Listen to this track by super-studenty Scottish pop band with a fey streak a mile-wide Belle And Sebastian. It’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, the title track to their 1996 sophomore record of the same name.
When I say “studenty”, I’m referring to a common, totally made-up sounding adjective often used by the British music press that describes bands who could otherwise be described as bookish, a bit earnest, full of musical loose ends, or in fact formed while in university. Sometimes, it’s just that last one, which certainly describes this band. Belle And Sebastian not only formed in university, but they submitted their first demos to the school’s label!
Needless to say, groupies, blow, and throwing T.Vs out of hotel room windows would not be in this band’s future (that we know of!). So, where were they heading? Well, for one thing they were headed to critical acclaim.
The band formed around the songwriting of Stuart Murdoch, and the support of bassist Stuart David, both attendees at Stow College in Glasgow. It was here that they recorded their initial demos, and their first album Tigermilk. That album would receive a limited release, and be re-issued to the masses in 1999. But, it would be If You’re Feeling Sinister that would make their name. By this time a full band had formed, as would their signature sound of wistful and fey folk-pop with a touch of Smithsian kitchen sink drama, and Nick Drake-like atmospheres thrown in. The Pitchfork crowd were apoplectic with joy, among other publications and reference books popular with music geekery, including 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.
So, what lies at the heart of this success, which didn’t exactly translate to platinum sales and becoming a household name? Well, I think one thing about the songs Murdoch writes is that they are both unaffected and ambitious at the same time. With this song, we get what seems to be a whole novel’s worth of drama unfolding. It deals in darkness and guilt, with one character Hilary into both “S&M and bible studies”; not a combination normally expected, but maybe not as uncommon as one might think. And therein lies another point.
We all have dark sides, matched with a desire to please and to colour within the lines, with both sides warring together. Sometimes we get lost between those poles to the point that we lose our sense of self in trying to serve them both as separate things, or worse, in trying to deny our dark sides entirely. This is a song about clinging to ideas that promise much in the way of unlocking the way to our true identities but do not ultimately serve us, that work against our natural motivations and our well-being, making us pay dearly for the difference.
This is Belle And Sebastian’s wheelhouse in terms of songwriting and presentation.
The band would continue to develop their niche audience on both sides of the Atlantic, gaining steam just before the rush of neo-folk bands making more and more critical headway into the 2000s. They would evolve from their humble indie roots, working with top shelf producer Trevor Horn (ABC, Pet Shop Boys), and with a line in trying to produce music designed for radio play.
But, their reputation had solidified as a band writing songs about small things, small moments, and small people, or at least those people in the narrative who are not heroic as those that are often found in mainstream pop songs. I think this is why Belle And Sebastian’s music appeals to so many, and to so few. Because sometimes we want to hear some heroism in our pop music. We want stories about leaving lovers and becoming a stronger person, winning lovers at all costs, or being Kanye’s “Monster”, or Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man”. Those kinds of narratives are appealing on a wide scale for a reason, resonating with a wide spectrum of music fans. “Big” pop songs like this enable us to take part in some pretty powerful cultural myths about love, identity, and personal impact.
Yet in our most contemplative moments, sometimes we’re also looking for real life to be reflected in our pop music, free of bravado, myth, and glossy artifice. Sometimes we need to hear it sung in a voice that sounds like it’s coming from someone we might meet, or even one that sounds like it could be the voice of someone we already know. Sometimes, true human experience in its fine detail is more important than a big, sweeping pop fantasy or even the high drama that often is central to certain tumultuous times in our lives. Sometimes, pop songs are beloved because they capture the most everyday of life’s details with precision, and because as a result they make us feel less alone in our quietest moments, fleshing out those commonalities, thoughts, fears that make life what it is for all of us.
As this song reminds us, if we’re feeling sinister, we can know that other people have their moments of quiet desperation along with us.
Catch up to Belle And Sebastian at belleandsebastian.com.