Graded on a Curve:
Belle and Sebastian,
If you’re feeling sinister

So just the other day I was at my girlfriend’s place and I told her I’d been listening to Belle and Sebastian. And she said in amazement, “You? You?? But they’re so… emo!” To which I replied, my voice reaching that high and buzzard-like Geddy Lee pitch that I can only attain when genuinely flubbergumbled, “Emo my ass! I hate those emo fuckers! Those irony-deficient shitbags! They’re too busy setting their wretchedly sensitive and self-absorbed high school diary poems to music to realize life is a hilarious cosmic joke at their expense! Belle and Sebastian are twee, damn it, and have a sense of humor! Just listen to “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song”! I mean, gak!… Grrr!”

And after that I descended into uttering outraged gibberish while my poor girlfriend cowered at the far end of the sofa, fishing around for her son’s bb gun, which she occasionally uses to put a sudden stop to my insane ranting. There is nothing like a bb to the solar plexus to shut you up, and fast.

In hindsight, I got all heated up because while the music of Belle and Sebastian is precious beyond words, and unremittingly lovely to boot, front man and pop genius Stuart Murdoch undercuts all that divine loveliness with smart and very sexually ambiguous lyrics in which boys who love boys settle for girls (they’re not as much trouble!) and girls who love girls settle for boys (they’re not as much trouble!).

Why, the unbearably sublime “Stars of Track and Field” from 1996’s If you’re feeling sinister alone is a hilarious study of the polymorphous perverse sexual mores of our oh so very sophisticated young people, what with the girl in question playing track and field for only one reason: to wear “terry underwear/And feel the city air/Run past your body.” And Murdoch finishes his “requiem” for said star of track and field by singing, “But when she’s on her back/She had the knowledge/To get her into college.”

Murdoch comes off like a sexually precocious upper-former, slightly cynical beyond his years perhaps, but always couching his world-weariness in a witty sense of humor and even a kind of sweetness that lets you know he’s not exempt from the erotic public school dramas he loves to write about. As he sings wistfully (and with a touch of jealousy) in “Stars of Track and Field,” “In his blue velour and silk/You liberated a boy I never rated/Now he’s throwing discus/For Liverpool and Widnes.” And in the equally divine “Seeing Other People” Murdoch sings to a boy and maybe lover who doesn’t understand why “all the other boys are going for the/New, tall, elegant rich kids” that he’s “going to have to change/Or you’re going to have to go with girls/You might be better off/At least they know what they’re doing.”

Kissing “for practice” while “the other boys are queuing up behind us” is one odd line, but while the byzantine complexities of adolescent sexuality may be Murdoch’s forte, that isn’t to say he doesn’t explore other subjects, such as the older generation in the fast and harmonica-driven “Me and the Major,” about an odd couple of sorta friends who just happen to ride the same train. The major’s problem? “It’s you and I,” sings Murdoch, because, “We’re the younger generation, we grew up fast/All the others did drugs/They’re taking it out on us.” The major may remember “all the punks and the hippies too/And he remembers Roxy Music in Seventy-two,” but “he doesn’t understand and he doesn’t try/He knows there’s something missing and he knows it’s you and I.”

And I haven’t even mentioned that Murdoch possesses an uncanny knack for putting a song together, a talent that allows him to turn rather basic folk melodies in beguiling directions. The delicate and slow “Fox in the Snow” is moving and features a wonderful arrangement, to say nothing of a nice guitar solo, while the lithe and very “retro” sounding “Mayfly” is fast-moving and features a cool reverb-laden guitar and one wonderful solo. Even the dolorous and stripped-down “The Boy Done Wrong Again” (Murdoch on vocals, joined by the simple strumming of an acoustic guitar) features a deliriously lovely instrumental passage (violin, oh!), while the perky “Like Dylan in the Movies” (“If they follow you/Don’t look back/Like Dylan in the movies”) boasts an infectious melody and a surprisingly meaty guitar solo.

But in the end what gets you about Belle and Sebastian is Murdoch’s old-beyond-his-years’ sexual precocity. In the piano and drums-driven “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” Murdoch focuses his attention on a dead girl named Hilary, who “walked to her death because she couldn’t think of anything to say.” Murdoch adds, “She was into S&M and bible studies/Not everyone’s cup of tea she would admit to me/Her cup of tea she would admit to no one/Her cup of tea she would admit to me.” And in the winsome “Judy and the Dream of Horses” he sings to Judy, “The best looking boys are taken/The best looking girls are staying inside/So Judy, where does that leave you?/Walking the street from morning to night.” And returning to the subject of music, Murdoch’s long take-out (he repeats the title over and over again) is a thing of beauty, to quote Keats, and a joy forever.

Finally, Belle and Sebastian possess the confidence to make fun of themselves, as is proved in “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” in which Murdoch sings, “Think of it this way/You could either be successful or be us.” And on the delightful “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song,” which is not on If you’re feeling sinister but could well be Belle and Sebastian’s magnum opus, we are treated to the wonderful lines, “This is just a modern rock song/This is just a sorry lament/We’re four boys in our corduroys/We’re not terrific but we’re competent.” It’s a sure-fire winner, self-deprecating humor, or at least that’s the way I see things.

It kills me to say I haven’t liked the direction Belle and Sebastian has gone in over the years since I basically stopped listening to them; I’m the kind of guy who gets really suspicious when he sees the word “remix,” and one listen to the big disco beat of “Your Cover’s Blown (Miaoux Miaoux Remix)” off 2013’s The Third Eye Centre just about breaks my heart. I mean, I know we live in a change or die world, but still. I’m an iconoclast and a recidivist and by God, it makes me so upset that my poor girlfriend, cowering at the edge of the sofa, just may have to shoot me again with her son’s bb gun.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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