Stuart Murdoch leads an interesting life. The 39 year old Glaswegian, lead singer and songwriter of Belle & Sebastian, has certainly not experienced what would be considered a normal early life.
Murdoch was unable to graduate from university due to chronic fatigue, an illness characterized by recurrent bouts of severe exhaustion, which consistently kept him out of work due to his poor physical and mental health. It lasted seven years. Only in 1995 did he recover, founded Belle & Sebastian and only a year later released both Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister. Both albums are considered Belle & Sebastian's career high points and it would not be mad to proclaim If You're Feeling Sinister as the ensemble's magnum opus.
Seven years of chronic fatigue is not an easy obstacle to overcome and it certainly had its effect on Murdoch. He refers to it as "a kind of vacuum in my life," and Murdoch's inspiration behind this record is drawn from this, as he states, "From that, these songs started coming out, these melodies where I could express what I was feeling.". The melodies he constructs in If You're Feeling Sinister are delicate, almost frail, as a reflection of the state that Murdoch had been put in. Haplessly drifting guitar rhythms, buoyant violins, and the elfin voice of Murdoch as he elaborates on the wry, story-style lyrics, are what define this album. They are the expression of a man trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation.
The subtlety of the music can only be admired. After all, who would've guessed that the band boasted a 7-member line up? The anti-climatic drum build-up of the opening track only makes the refrain later on in the song more exciting, accompanied by a lone trumpet, while the inconspicuously menacing guitar hints at the theme of the song: a schoolgirl sleeping her way through school. The descending piano notes of 'Seeing Other People' bring the listener to 'Me and the Major,' an up-tempo, harmonica-driven piece, held together with a swaying ambiance. 'Like Dylan and the Movies' layers the vocals to harmonize with each other and as the song comes to a close over a melodic guitar line and chilling cello notes, the soft notes of the piano that begin 'The Fox In The Snow' commence. Everything about the song is delicate, from the staccato guitar strumming to the ascending violins only to fall to the suppressed vocals of Murdoch, letting emotion slip through his lips on the occasional higher note.
As strong as the first half of the album started, the second half continues, proving the consistency of the record. 'Get Away From Here, I'm Dying' is delightfully melancholic, exemplifying the dark, cynical wit of Murdoch's lyrics, and riding gracefully upon a light and catchy melody. The title track consistently features the sound of children in the background, as beautiful vocal harmonies, an intricate string arrangement and a light, uplifting piano line accompany the vocals as Murdoch talks about the obscurities of belief and likewise non-belief. 'Mayfly' is another light and catchy melody, leading straight into the pained 'The Boy Done Wrong Again'. It's the most simplistic song on the album, displaying Murdoch's ability to use nothing but his vocals, a guitar and a bass, but still craft a melody that stands tall next to any other song on the record. The vocals sing hopefully, as if reaching out and expecting a response, until finally a gorgeously-constructed violin duo joins in, maintaining their rhythm until the conclusion of the song. 'Judy and the Dream of Horses' helps the record return to the same acoustic-led melody structure that many of the songs contain and ends the album on a foot-tapping note, as the trumpet melody in the short interlude is absolutely irresistible.
This is a record filled from start to finish with softly arranged tunes that can be described as nothing less than pleasant and at their finest moments gorgeous. The sweet melodies often cover the wry and dark lyrics, creating an odd melancholic contrast. Belle & Sebastian's second release brings them closer to having mastered the art of creating near-flawless melodies. Melodies complemented by the likes of a lone trumpet or an ascending piano create a solitary feeling, such as loneliness, which is just one of the things Murdoch dealt with during his illness. I mean, what says 'sorrow' as much as a waning cello? Though Murdoch's vocals may seem like a man unaffected, the moments that he pushes aside his stoicism are as rewarding as suppressed emotion gets. The critical acclaim, the cult following, the strong influence on indie pop; it's all there for a reason. This record is really that good.