Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 26)
Stuart Murdoch doesn’t make for much of a cult leader. He lacks the powerful speaking ability of Jim Jones, never managed the cult of personality that Stalin constructed, or the fanatical self belief of L. Ron Hubbard. Belle & Sebastian began its first twinkling while Murdoch was attending university. Towards the end of his schooling career he was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, confining him to his parent’s home for 7 years. A bedridden, wispy little Scottish boy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when they envision the fist shaking, deep throated cult leader. But as Murdoch began recovering from his illness, he started poking at the family piano, and a cult leader was born.
In 1994, Murdoch was placed into a local program in Glasgow for unemployed musicians called Beatbox. There, he met Stuart David who joined in on bass. During the few occasions the two were allowed access to a studio the first bits of songs began taking shape. They were simple and meek but undoubtedly promising, Murdoch began looking for more players. Soon, David’s roommate Richard Colburn joined on drums. Guitarist Stevie Jackson had just left the The Moondials when Murdoch started begging him to join his band. After a few sessions together, he was finally persuaded to join after a series of letters sent by Murdoch, the last of which said simply, “Help me make this record.” Isobell Campbell met Murdoch while drunk at a party in line for the bathroom; she joined as a cellist and vocalist. It was Campbell’s nickname, Belle, along with a short story that Murdoch had been writing that inspired the band’s name. Chris Geddes was studying in Glasgow when he was approached to join the band on keyboard.
Around this time, Colburn was taking a Music Business course at Stow College that concluded each year by taking a demo tape from an unsigned band that the students could promote. Colburn handed in Belle & Sebastian’s demo tape, Dog on Wheels
, which floored the instructor and had the band brought in to record their debut in 5 days. That debut was Tigermilk
. Word of its quality spread quickly and major label interest followed.
”Make a new cult everyday to suit your affairs.”
“We knew we could take a large advance from somebody, but we were smart enough to know that wasn’t the way to go.” Reflected Murdoch, “I wanted to control the whole thing, I knew as soon as you take money from people they start telling you what to do.” Mark Jones, co-founder of Jeepster Records, signed the band under Murdoch’s terms. No singles from albums, no promoting records, no appearing in press photos. This is where the cult leader aspect comes in. Unlike most newly singed bands, eager to preen and pose on magazine covers and talk shows across the country, Murdoch kept almost completely out of sight. This led to a surge of interest in his identity; Belle & Sebastian’s following was small but extremely dedicated. By the time of If You’re Feeling Sinister
’s release in 1996, Murdoch had built himself a cult following out of a few misfits with instruments and a cheaply recorded collection of songs.
In order to sustain a cult, you need to give its members a place to live separate from reality and that’s what Murdoch does on Belle & Sebastian’s sublime If You’re Feeling Sinister
. Murdoch creates characters and little worlds for them to live in. But unlike Damon Albarn, who has nothing but contempt for his characters as they are extensions of the most loathsome aspects of his own personality, or Jarvis Cocker, who’s characters are created for black comedic purposes, Murdoch sketches his characters with a tender touch. He loves the little losers that populate his songs. Murdoch’s characters tend to find themselves in-between states, caught somewhere between the security and helplessness of childhood and the confidence and uncertainty of adulthood.
”If we all went back to another time/I will love you over.”
The “honey with a following of innocent boys” in “Stars of Track and Field” always managed herself well “but when she’s on her back, she had the knowledge to get her into college.” This is no mere slut-shaming though, we are only given this detail after experiencing the thrill of “The city air run past your body” along side her. It’s impossible to judge after taking the journey with the girl, instead it feels like an unfortunate necessity to get what she wants. The title track’s Hilary, “into S&M and bible studies […] she would admit to me”, searches for meaning and religion but no matter how attractive faith appears she simply “wants to know how and why and when and where to go.” The four characters in “The Fox in the Snow” – the fox, the girl, the boy, and the kid – are presented with no particular insight into their trials but there is a distinct longing running beneath Murdoch’s observations. Whether it’s the fox just looking for the food to survive the winter or the boy riding his bike across town for nothing, everyone is looking for something they cant define. When Murdoch only writes in first person once on IF You’re Feeling Sinister
and he uses it to further his desire to escape through fiction, either his own or the work of others. “Said the hero in the story/’It is mightier than sword/I could kill you sure but I could only make you cry with these words.’”
What ties these little stories together is Murdoch’s uncanny ability to interlace his songs with the subtlest of hooks. Unlike songs that shout the catchy bits from the rooftops, beefing them up with countless overdubs and harmonies, subtle hooks can run through ones head all day with no annoyance whatsoever. Take, for instance, “Seeing Other People”. Right off the bat that wandering “Linus & Lucy”-esque piano runs through the entire song, ensuring firm bedrock for Murdoch. In lieu of a proper chorus, Murdoch plants little melodic gems to implant themselves in the folds of your brain. There’s the “Gigalo… woa, woa” bit, the new harmony at the top of the second verse, the slightly elongated vowels in “new tall elegant rich kid”, and each verse is capped by “seeing other people at least that’s what we say we are doing”.
Thanks to Stuart David’s gentle thrum and Richard Colburn’s persistent drumming, If You’re Feeling Sinister
flows like a stream. Its 41 minutes seem to disappear in 20. The run of songs stretching from “Like Dylan in the Movies” to “If You’re Feeling Sinister” is as good a run of songs as any in pop music history. Stuart Murdoch and his band of misfit musicians changed indie forever with their sophmore album. If You’re Feeling Sinister
is an utterly necessary collection of songs. Murdoch has compressed empathy into pop music form, in 4 minute doses its characters feel like good friends who’s lives continue outside the confines of the songs they are born into. This is music to believe in. If you’re there for it, it will always be there for you.