belle & sebastian

[the introduction]

So Claire comes around to say hello. I go ‘hey, I have a present for you’, and I give her a Belle & Sebastian badge. She goes, ‘thanks, that’s really cool’. She tells me she’s been playing the tape I gave her, tells me it’s different. She qualifies this with ‘good different’. And then smiles.

I tell her about Union Chapel and about Jarvis. I tell her that Lazy Line Painter Jane missed the charts by 172 sales. At this she’s amazed. She goes, ‘Belle & Sebastian aren’t a chart band’, and I tell her what Isobel said about her favourite bands never getting in the charts. Claire smiles as is to say ‘see?’ and then goes, ‘and if they do get in the charts and into Smash Hits, then you’ll not like them as much, will you? They’ll not mean as much to you when they’re successful.’

I smile, and say nothing, because it’s good to know that me and Pop can be so transparent. I just go, ‘you want to hear the next single?’ Claire goes, ‘oh go on then.’

The tape plays ‘Century of Fakers’. Ever the observant type, Claire spots that it’s the same tune as ‘Century of Elvis’. She says she prefers Elvis because it’s a lovely story and besides it made people ask if Elvis was a cat, a dog or indeed a piece of broccoli. We go for the broccoli. I say ‘I think Elvis is great because it’s a transitory, essentially Pop, essentially throwaway’. I say, ‘here’s what I wrote about it all the other day’. Claire starts reading. She reads:

[the theory]

I think ‘Century of Fakers’ is a great song and I can’t stop it from going around in my head, but maybe that’s because I’ve been listening to it for ages already. The melody enhances the backing track, which still reminds me of the Sabres’ sublime ‘Smokebelch’ perfectly, and as ever Mr Murdoch intones his intelligent lyrics in a voice that is fleet of foot and light of touch. It’s almost apologetically scornful, a way of making social and political commentary seductive, refusing to express anger or distrust in boringly obvious and traditional ways. In this, he sings in a style that could be likened to Malcolm Eden in the great lost ‘80s group McCarthy, a fact not unlinked to the next tune…

The marvellously titled ‘Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’ (translates as ‘apathy of the middle classes’ apparently) echoes McCarthy’s own great ‘We Are All Bourgeois Now’ in title, and in sentiment it rather brings to mind the feelings behind their ‘The Well Fed Point Of View’, wherein the ‘poetic’ concept of finding salvation and freedom from oppression lying within the ‘soul’ is openly and vitriolically attacked. I feel that Belle & Sebastian are launching a similar assault, albeit in a much more elliptical manner. I can’t help feel that the knowing references to such obvious ‘yoof cultural’ icons as ‘Catcher In The Rye’ and Kerouac / ‘On The Road’ are intentionally placed to be mocking of this feeling that the middle classes can escape some sense of moral and spiritual responsibility by taking these routes of escape with the excuse of ‘finding yourself’. There is a sense that here is a resentment at being made impotent by upbringing and sociological education. But then that escape from the everyday into fantasy is the traditional purpose of Pop of course, and Belle & Sebastian are as trapped as McCarthy were within it’s contradictions, although perhaps they are slightly more willing to embrace those contradictions and make them work for them. Or maybe they are just blessed or cursed to be living in this Post-ideological age where Politics have dissolved to the state of perfume. Perhaps. Certainly they are as obsessed with the concept of great Pop, and ‘Le Pastie’ rollocks along with typically chipper keyboards and a surf guitar that is pure Beat Poets. Sonically, it all sounds a bit mad, a bit like it could all collapse at any moment and as such of course it is an exhilarating delight.

Speaking of collapse (hey, don’t you love these connections!), track three, the delirious ‘Beautiful’ seems to be rotating around the idea of collapse. The collapse of received visual expectation, wherein the object of Popular Desire is seen to be ‘beautiful, only slightly mental’, and that if we only knew what was going on in her life, ‘there would be a documentary on Radio 4.’ The collapse of shuffling jazzy brushed drums into a spiralling crescendo of mournful trumpet and brittle guitar pirouettes. It’s a strange song that stays inside you for hours. A song for mildly psychedelic funeral services.

‘Put The Book Back On The Shelf’ is another song I’ve been playing and adoring for several months, and with it’s glorious opening and trumpet refrain it’s going to be easy to see why. It’s another of the songs that features the semi-mythic Sebastian character, and as such continues the theme of self-questioning doubt and pity that previous songs in the series have brought to the fore (the eponymous track on the Dog On Wheels EP being the most obvious example). There’s the essence of deliberate withdrawal from the world here, a feeling which is prevalent in the whole Belle & Sebastian story, the very essence which is reflected upon with scorn in ‘Le Pastie’. And it’s these open peculiarities, this struggling to come to terms with personal status within society which Belle & Sebastian seem to me to so successfully embody.

The sleeve tells you that this is the end of the record, but instead there’s a short pause before the final, un-listed track ‘Songs For Children’ fades in. With it’s nod to the Pastels and the independent scene of the 1980s that Stuart at least was part of (if you doubted go read the sleevenotes here with the reference to bowl cuts and Postcard cats), it’s an odd but fitting adjunct to the record, with it’s simple insistent repetition of ‘Belle & Sebastian, on the radio, playing Songs For Children’, and although the apologetic ending almost grates, there’s still the feeling that they aren’t really sorry at all. Certainly one hopes so. It all sounds like the early Ben Watt records, or Blueboy in their acoustic and most fragile of moments. Pretty much insubstantial but all the more lovely for it.

So, five songs, the quality and depth of which you will struggle to find anywhere else in the ruins of Pop this year. Certainly as an antithesis to the brickie rock of Oasis, it’s way out paving the way for the new generation of lost but happy shambling poets and songwriters who have the souls of tender perverts. When you see them on Top Of The Pops you’ll know the revolution is under way, and they as you will know all about the (ir)relevance of it all. They’ll be down the front penning pictures of the hangings.

[the conclusion]

So Claire puts this paper down and goes ‘yeah yeah yeah.’ She nods at me and the tape recorder. ‘You forgot one thing’ she says. I go ‘what’s that then?’ and as she jumps off the desk, whips the tape from the recorder and legs it out the door I hear her shout ‘THEY SOUND FUCKING GREAT!!’

they sound fucking great!

© Alistair Fitchett September / October 1997.