Up until their unfortunate discovery by the New York Times Sunday Magazine, I bought every Belle and Sebastian album, having latched onto them during high school and continuing the relationship through college and a bit beyond. Beginning with If You’re Feeling Sinister, I bought their albums without bothering to sample them in advance because I knew that I would be hearing that increasingly rare combination of singable melodies and intelligent lyrics.
Let me pause here and engage in emphatic emphasis. INTELLIGENT LYRICS. Intelligent, literate lyrics rich in imagery and meaning. Imagine that in our dumbed-down age!
The credit for composition is generally shared with the band, but there’s no question that Stuart Murdoch is the strongest lyricist and the driving force. Though at times he can get a little-too English majoresque (always a risk with those who target the college crowd), his successes more than compensate for the times when he’s been reading too much Anthony Trollope. While I could have started anywhere in their catalog, the linear approach does get rather dull after a while, so I’m starting with The Life Pursuit, technically their seventh studio album. It’s my personal favorite primarily because Stuart takes center stage and graces us with some of his best character sketches.
The Life Pursuit opens with “Act of Apostles, Pt 1,” where the opening piano and percussion combination make you feel like you’ve stepped to a Ramsey Lewis album and you’re about become part of “The In Crowd.” While Belle and Sebastian are hardly musical innovators, they do a good job changing styles and instrumentation to help stave off boredom. They are also good at generating pleasant melodies, and this song has an exceptionally strong, flowing melody that’s a real brain-sticker. And the lyrics—well! This story of a girl out of sync with the patterns of life at parochial school, probably due to a combination of adolescence and an ailing mother, is full of vivid images and soaring lyricism:
The lesson today was the Acts of Apostles
The crazy hippies, they’re running scared
She shut her eyes and imagined the desert
No cars, no mobiles, just sun and bread
What would she look like standing by the well?
More like a woman and less like a girl
‘Oh, if I could make sense of it all!
I wish that I could sing
I’d stay in a melody
I would float along in my everlasting song
What would I do to believe?’
The song ends on that chorus, so we’ll have to wait for Part 2 to appear later in the album to discover her fate.
Belle and Sebastian really shine when they combine bouncy music with contrasting lyrics—sometimes melancholy, sometimes ironic, often rich in meaning. “Another Sunny Day” opens as happily as something by Freddie and the Dreamers, but Freddie never came close to lyrics like these:
Another sunny day, I met you up in the garden
You were digging plants, I dug you, beg your pardon
I took a photograph of you in the herbaceous border
It broke the heart of men and flowers, and girls, and trees
The narration continues with each verse describing a scene out of the couple’s life, mingling precious memories, flashes of erotic recall and images of special places. I particularly love how the relationship dynamics play out in one verse, “Another day in June, we’ll pick eleven for football/We’re playing for our lives, the referee gives us fuck all/I saw you in the corner of my eye on the sidelines/Your dark mascara bids me to historical deeds.” The apparently pleasant memories are wiped away by the last verse, one that serves as the poetic equivalent of a guillotine:
The lovin’ is a mess, what happened to all of the feeling?
I thought it was for real, babies, rings and fools kneeling
And words of pledging trust and lifetimes stretching forever
So what went wrong? It was a lie, it crumbled apart
Ghost figures of past, present, future haunting the heart
“White Collar Boy” comes next with its heavy distorted bass opening a very playful song with cascading contributions from the band members. Though Belle and Sebastian would never be confused with John Coltrane in terms of musical sophistication, all the band members are disciplined musicians who rarely overplay their hand. “White Collar Boy” has more sonic diversity than most of their songs, but they usually know when to avoid traveling the path that leads to excess.
In “The Blues Are Still Blue,” they get down and reveal themselves as a more than capable pop-rock unit. This is one of those wonderful songs that just makes you feel good all over with its tongue-in-cheek attitude, clever wordplay, harmonic touches and perfectly executed instrumentation; the feeling is one of laughter bubbling just below the surface with just enough rock ‘n’ roll to keep the mojo going.
Next is the absolutely brilliant character sketch, “Dressed Up in You.” This first-person narrative describes a story of a woman who was once “the singer in the band” who agrees to bring another woman into the group, one with “a beautiful face—it will take you places.” The beautiful one proves to have greater ambition and drive than the narrator and despite an understanding sealed “with our blood,” the beauty fails to keep her word and leapfrogs over the narrator into stardom. Now the narrator is out of the picture, working in a nail salon and having to endure a morning commute that proves to be a bitter reminder of betrayal:
You kept running, you’ve got money, you’ve got fame
Every morning I see your picture from the train
Now you’re an actress, so says your résumé
You’re made of card, you couldn’t act your way out of a paper bag.
