BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: IF YOU'RE FEELING SINISTER (1996)
1) The Stars Of Track And Field; 2) Seeing Other People; 3) Me And The Major; 4) Like Dylan In The Movies; 5) The Fox In The Snow; 6) Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying; 7) If You're Feeling Sinister; 8) Mayfly; 9) The Boy Done Wrong Again; 10) Judy And The Dream Of Horses.
Out of all the homogeneous richness of the Belle & Sebastian catalog, it was If You're Feeling Sinister that was somehow singled out for «cult» status — perhaps on the strength of the initial acclaim given to it by the then-freshly-rising Pitchforkmedia. The truth, I think, is that Murdoch, like most of his indie friends, operates on an «IV bag principle», yielding the required content on a steady, consistent, but slow and parsimonious basis, and this automatically prevents his band from having something like a «best ever» record, so it's all very much a question of putting something in the right place at the right time.
There is no denying, though, that If You're Feeling Sinister itself is consistent, intelligent, and extremely pleasant. If possible, it is even more mellow and fragile than Tigermilk, almost completely acoustic or, at least, with an almost completely acoustic feel to it, and Stuart makes no attempts whatsoever to distance himself from his preferred «vulnerable sissy kid» image. But then, why should he? All of his tough bully classmates were already probably busy unloading crates in Glasgow Harbour, while he, the back seat loner, was busy reaping fame, if not necessarily fortune to go along with it.
The ten songs recorded here are very even, melody-wise, and never seriously stray from the recipés bequested by Rubber Soul-era Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, and their peers. All of them, as could be expected, generate pretty much the same mood, although Murdoch himself is not able to put a finger on it in his lyrics. The chorus of ʽThe Boy Done Wrong Againʼ tries to summarize the mood — "All I wanted was to sing the saddest song / And if you would sing along / I will be happy now" — but «sadness» is not the permeating state on the album: the melodies are too lively for that, and the vocals too bright. «Phlegmatic tenderness» is more like it: the protagonist of If You're Feeling Sinister is essentially that shy, socially inept, but ultimately kind and affectionate kid in the class who says "I wanna be friends with you" to his object of affection and hands her a flower, instead of trying to take a peek under the skirt or something. Oh he's all grown up now, but he hasn't changed much.
He does see himself fit for a major statement or two. The title track is not only the longest song on here, taking nearly a minute of fast-paced strum and piano tuning to get to the first verse and adding playground noises to the background for importance' sake, but it is also the most moralistic one — an anti-religious rant, essentially, where the man not only takes up arms against the Catholic Church, but goes as far as to describe a girl as being "into S&M and Bible studies / Not everyone's cup of tea, she would admit to me". The rant is fairly blunt, culminating in the «offensive» final refrain ("If you are feeling sinister / Go off and see a minister / Chances are you'll probably feel better / If you stayed and played with yourself") which Murdoch mumbles rather incoherently (what if a priest were passing by?) — but if you are not paying too much attention to the lyrics, you will probably not even get the «ranting» in the first place, so innocent and fleeting and cuddly is this perky little folk dance.
The overall similarity of the moods and the melodies almost seems to drive the reviewer like a cattle prod into concentrating on the lyrics — but the lyrics mostly just serve the moods anyway, except for a misguided line on two (ʽLike Dylan In The Moviesʼ is a particularly unlucky title: the refrain goes "If they follow you, don't look back / Like Dylan in the movies", but although it is nice to know that Murdoch is well educated on certain elements of Sixties' pop culture, there is nothing else that would be «Dylanish» about this song, or this musical approach in general — now Donovan, that might have been a much better connection, not to mention that Donovan was also captured in Don't Look Back, so why not just sing "like Donovan in the movies" instead? Oh well, never mind). Okay, here is one more example: "At the final moment, I cried / I always cry at endings". Satisfied? Moving on now.
Actually, there is nowhere left to move: individual descriptions of these songs would make no sense, because their melodic underbelly is quite traditional and their atmospheric value is so uniform. But even if you do not easily memorize the melodies, it would be hard to ignore the seductiveness — with its tasteful, humble, sensual combination of acoustic guitars, pianos, and strings, Murdoch's «chamber folk-pop», having filtered out those few «rockier» elements the boys were uncomfortable with on Tigermilk, reaches its highest level of perfection here. Later albums could be just as strong, or even contain better songs every once in a while, but this is where the formula sets in place, so I guess we shouldn't be too angry at Pitchfork reviewers or anybody else for making their pick — after all, if you only want to get one Belle & Sebastian album, you might just as well follow my thumbs up, too, and get this one, and if you want to get more than one Belle & Sebastian album, you probably read Byron and Shelley in the evenings by candlelight, and have no further need for these reviews (especially since, sooner or later, they are inevitably bound to get more and more sarcastic).
Check "If You're Feeling Sinister" (CD) on Amazon
Check "If You're Feeling Sinister" (MP3) on Amazon