Review Summary: Classic Albums Month Pt. 1: Life-sized Models of The Velvet Underground in Clay.
There's something just so Belle & Sebastian about Stuart Murdoch handing in Tigermilk
, his debut, as a requirement for a University course. Himself a sarcastic, whispery, and lovelorn fellow of understated intelligence, of course he would create his debut as a limited press for professors' ears only. That's without taking into account that Tigermilk
is a brilliant album; it's one of the best records to come out of the UK in the '90s.
A product of much love for Nick Drake, The Smiths, and Felt, Murdoch spent 7 years of his life confined to his bedroom due to chronic fatigue syndrome. Agonizingly, he spent much of his time drifting between limited bouts of consciousness and sleep, characterized by an unconfident and hazy touch on reality. Upon finally emerging healthy, it makes all the sense in the world he would become a raconteur for the outsiders.
Within the first handful of seconds on "The State I Am In" it's apparent, wryly mumbling, 'I was surprised, I was happy for a day/in 1975/I was puzzled by a dream/it stayed with me all day/in 1995
'. Already, you have no option but to root for him. His words lack the morose stab of Morrissey or the technical prowess of Nick Drake; he makes up for it by portraying a complex victim who refuses to play dead.
Time and time again, Murdoch's characters emerge as underdogs not only worthy of your sympathies but connecting with your own experiences. That's true of the cynical quips contained within "I Don't Love Anyone", where respite is offered in 'except maybe my sister/and maybe my baby brother, too
', offering that glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. Support emerged beneath the subtly constructed hooks and orchestral backdrops, giving Murdoch the upper-hand above his peers. It would be hard to expect Morrissey could handle the suicidal lead of "She's Losing It", but Murdoch manages to portray the complex tapestry of emotions that it takes to make the narrative alternately macabre and humorous.
That's without observing the perfection that is Murdoch's songwriting, a charming take on standard rock instrumentation and big band flourishes. Album highlights "Expectations" and "My Wandering Days Are Over" benefit from the panoramic vistas bestowed upon them by viola and piano, while the 6-minute crescendo of "I Could Be Dreaming" proves Murdoch was already capable of writing epics from an early age. Even "Electronic Renaissance", a Hacienda banger in disguise, manages to make an impact with its washes of shoegazing synths and echoed vocal effects.
Underscored by wordplay that makes even the strangest of phrases become memorable and emotionally impactful, Tigermilk
became a strange proposition. At once showing promise, it was also a career highlight, foreshadowing the successful structure of If You're Feeling Sinister
and The Boy with the Arab Strap
. Odd though it may have been for Belle & Sebastian to succeed in America (relatively speaking), Tigermilk
remains an underrated and essential purchase for alternative rock fans everywhere.