Speaking as a woman who knows women, centuries of cultural submission have led many of us to express the deep angst and anger we feel about sexist limitations through bitchy, passive aggression:
You got lucky, you ain’t talking to me now
Little Miss Plucky, pluck your eyebrows for the crowd
Get on the airplane, you give me stomach pain
I wish that you were here, we would have had a lot to talk about.
That last line is so perceptive—I’ve often heard many female friends flip into total bitch mode with acid dripping from their tongues, only to end the rant with a 180-degree shift to “let’s kiss and make up.” I don’t know if that’s driven by guilt about showing our aggressive side or our automatic relational response, but it’s a very curious pattern. As our narrator wobbles between rage, reason and regret, her language becomes more complex, full of subtle digs and stinging tails:
I always loved you, you always had a lot of style
I’d hate to see you on the pile
Of ‘nearly made its’, you’ve got the essence, dear
If I could have a second skin I’d probably dress up in you
You’re a star now, I am fixing people’s nails
I’m knitting jumpers, I’m working after hours
I’ve got a boyfriend, I’ve got a feeling that he’s seeing someone else
He always had a thing for you as well
Of course, she can’t hold it in forever, and when she lets it out, she is of course scorned by unfeeling men who view emotional displays with distaste rather than as a cry for help and understanding:
It’s a fault I have, I know when things don’t go my way I have to
Blow up in the face of my rivals
I swear and rant, I make quite an arrival
The men are surprised by the language
They act so discreet, they are hypocrites so fuck them too
The song ends without resolution, which may be unsatisfying but certainly reflects reality. It’s an unfortunate thing, but victimization becomes a comfy black hole for most in our disempowering world. “Dressed Up in You” is incredibly insightful on so many levels that I’ve spent hours admiring the tension, the subtleties and the dark humor . . . it’s an amazing piece of musical poetry.
And a hard act to follow. The middle of the album is, well, okay, but nothing here really knocks my socks off. “Sukie in the Graveyard” is a hip-shaking little number about a girl who finally figured out she was born an outcast, with interests and motivations that have no place in polite society. It’s mildly interesting but the too-busy arrangement is distracting. “We Are the Sleepyheads” has interesting high-pitch vocal patter but not much substance. “Song for the Sunshine” begins like a slow-funk song, moving into a very familiar melody that I can’t quite place, then takes a turn towards sunny harmony that’s rather pretty . . . but as a whole it feels pieced together. I kind of wish they’d built the song around the harmonic passage, which really is quite lovely. “Funny Little Frog” was something of a hit, but here they cross that line into “cutesy English major” where Paul Simon did most of his work. “To Be Myself Completely” doesn’t improve things much; it’s something of a pedestrian effort (though the bass part deserves kudos).
It’s a good thing that the band decides to resume the story that opened the album with “Act of the Apostle, Pt. 2.” After an intriguing duet of piano and electronic keyboard, Part 2 opens with a late-night lounge feel as our little girl experiences teenage ennui. She grabs a train, heads for the city, picks up an Independent and conjures up the more acceptable academic persona to gain strength as she attempts to escape the drudgery of parochial school and parental noise:
My Damascan Road’s my transistor radio
I tune in at night when my mum and my dad start to fight
I put on my headphones
And I tune out
I am devout
The girls are singing about my life
But they’re not here, they’ve got the wild life
Now in search of “the face behind the voice,” the main theme returns to lead her . . . to a church. Not a very adventurous lass, eh? Her too-timid journey in search of self will lead her back home:
She asked the man if the service was open
‘Not today, just the choir from the radio’
‘Couldn’t I sit in? I’ve come all this way’
‘Will you bugger off, I’ve got work to do.’
The city was losing its appeal
God was asleep
He was back in her village, in the fields
In the end, you realize that the title’s use of the singular pronoun was no accident: the girl is the apostle . . . an apostle in search of meaning, wavering between God and something else that she has yet to discover. The suite ends with that too-beautiful chorus:
‘Oh, if I could make sense of it all!
I wish that I could sing
I’d stay in a melody
I would float along in my everlasting song
What would I do to believe?’
I really wish they would have ended the album with this piece, as it would have given the album a satisfying sense of completion. It’s not that the two songs that follow are disasters, but “For the Price of a Cup of Tea” is another too-familiar melody and “Mornington Crescent” is a rather rambling ode that seems somewhat moralistic.
