25 Masterworks: Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

 My Spin on Masterworks: 8 of 25

Belle and Sebastian

If You’re Feeling Sinister

Jeepster, 1996

If You're Feeling SinisterIt’s been two-and-a-bit months since I graduated from university, and there are many facets to student life which I’ll probably never stop missing entirely. At the top of this long, lost list are two particular cornerstones that I constantly wish I could return to: the people, and the radio.

Here’s a quick(ish) story. During our final year, two absolutely delightful people – Katie and Jake – and myself teamed up to form a show for the university radio station (RaW 1251am); a broadcast which we christened ‘The Velvet Undergrads’. (Jake deserves all the credit for that gem.) Once a week, we’d choose a theme and run with it for an hour, cobbling together a playlist to suit whatever topic suited our collective fancy.

It was probably as indulgent as I’ve made it sound, but ‘The Velvet Undergrads’ was a constant source of joy (for us, if not our listeners), and brought me some of my most cherished uni memories. The communal atmosphere of the radio station was always welcoming, and the broadcasts helped the three of us keep close during the turbulence of finals year. Every week we would present one another with a glut of new sounds to obsess over. Katie provided the vintage soul and obscure surprises that blew everybody away. Jake gave us our indie-centric appeal and masterminded a wealth of ingenious themes to work with. I twiddled the knobs and crowbarred in as much Beach House as I could get away with. When we started out, though, we joked that we’d probably only ever end up playing The Smiths, Perfume Genius, and Belle and Sebastian.

This hasn’t been a very quick(ish) story after all, but it was thanks to Katie, Jake and our radio show that I discovered a lot of the music that I’ve become ecstatic over in the months since our final show together. Of all their suggestions, the one which I have most taken to heart has been to pore over Belle and Sebastian’s discography, though it’s only been since graduation that I’ve started paying proper attention to the Glaswegian outfit. Happily enough, however, I’ve found their music to be the perfect companion for this particular time of my life, as I’ve moved from one state of living to another. In particular, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister (one of Katie’s favourite albums, if I remember rightly) has struck me most profoundly, primarily in the way that it approaches the examination of human lives.

Some albums are deemed masterpieces because they are greater than the sum of their parts. With If You’re Feeling Sinister on the other hand, any segment could be removed from the sequence and still be paraded as a standalone work of immaculate songwriting; melodically rich and lyrically enrapturing. Whether one chooses to take these songs individually or in a single sitting, it’s hard not to cherish every second. Furthermore, despite popping up in the mid-90s and opening the floodgates for a staggering deluge of indie-pop darlings in the twenty-odd years since its release, If You’re Feeling Sinister is wholly in tune with its time and place, yet still sounds daisy-fresh when heard in 2014.

‘The Stars of Track and Field’ is perhaps the pre-eminent opener of its genre, outlining the contours of the album to follow and aligning the listener with Stuart Murdoch’s keen eye and wry wit. Even after hundreds of listens, it’s still a lovely lift to hear the instrumentation adding new colours to the frame with each passing minute: the keys sprinkled over the second verse, the mid-song spring in Murdoch’s vocal, and the foggy horns raising the bar to pave the way for the triumphant crescendo. There’s not a hair out of place, and it speaks volumes about the quality of the musicianship that all ten songs on here are of equal calibre.

I could go on for hours and hours about the music, because there are so many grace notes packed into each song that all of them dazzle. The entire band were on top form during the recording process, sitting nicely between the subtleties of Tigermilk and the flouncy touches of 1998’s The Boy With the Arab Strap. It’s thanks to the assembled cast of musicians that the pace never flags, and not a second is left wanting. But inevitably, the features that make the album a real treat are the people it documents, and it is chief songwriter Murdoch who has to take the credit here.

1 Belle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian, l-r: Mick Cooke, Richard Colburn, Bobby Kildea, Chris Geddes, Stevie Jackson, Sarah Martin, Stuart Murdoch (photo: wikipedia.org)

The personalities whom Murdoch depicts are a largely forlorn bunch, and If You’re Feeling Sinister looks at a range of lonely and confused lives, from curious schoolers to irrevocably depressed souls (the twin cases of suicide in the title track). Although their actions and undertakings play a large part in how these songs unfold, what really takes centre-stage is what these people think as they go about their lives; thoughts which are by turns funny, poignant, and poetic. There’s no time wasted contemplating abstract emotions; only looking at – and trying to understand – what makes specific people tick.

There may be big themes bobbing below the surface, but the manifest content itself possesses a richness and clarity which is uncommonly striking. It’s devilishly interesting and frequently touching as Murdoch observes humans doing their best to unscramble their bewilderment. Schoolboys experiment with their sexuality, children struggle to make sense of the generation gap, and Judy (the album’s final protagonist) has taken to obsessive dreams of equines (or maybe orgasms. Could be both, could be neither). What could have in lesser hands been reduced to a glib compendium examining oddballs who don’t “fit in” is instead a warm and quick-witted treatise on individuality, and the unique reactions that individuals have to the issues that millions have previously addressed.

I think that’s why I’ve found Belle and Sebastian so comforting in the past few months. To hear music like this which is playful and witty rather than saccharine and po-faced is a great relief. It’s still difficult to adjust to life outside of university, but there’s something touching to be found in Murdoch’s characterisation. The community that he conjures can be enjoyed as the people that they are, rather than simply existing as ciphers for abstract ideas, and therein lies one of Murdoch’s most crucial gifts as a songwriter.

If You’re Feeling Sinister
1 – The Stars of Track and Field
2 – Seeing Other People
3 – Me and the Major
4 – Like Dylan in the Movies
5 – The Fox in the Snow
6 – Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying
7 – If You’re Feeling Sinister
8 – Mayfly
9 – The Boy Done Wrong Again
10 – Judy and the Dream of Horses
 

02/10/2014

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Posted on October 2, 2014, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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