Asleep on a sunbeam…

Some thoughts on the sadly underrated Belle and Sebastian, which at first might appear to be a piece about iPods and the Rolling Stones. That was an accident…

I was intending to write a long and boring pseudo-journalistic piece in which, incredulous, I would sketch out reasons why Belle and Sebastian had been denied their rightful place in the ‘canon’, but I realised that would be a pretentious and fundamentally inappropriate way to convey what I really want to say, which is just this: it surprises me that so many music lovers are either unaware of (or unmoved by) the works of this eccentric oddball collective. Even in the confines of the fraternal Scottish music scene there was a big fuss when they were voted ‘Greatest Scottish Band Ever’, with Idlewild fans seemingly most affronted (though I think there was a more recent poll that ‘righted’ that ‘wrong’). So I’d just like to write a little bit about why I rate Belle and Sebastian so highly (despite their many flaws), and pick out a few personal highlights.

I tend not to buy ‘best of’ collections, as I think they can give a very distorted view of an artist or band. (The real reason obviously is that I’m a big music snob, and I think I am above such glibly populist bargain bin selections, but that other thing I wrote sounds much more acceptable.) I like to acquire the relevant albums and see just how good and consistent they are. In some cases, such as the Rolling Stones, this can be very instructive – they can fill two whole discs with hit single after hit single, yet many of their albums (even from their heyday) were pretty dreadful. I think the only Stones records I regularly get all the way through are Beggar’s Banquet, Let it Bleed, and Exile on Main St.

The advent of the iPod has allowed the easy construction of home-made compilations – the instantly creatable successors to the beloved mix-tape of old. I don’t often make such digital mix-tapes unless it is a special occasion, but I do like to put together my own ‘best of’ playlists for certain artists (usually the prolific kind, such as the aforementioned Stones, the Clash, and the Smiths, though not those whose albums benefit particularly from unbroken playback, like Radiohead or Pink Floyd). I like to think that my own single-artist compilations are more credible than a manufactured version, as I’ve listened to the albums and decided what I like, in what order and (importantly) how to start and end it. You can string together thematic narratives within the collection, or play word-games with the titles if you are so inclined. Still, in Karmic retribution for my own ridiculousness, they always turn out almost exactly as would a shop-bought ‘best of’ – for example, I think the only Stones tracks I include which wouldn’t grace Forty Licks are things like Country Honk (better than the remake in my view) and Stray Cat Blues (really underrated song, I don’t know why).

What has this got to do with Belle and Sebastian? Well, theirs is the home-made ‘best of’ that I listen to more than any other. It’s hardly definitive, and I’m sure I miss out some wonderful songs, but I’ve come to love this ninety-minute, twenty-four song pseudo-album (and to know it inside out). Noticing the frequency with which I listen to it, and knowing the waves of feeling that wash over me every time I do, I often wonder whether this strange and amorphous Caledonian conglomerate are one of the most underrated bands of the last twenty years.

My ‘best of’ begins with ‘The State I Am In’, the opening track from their first album -‘Tigermilk’ (1996) – and tells the story of the mundane trials and tribulations of a religious young man. I made it sound really dull there, but it is one of my favourite songs of all time. It is funny and sad, and the music is absolutely beautiful. I should say at this point that I run a mile from proselytizing ‘Christian rock’, but that isn’t what Stuart Murdoch’s lyrics convey at all (he claims not to be a Christian with a capital C, whatever that means!). While the presence of his beliefs is often pretty clear, it is offered only as a fact in his own life and worldview, and never as an invitation or condemnation. I feel like it’s a testament to Murdoch’s emotional honesty that a hoary old atheist like myself can find his spiritual meanderings so engaging. He isn’t afraid to poke fun at the subject either. Tied up with this, of course, is the question of sexuality and the tension between that and the religious and moral framework – that tension often leads to fascinating creative responses. Murdoch himself is openly heterosexual (!) but his lyrics are highly ambiguous.

A few songs in I reach ‘Belle and Sebastian’ from the ‘Dog on Wheels’ EP (1997). It’s basically an early demo track, but its youthful charm is captivating. It also demonstrates one of the perceived flaws of the band, that being Stuart Murdoch’s voice. This tends to be among the first things cited in a negative review, and as far as I can tell has prejudiced many critics against B&S. For my part, I love his reedy warblings, and I think the occasional cracks and leaps in his singing reflect the vulnerability of the lyrics perfectly. Though it’s more hit-and-miss on the very early recordings, I think the band sound really comes together on ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ (1996), which begins with the majestic ‘Stars of Track and Field’. This song, which feels like it might have been written on the inside back cover of an exercise book, seems to transpose to a contemporary (and grey) north of England the scene in A Single Man where George gets hot under the collar when walking past the half-naked tennis players. It must be all that talk of Terry underwear.

