorder barely holding it together, the full band led by another stirring, crisp trumpet solo enters and everything magically gels. Like Judy, it’s a not a stretch to suspect Murdoch went about making his own dreams a reality by writing songs about them.

This is the key to understanding Belle and Sebastian’s rare, jewel-like appeal. On their early albums, notions of fame and fortune and pop stardom are entirely secondary to the purity of the music itself, which transcends all else. Still, Sinister achieves this without coming off as pretentious or self-absorbed. It sounds more like eight people playing music together in a room, distilling everything of life’s essence from exultant joy to crushing despair into ten impeccably formed pop miniatures. Murdoch and his bandmates have never quite topped it (how could anyone?), but they are far from one-album wonders. Their subsequent discography displays real growth and contains an enviable assortment of gems—some of which we’ll encounter later in this project.

Next: The (partial) rehabilitation of a smartass.

“The Stars of Track and Field”:

“Seeing Other People”:

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