The Ordinary Lives of Intelligent People: Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister

By Daniel Garrett

Belle and Sebastian
If You’re Feeling Sinister
Matador, 1998

I have been listening to music new and old: the work of Devendra Banhart, Beyonce, Nat King Cole, John Lennon, John Mayer, and The New Pornographers. Taste is aesthetic, personal, spiritual. I do not think that we cease listening to music because a year or a decade ends: not if it is good music, not if your response to it is sincere. Of course, sometimes what familiar music yields is reassurance rather than insight, and comfort rather than excitement. It is also true that new music sometimes offers nothing more than novelty and sensation. When considering an album of songs, some writers complain about consistency, calling it monotony, and others complain about variety, calling it inconsistency. I might say that some of the songs on Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister are too much alike, but I do not believe that. This music is akin to a photograph album in which one sees different scenes but there are connections among them—connections among the subjects and in the perspective of the camera eye.

Belle and Sebastian’s foundation are singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch and guitarist Stuart David, with Chris Geddes on keyboards, and there are the briefest larky mentions in the album’s liner notes of singer-guitarist Stevie Thomas Jackson and drummer Richard Colburn, cellist Isobel Campbell, and violinist Sarah Martin (this Scottish band apparently likes a certain anonymity). A lone male voice sings lyrics, accompanied by guitar: “Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs, kissing girls in English at the back of the stairs./ You’re a honey, with a following of innocent boys” and “I met a kid who went through one of your sessions/ in his blue velour and silk./ You liberated a boy I never rated” are the narrator’s lines in Belle and Sebastian’s “The Stars of Track and Field.” The theme could be the empowering field of sports participation or the seduction of erotic ambiguity (such is the interpretative play of lyrics that are at once suggestive and vague) in a song that states, “The stars of track and field are beautiful people” and ends with the lines “But when she’s on her back she had the knowledge to get her into college.” Making much of flirtation and sex is the province of the young—and of the immature, as we can note by observing our tabloid culture. “We lay on the bed there, kissing just for practice,” begins the song “Seeing Other People,” a song about a lack of emotional commitment and the willingness to experiment with affection and pleasure. The male vocal is almost shy, and the sparkling strum of the guitar may be the most appealing part of the song. “We’re the younger generation, we grew up fast./ All the others did drugs./ They’re taking it out on us,” are lines in “Me and the Major,” a song that references a major—a lone, proud, eccentric figure—that the narrator seems interested in and alienated from. (The song has a fast, somewhat clipped vocal performance and what sounds like a harmonica along with a guitar.)

“If they follow you, it’s not your money that they’re after boy, it’s you,” declares the song “Like Dylan in the Movies,” before insistently advising, “If they follow you, don’t look back, like Dylan in the movies” and stating, “I will love you over, I will love you.” (The song has a bit of a country music sound.) The possible vulnerability of that subject is matched by the fox and the girl in “The Fox in the Snow,” in which a starving fox and a desperate girl and a cycling boy with black-and-blue legs are paralleled in lines sung by a sensitive male voice, accompanied by piano: the lives of the young and wounded are like that of animals. Is this the kind of music that Belle and Sebastian will be able to go on making as they age, or will their music change? Will they stop making music? (Some bands lose energy and purpose as they lose youth and youth’s being surprised by life.)

“You could either be successful or be us,” states “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying,” an unmistakable recognition of one’s place in the world. The lines continue: “With our winning smiles, and us/ with our catchy tunes, and us/ now we’re photogenic./ You know, we don’t stand a chance.” That seems a personal and professional damnation; or tremendous irony. (A simple thing that I like is that in this song, and the one before it about wayward children, is the fact that reading is referred to: as a resource, as knowledge and pleasure and solace.) The scenarios in these songs suggest more than a complexity of experience: a perversity of experience: and, as the ending of “Get Me Away” states, “I could kill you sure, but I could only make you cry with these words.”

Boredom and pleasure and violence seem the boundaries of the experiences described in several songs. A girl in “If You’re Feeling Sinister” is described thusly: “She was into S&M and bible studies.” (It is to laugh—or weep: the contradictions are less immoral than merely telling: and they tell of contradictory human impulses so strong that each aspect cannot destroy the other but may reinforce somehow the other.) “If you are feeling sinister, go off and see a minister./ He’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever,” the narrator says in the song, which began with the sound of children playing, and which, also, seems as much a take on the work of Bob Dylan as “Get Me Away” seemed a variation on that of Morrissey. In “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” individuals are guided less by social convention than by psychic and physical drives: and friendships, like social institutions such as church and television, are merely theaters for acting out of private concerns, despite rhetoric. “If you are feeling sinister, go off and see a minister./ Chances are you’ll probably feel better if you stayed and played with yourself.”

The clichés of romance and success, the usual clichés, are not the themes of the band’s songs: instead, the small moments, the found moments and objects, of the ordinary lives of intelligent young people are those that are featured: moments involving contemplation, flirtation, withheld secrets, modern technology’s use, mundane institutions, news media, simple homes, promiscuity, self-regard, the observation of others, social class, sexual complexity, lost chances, official power, age and time, madness, unfair retribution, violence, cinema, alienation, sports, music, tall tales, suicide, betrayal, guilt, and more: and, suddenly, the ordinary lives of intelligent people no longer seem that ordinary.

“Mayfly” seems a blurry map of erotic confusion and social malaise: “Your diary’s looking like a bible with its verses lost in time/ and lost in meaning for the people who surround you.”

“What is it I must do to pay for all my crimes?” asks the singer in “The Boy Done Wrong Again,” before going on to state, “All I wanted was to sing the saddest songs./ If somebody sings along I will be happy now” and “Talking dirty, for a hobby it’s fine./ So pour another glass of wine./ I’ll think of England this time.”

These are songs in which meaning is not assumed as a result of clichés and platitudes: one has to listen, look, think, and find meaning for oneself.

A bookish, romantic girl—wandering, and, yes, wayward—is the subject of “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” a song that manages to be wistful and troubling at the same time. With a male voice, horns, and a galloping beat, and western guitar strumming, the piece reminds me of something I heard long ago.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Howlin’ Wolf, Terence Trent D’Arby, Luther Vandross, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, TV on the Radio, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Ricky Martin, the Rolling Stones, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages ofThe Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” appeared on Offscreen.com, and featured Kathleen Battle, David Bowie, Common, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Yo Yo Ma, and Caetano Veloso. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on the web site of IdentityTheory.com. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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