I included three songs in my playlist from what is probably their best-known album, ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ (1998), a record which I will always associate with staying up all night at university. Early in their career Belle and Sebastian were touted as successors to the Smiths, and while this comparison is rather forced, there is certainly a lineage there. The appeal to my undergraduate self was similar – while Morrissey’s lyrics are more cutting and confident, the self-deprecation and introspection are both there, sitting on top of beautiful elegiac melodies. While I don’t see much similarity between the Morrissey/Marr songbook and Belle and Sebastian’s later, more grandiose historical constructions, it does make some sense for ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’, and particularly tracks like ‘It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career’ and ‘Dirty Dream Number Two’.

The albums have been admittedly a bit patchier since then, but every single one has featured some bona fide classics (I have never got round to ‘Storytelling‘, and if anyone has any particular thoughts on that experiment I would be most appreciative). ‘I Fought In a War’ from ‘Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant’ (2000) is a tear-jerker which has a touch of the French chanson about it. The narrative of a young, frightened and confused soldier masks the metaphorical traveller and all his existential anxieties. That album also put more of an emphasis on the juxtaposition between male and female lead vocals from Murdoch and Sarah Martin (the haunting ‘Waiting for the Moon to Rise’ is one of the finest examples of the latter, though the boy/girl aural dichotomy had already been explored with Isobel Campbell taking lead vocals on the previous album’s ‘Is It Wicked Not to Care?’ and on FYHCYWLAP’s ‘Family Tree’). ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ (2003) was a lot more upbeat, on the whole (not surprising with Trevor Horn at the desk) – ‘Step Into My Office, Baby’ is irrepressibly bouncy, though the highlight is probably ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’, a modest and beautiful little shanty.

The only album I genuinely found it hard to get into is their most successful to date, ‘The Life Pursuit’ (2006); it seemed less emotionally engaging, and I think I agree with some of the critics who suggested it was almost becoming self-parodic. ‘To Be Myself Completely’ is one of the few moments where the old emotional intensity survives, though backed with a self-confidence not present in the earlier part of their career. Beyond the albums there are some cracking EPs – ‘Legal Man’, ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’, ‘Jonathan David’ (among several others). The BBC Sessions are also pretty great.

Anyway, they’ve sold hundreds of thousands of records and Belle and Sebastian don’t need me to bang the drum for them. For what it’s worth, I think ‘Tigermilk’, ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister‘ and ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ all deserve a place on the shelf of any music fan, with most of the subsequent albums not far behind. It’s a heck of a back catalogue. For the unconvinced, just give ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’, ‘Like Dylan in the Movies’ or ‘You’re Just a Baby’ a listen and hopefully you will rejoice, as I do, in the tales of traveller’s ennui, fragile dreamy days and urban bathos.

As a final thought, does anybody know whether Judy (who had the dream of horses) is the same Judy who is a ‘dickslap’?  We should be told.

My Belle and Sebastian playlist runs as follows:

The State I Am In (Tigermilk)
Simple Things (The Boy With the Arab Strap)
Piazza, New York Catcher (Dear Catastrophe Waitress)
I Fought in a War (Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant)
Belle & Sebastian (Dog on Wheels)
Sleep the Clock Around (The Boy With the Arab Strap)
To Be Myself Completely (The Life Pursuit)
Marx and Engels (I’m Waking up to Us)
Waiting For The Moon To Rise (Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant)
The Stars of Track and Field (If You’re Feeling Sinister)
I’m a Cuckoo (Dear Catastrophe Waitress)
Expectations (Tigermilk)
Dirty Dream Number Two (The Boy With the Arab Strap)
Like Dylan in the Movies (If You’re Feeling Sinister)
Jonathan David (Jonathan David)
We Are The Sleepyheads (The Life Pursuit)
You’re Just a Baby (Tigermilk)
Step into My Office, Baby (Dear Catastrophe Waitress)
This Is Just a Modern Rock Song (This Is Just a Modern Rock Song)
Legal Man (Legal Man)
We Rule the School (Tigermilk)
Don’t Leave The Light On Baby (Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant)
Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie (3…6…9 Seconds Of Light)
It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career (The Boy With the Arab Strap)
Published in: on July 8, 2010 at 7:52 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I prefer to buy albums too, but I’m not averse to a best-of as a way into a band with a sprawling oeuvre.  And even now I’d point people in the direction of Floored Genius ahead of any albums by Julian Cope or The Teardrop Explodes, and likewise for the 2-CD Best of Jethro Tull.  Not that this method is infallible – anyone approaching Zappa solely via the excellent Strictly Commercial compilation would miss out entirely on my favourite album, Absolutely Free – but it’s a start.  Of course, the ideal is a best-of put together by a friend who’s a fan, which is essentially what you’ve done for us here with BandS, so thank you.

