It is amusing to think of the title of Belle and Sebastian‘s sophomore full-length as a postscript attached to messages inviting friends, family and arbitrarily selected strangers to listen to the album. Not that it would be unfounded. While the music is simple, acoustic guitar driven indie-pop, and Stuart Murdoch’s voice is soft and lyrical, his lyrics are barbed with a singularly (and charmingly) venomous wit. The infusion of this wit into arrangements that range from delicate and fey to exuberant and raucous, is what made Belle and Sebastian great from the beginning. It always annoys me when someone writes them off (in conversation or in writing) with a dismissive wave of the hand and a haughty assertion that they are “too precious.” I’ve heard it plenty of times, too many times to still let it get under my skin. The only revenge I have exacted is this: whenever I play The Life Pursuit at the bar where I work, someone asks, nearly without fail, who it is, and when I say “Belle and Sebastian” a confused look often takes hold of the asker’s features, a look that says, “Oh, shit…I thought I safely wrote them off years ago.”
Of course, there are myriad fans of the band, many that push head on into obsession. They are that kind of band—they polarize listeners. And then, in 2006, after a string of hit and miss material, they delivered one of the most irresistible pop albums—complete with a couple of spot-on singles—in recent memory. And that seemed to surprise people, both positively and negatively, but the truth is the seeds were there from the beginning. The uncanny sense for emotionally resonant melody (though more subtly expressed), the deft ear for instrumentation and arrangement, the capacity for expressing joy adequately and without sinister motive. Murdoch’s skill at stringing details together into a satisfying form of storytelling emerged nearly whole and, as for their penchant for the morose, for “old sad bastard music” as it was once expressed…there is no antidote without the poison.
For me the heart of If You’re Feeling Sinister has always been the title track and “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying,” a pair of hilarious heartbreakers, hummable and mischievous, comfortably situated beside each other at the beginning of the album’s second half. The latter is in first person and slips between Murdoch’s own experiences and those of a fictional boy from a story he read. When he sings the title line again and again toward the end of the track it is surprisingly celebratory, a fracturing, or maybe even an exorcism, of despair. The consolation of literature is there, the consolation of melancholy and a motive for making music (“Nobody writes them like they used to so it may as well be me“).
“If You’re Feeling Sinister,” in contrast, describes a few characters, vividly alive through brief description, each at a personal crossroads. It weaves a jaunty rhythm and a somber tone into something playfully moving, full of particulars that tempt one to read into them. Like the album as a whole, it is both a delightful pop song and a miniature world that draws one further and further in. Doing two things at once was already a trademark of Belle and Sebastian by this point. And the fact that If You’re Feeling Sinister continues to exude its magic so many years later is a testament to their skill at doing so, at crafting music with dimension and depth in a languidly enticing form indebted, in equal measure, to the past and their own distinct sense for creating songs that only seem to grow richer with the passing years.