(Album 2 out of 5 of my most influential albums)
Back in 2000, before the internet was a household mainstay, I was flipping through Time Magazine. I ran across a little blurb about a Scottish band named Belle and Sebastian.
I was intrigued.
The article itself was nothing special, but how they were described made me curious. The fact that they were described as inspiring “cultish adoration” and that their lyrics have been pored over in coffee houses made me want to actually hear them.
Now, this was back in the dark ages, before YouTube and Spotify–I didn’t even have internet in my home (I had it at school–that was enough wasn’t it?). There was no way for me to check out this band’s music without purchasing a CD. So I did about the most 90’s thing I could–I ordered two of their albums from the Columbia House CD club.
I anxiously awaited delivery of their first two albums: If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With the Arab Strap (this was before companies offered expedited shipping). As soon as I got them, I popped If You’re Feeling Sinister into my CD player boom box and started playing the first album. I was immediately struck by two things:
- All of the songs told a specific story.
- The musical “style” of the songs was all over the place–but it had a mellowness and a confidence that I had never heard before. Let alone from a small indie band that literally no one else had ever heard of (I’m sure someone else in Florida knew about them, but I’m sure I was the only person in Lake Wales, FL that was listening to them 😉)
Songs With Narratives
Maybe it is one of the same reasons I like Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharac’s Painted from Memory, but every song on If You’re Feeling Sinister tells a story. Sometimes you are dropped into the middle of the narrative and you are like “What the hell is going on” and other times, the story is obvious. “Me and the Major is obviously a story about the clash of two generations–the old and the young–with each one not understanding the other. Or “Fox in the Snow” takes a little more deciphering, but to me, it is a metaphor for loneliness and maybe the enjoyment of being alone (loneliness and being alone are NOT the same thing). “Boy Done Wrong Again” is about telling the world to shove it, you are going to do things your way. Or the title track “If You’re Feeling Sinister”* tells the story of a person struggling with their faith (Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer and songwriter once described himself as a Christian with a lowercase C). “Get Me Away from Here I’m Dying” is about a songwriter, wanting to get away from mediocrity, trying to write the one great song, but just can’t (Sounds familiar to a particular storyline from Rent). Every song on this album is a revelation about an aspect of life: loneliness, faith/spirituality, sex, sexual identity, youth. What it is NOT is the clichéd boy meets girl (or girl meets boy) that will either end in love or conflict by the end of the song.
Like all good narratives, the songs on this album have characters that are actively involved in the narrative of the song. Unlike many modern/popular songs, the songs on this album give their characters names–there’s Judy, Lisa, and Dylan. The subjects of the songs are named and given a story that is told through the song. There are also numerous “hes” and “shes” and even though they are nameless, they are as integral to their story as their named counterparts.
In preparing for this essay, I was reading reviews of Belle and Sebastian when I ran across a term used to describe them that I had never heard: Chamber Pop. Chamber Pop is defined as “a music genre that combines rock music with the intricate use of strings, horns, piano, and vocal harmonies, and other components drawn from the orchestral and lounge pop of the 1960s, with an emphasis on melody and texture.” This is the perfect definition of Belle and Sebastian’s music. They use strings, acoustic guitars, brass, piano, and percussion to create a rich tapestry of sound that you don’t often hear in other bands.
The second track on the album, “Seeing Other People” opens with a driving syncopated piano melody that harkens back to Vince Guarldi’s “Linus and Lucy.” “Me and the Major” starts off with a rhythmic electric guitar, then a harmonica picks up, and quietly in the background, a piano plays out a simple tune. It is this layered texturing of sounds and instruments that makes every song interesting. A pet peeve of mine is how bands and their music all sound the same–there is no variety from one track to the next. This will quickly make me not want to listen to their music. That is not the case with Belle and Sebastian.
Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer for this album (in future albums he would share the duties of lead vocals with other members of the band), has a sing-song voice that is sometimes no louder than a whisper. The song “The Stars of Track and Field” starts out very quietly, almost acapella, with a quiet strumming guitar below the vocals. As Murdoch sings, it is as if his confidence grows and his vocals get a bit more self-assured. The backing instrumentals get more complex, with more instruments being layered into the mix. As the song reaches a peak in the chorus, the melody takes an interesting turn and goes into a minor dissonant chord and the instrumentals increase in intensity. The chords only resolve on the final note. It is this complex, yet seemingly simple creativity that makes up the entire album.
The use of brass in the album is infused in three different songs (“Judy and the Dream of Horses”, “The Stars of Track and Field”, and “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”) and is used very purposefully. Brass is never used as a foundational instrument in the music–it is used as a solo instrument in the bridges of these three songs. The horn is not used in the traditional bombastic style often associated with trumpets, but in a simple and peaceful melody that is eventually interwoven into the rest of the underlying music.
If You Are Feeling Sinister came out in 1996–27 years ago–and has maintained its place in music history and is remembered as an album that has aged well. Since this album came out, they have released 10 more albums. The members of Belle and Sebastian were in their mid-20s when this album was released. In a tongue-in-cheek move, an album released in 2022, looks back at their youth with the first track of the album titled “Young and Stupid”. The chorus of the song is:
Everything is fine
When you’re young and stupid
When you’re young and stupid
I can’t help but wonder if they are referring back to If You Are Feeling Sinister as they sing this song. One of the verses goes on to say:
There’s an easy start to things
There’s the thrill that beauty brings
Could they be longing to recapture the magic that was that first album? Another verse toward the end of the song goes:
Now we’re old with creaking bones
Some with partners, some alone
Some with kids and some with dogs
Getting through the nightly slog…
Flashes in the mind
We were young and stupid
Yes, we are all older, a little bit wiser, but there is something to be said for being young and stupid–especially if you are going to produce an amazing album that, even 27 years later, is modern and relevant.
The next album is 1200 Curfews by the Indigo Girls
* I was listening to this song in my car once and I happened to be riding with the youth pastor of the church I was attending at the time. He listened carefully to this song and then proceeded to chastise me and the song for being so anti-spiritual. He completely missed the point. That may have been the beginning of the end for me…but that is another story for another time.