    • There are a couple of eccentric choices in there – I’m not sure La Pastie de la Bourgeoisie would get on many lists of favourites for example – but it’s been a playlist that I haven’t tired of for years.

      Agreed on the potential usefulness of ‘best ofs’, I’m just being snarky really. I only have one Teardrop Explodes album (which I do like) but I’m tempted to give Floored Genius a go now.

  2. So thoughts on ‘Storytelling’ – just pure 60s-revivialist indulgent, half-hearted nonsense… Except for the title track, which, although poorly arranged, has a great melody, and spot-on lyrics… and is also, I’d suggest, the pivotal track in the band’s repertoire. It’s the very moment that Stuart Murdoch signs off on his career as the greatest song-writer of his generation. Everything afterwards is not only camp and wet, it doesn’t even try to be good.

    My decline and fall theory is that, at some point, soon after the band broke, the great Stuart essentially scared himself with the power of his own writing. The first 3 albums & EPs were stunning. They were also, like probably all great works, deeply personal. Who was the “Michael” that SM was tired of sorting things out for (and the rest of them)? In fact, it seems, a fellow ME-sufferer that SM used to hang out with pre-B&S (check out the band biography). When was My Wandering Days Are Over (“my celebate days are over…”) written? Soon after our boy hooked up with Isobel Campbell of course. Does Lisa know a girl who’s been abused? I’d bet yes, though I can’t evidence this.

    So… some of the early reviews of, say, Boy with the Arab strap focused on the personal aspect of the lyrics. I remember one review, I think in the NME, that suggested that a song like Sleep the Clock Around is simply “bitter”, because the protagonist is described as, eg, “…not much use to anyone”. Of course, this crazy talk – I actually feel moved to *identify* with this character rather than hate him, everyone does, right? The only reason why you can even use epithets like bitter is because Stuart’s words have fearsome emotional traction – they conjure up a complete world and place you in it. Problem is, of course, that golden boy takes this sort of criticism to heart – I mean he probably already feels guilty about writing about his mates’ problems, and borrowing too much from real life (or being too accurate about it). … So he starts delegating song-writing duties to other less talented bandmembers, writing silly, ironic, *ungenuine* stuff about groovy lawyers and the Apostles… and basically gives up.

    ‘Storytelling’ comes towards this end of this process. Although obviously a response to the themes in the film for which it was written, it is also an elegy – and an apology – for the sort of direct, observational songs that Mr Murdoch used to turn out. The theme is “responsibility” in art, specifically in writing. Have you considered how people might react to your characters, the song asks: “are their actions hand in hand with what you want to portray? /Are you sick? Are you crippled? Insane? / Expressing the desires that daren’t speak their name? / Are you the one to blamed?” (You might add “… and do the people you write about feel betrayed?”) This is cleverer stuff than most songwriters can shake a rhyming metaphor at, but it’s also heartfelt. The last line “… but you don’t make claims of verity” is a plea in mitigation. ‘Sure I borrowed from my, and other people’s, lives, but ultimately, please: it all counts as fiction!’ But somehow, it seems that Stuart never really bought his own argument here. Because ever since, he has backed off even from being “successful” in his art – from even writing believable lyrics.

    • Hey thanks Danno, that’s fascinating. I’d never been able to pin down a reason or exact timescale for when things changed, but that’s all very plausible. Do you also notice a change in live performances too? I ask because although I really enjoyed the (almost two-hour) NPR live show from Washington a couple of years ago (still available as a free download on iTunes I think), there was definitely an aura of professional, detached (even amused!?) performance which I didn’t ever get in the early live work, where sometimes the tension and frailty would be almost unbearable. I suppose when Stuart’s CFS/ME is so tied up in the story of the band, there are things at work that we can’t ever get a handle on.

      Your point about the subject matter is really crucial though. It makes sense for it to have been a conscious decision (and having read your comment I must get around to at least giving Storytelling a listen). You’re the second person who has told me the change has happened by FYHCYWLAP – I must be being a bit generous to that album, though I do think there are a few great songs on it. You’re right though, it certainly lacks the ‘window on the soul’ element of the earlier work.

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