Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Past Greatness: December '17

Welcome to the 13th installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's album weaves fantastical storytelling about the complexity of everyday life through exceptionally chipper Indie Pop

Belle & Sebastian | If You're Feeling Sinister
1996 | Indie Pop | Listen

Every morning, as I wake up, sauntering my way into the shower, cleaning up with a half dead brain, a totally random song will be playing on loop in my head. It will stay until the shower ends and my day officially begins. Typically, there's relevance and modernity, having been a song I heard the previous day or one that's been on repeat the past few. Much like dreams however, these songs poof out of existence once the daily trails begin (today was an 80's one-hit wonder I can't recall). I mention this rather useless personal tidbit because in the past few weeks a pattern has emerged, coinciding with the first time If You're Feeling Sinister warmed my heart. No album has latched onto me in such a demanding way in recent memory. Many liken Belle & Sebastian's standout to a sweater; draped over you, caressing your body to keep you warm. I concur. It's a Fall album, by and by, but with these frigid, single-degree temperatures looming over New England, the infectious flutter of teenage incongruity Belle & Sebastian mastered did a better job shielding my heart from glaciating than the multi-layered ski jacket I cloak myself in. That's impressive.

What I find most magical about If You're Feeling Sinister is how concrete the praise is. With most albums, different favorites emerge for different audiences, the overall impression drastically different too. But here, the adoration converges onto two main sticking points; Stuart Murdoch's impeccable songwriting, and the group's cutesy, Twee Pop tonality. It's all anyone talks about. There's a reason adding an extra flavor to peanut butter and jelly is blasphemy; there's no need to. Belle & Sebastian's lovable charm can be found in the synchronicity of those two halves; Murdoch's ambiguity and the production's absolute explicitness. One has you questioning righteousness, faith, reluctance, direction, intention, while the other simply provides the backdrop of a chaste college campus and the moralistic pamphlets it hands out. Salt and sugar, sweet and sour.

There's no better example (well, there's a few) of this flawless linkage than the opener 'The Stars Of Track And Field.' Belle & Sebastian's harmless identity begins here, as tender musical timidness grows in confidence amidst Murdoch's own dawdling. On the surface, it's seemingly about the attraction of athletic people from the perspective of a bookworm overlooking the track from their nook in the library, right? But in actuality, Murdoch's deception triangulates on a particular runner, one who uses her attraction as leverage in a male-dominated world, even though she herself may be a lesbian. All the meanwhile, we simultaneously focus on a journalist covering said runner and the various ways in which he'd write about her pizzazz. The layers are boundless, and that goes without mentioning the marching band builds, Murdoch's slight of hand note shifts (his effortless rise in the line "she never needed anyone to get around the track" is pure bliss), and Mick Cooke's leery trumpet solo. It's such a sophisticated work.

That aforementioned paragraph could be repeated for each and every track here. They're just that conceptually dense. Murdoch's lyrical complexity and the music's earnest simplicity never waver. The resultant work is of massive scholarly proportions. Only an ensemble of dedicated students questioning everything around them, caught in a period of metaphysical transformation, could produce If You're Feeling Sinister. It's caught between the crossroads of innocence and understanding. Follow-up track 'Seeing Other People' a consummate example of this. It might be my favorite here. The breathless pacing, both on the Indie Pop front and Murdoch's chipper prose, equates to that of teenagers experiencing romantic impasses concerning their sexual identity. And it's glorious. You know that cheesy cliche found in movies, tv shows, and commercials, where a carefree listener prances down the street with their hands placed firmly against their over-the-ear headphones? Never once have I done that before, but if a time would come, 'Seeing Other People' would be the song dancing on the inside.

You can add 'Me And The Major' to that small list as well. Another fast-paced foxtrot that takes on the endless battle between young and old, liberal and conservative, doing so in such an awe-inspiring way. Murdoch dances, perhaps distraughtly, over the idea that he and a lonely veteran could become friends if the latter could unhinge his cavaliering pride. His scorn to the youth enjoying privileges he once denied himself prevents him from melding the ever-widening gap. Comparisons can be drawn to Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin,' which is sad considering 32 years had passed between songs with no change, 18 between us and 'Me And The Major' and the same could be said. As Murdoch so eloquently puts it, "he doesn't understand and he doesn't try." As Dylan does too; "don't criticize what you can't understand / your sons and daughters are beyond your command." That Dylan influence carries directly over into 'Like Dylan In The Movies,' a song concerning the dangers looming in the shadows of the once-public world using the Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back as an associative point. Another obvious standout on an album filled with them.

Unfortunately, the entire album isn't filled with granular ideas that scale to the heavens and back. To enclose the album means to find beauty in those quaint corners, and that's where 'The Fox In The Snow' and 'The Boy Done Wrong Again' come to play. They're my least favorite works, but only for the fact that I struggle to find interest in slower songs that lack an immediate punch. But if there's one person to insert value through his lyrics, it's Murdoch. Both embody the somber tone Belle & Sebastian carry throughout the record, only this time around there isn't an uppity injection to sway you in the other direction. Each track has some truly memorable lines, including the former's "boy on the bike, what are you like / as you cycle round the town? You're going up, you're going down, you're going nowhere" and the latter's "all I wanted was to sing the saddest song / and if you would sing along / I would be happier." It's these silent moments on If You're Feeling Sinister that truly give life to the sprightly felicity elsewhere, something that's glued to the melancholy on 'Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying' and 'Mayfly.'

Musically, it's not my favorite track, but the power of 'If You're Feeling Sinister' can not be understated. It finds that sublime groove between dejected and elated, as Murdoch aims his sights on two lost souls; Anthony and Hilary. The latter encompasses most of the song, as she traverses a mind field of misunderstanding, primarily surrounding religion and the insatiable nature of it. While there's plenty to chew through here (the final line - "but 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" - is outstanding), it's actually Anthony's minor verse that creates the biggest impact, precisely because of how short it is. Like Peter's life in Office Space, where each passing day was worse than the last, Anthony "walked to his death" through depression, abruptly cut off by the hopeless statement: "And if there is something else beyond, he isn't scared because it's bound to be less boring than today / it's bound to be less boring than tomorrow." An absolutely disheartening line about suicide made all the more impact by a group of glee-filled children frolicking in the background.

That's the power of If You're Feeling Sinister. It messes with your head. Murdoch messes with your head. At times, he's making music as cold and forlorn as any number of famed Singer/Songwriter's (Elliott Smith comes to mind, as does Phil Elverum), all the while boasting some of the prettiest, most sincere Indie Pop you'll ever hear. At this point I've mentioned every song, and this review went way longer than expected, so I might as well speak on behalf of 'Judy And The Dream Of Horses,' the album's masterfully opaque closer. Like any number of songs in Belle & Sebastian's discography, 'Judy' is about a character who's at her wits end, lost in her future, yet powered by the inescapable intrigue onset by the Twee. The song's building, which actually finds some similarities to Phil Spector's Brill Building, eventually blossoms into this explosively-spirited takeoff, one which finds Judy retreating into her dreams because "the best looking boys are taken, the best looking girls are staying inside." Another deceptive stance taken by Murdoch, someone who spent months detached from society, despite finding pleasures in the introverted nuance. The final bridge is such a fitting end to If You're Feeling Sinister, as it finds Belle & Sebastian in total unison. Murdoch wailing his little falsetto out as every member clashes their instruments in bright, brimming harmony. Just fantastic.

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