These criticisms have to be taken with a grain of salt. For all its flaws, The Life Pursuit is a blessing because Belle and Sebastian tends to reach higher than the rest. Rimbaud is my favorite poet, but that doesn’t mean I love everything he’s ever done. The same is true with Belle and Sebastian: none of their albums are perfect, and I doubt very much I would like them if they were. As Nathaniel Hawthorne revealed in his short story “The Birthmark” (a parable I heartily recommend), perfection can destroy the beauty, and the pursuit of perfection can destroy the pursuer. Stuart Murdoch and his troupe are wide awake to life and, like many of us, trying to figure it all out. In a world where too many people have decided that life is money, fame or looks, it’s deeply satisfying to know there are artists like Belle and Sebastian willing to explore the unsolved mystery of being human, flaws and all.
I used to be an ardent admirer of Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian fame. Sigh. Such a fine songwriter! The Boy with the Arab Strap was one of my favorite albums of all time and I didn’t miss Isobel or the alt-Stuart when they decided to split. I loved The Life Pursuit, too!
Then Stu got a spread in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and started to believe he was as great as they said he was and became yet another pretentious musician with a pretentious fan base (who insist on describing Belle & Sebastian’s music as “art,” the kiss of death for any band).
Anyway, Murdoch’s demise left me a-yearning for something from Bonny Scotland, which led me to stumble upon Admiral Fallow. This is a more folk-influenced band with delightfully intense Scottish accents who have been playing second fiddle to bands like Belle & Sebastian for a few years. I downloaded a copy of their latest release, Tree Bursts in Snow, and I am here to make my official pronouncement about its worth.
Definitely worth it and then some!
Singer-songwriter Louis Abbott is front man and songwriter for the band, and he sings his lyrics with passion and precision. While I certainly would have appreciated a digital booklet (and the lyrics deserve one), I had no problem following and the words and the subtext.
And the band is so very, very good! The precision never turns sterile, the arrangements are often complex but never interfere with the stories in the songs and the diversity of sound is remarkable for the genre. The strings are particularly moving and lovely in the song “Burn,” and the simple guitar pluck-accordion-clarinet-bass-drum arrangement of “Oh, Oscar” creates a moving musical picture.
Tree Bursts in Snow opens with the lovely voice of Sarah Hayes on the semi-title track, “Tree Bursts.” Sarah and Louis alternate passages in a superb build that moves from soft to full band to pure acoustic sounds and harmonies. The song is a courageous opener, for they’re singing about things that most of the people in our vampire-and-tits obsessed world would like to avoid. Louis Abbott described the work like this:
“The title refers to the sound and the image of an artillery shell exploding into a cluster of snow-drenched trees.…I’m also astounded by the sheer volume of gun related violent crimes throughout the world but in particular in the U.S. The lyric from ‘Tree Bursts’ was inspired by the idea of the effect that losing friends through violence, in particular during times of war or conflict has on young men and women. They are ‘the leaves that fall louder than backfire, all orange and Halloween red.'” (Source-Wikipedia, “Admiral Fallow”).
The second song is the explosive driver, “The Paper Trench,” which would be a kick to dance to in an open floor pub somewhere deep in the back streets of Glasgow. Not a band to back off, they treat us to another energetic piece, “Guest of the Government,” a song with pointed and insightful lyrics about the waste of life and energy we know as drug abuse. The powerful catchiness of this song has made it impossible for me to get it out of my head for weeks, so now it’s your turn:
Sarah and Louis come together again on the “Beetle in the Box,” a piece grounded in a steady dance beat and spare arrangement that allows you to appreciate the vocal duet . “Old Fools” is a more reflective piano-based number that gives us a bit of a breather before the fabulous sing-along folk-anthem, “Isn’t This World Enough?” The line “All those living in splendor and in sunshine/Isn’t this world enough?” should be tattooed on every forearm attached to a person obsessed with first-world problems. “Brother” features toe-tapping beats and a rising and falling melodic line that beautifully carries the story of human disconnection.
“The Way You Were Raised” is my absolute favorite. I love the way its insistent rhythm, piano touches and dreamy flute mingle to create a soundscape with just the right amount of space to for Louis to relate the tale of his violent journey of self-discovery. In this song, the journey is an escape— the escape from the expectations and traditions of masculine pride and combative challenge:
‘What was that?’ as the stuff that I spout leaves my lips
There, a crack from behind from some cat with a death wish
And the twitch takes the trail south to my heels
To the homeless steel toe capped edge
And though hopped up on black juice with red eyes and fists
The sight of my future bout rids me of red mist . . .
Strength in numbers and width like two bears on a mouse
I give a thought to the organ that beats in my mouth
And say balls to a hurricane
I’ll toast to my health
Everyday it’s the battering of bones
It’s the saving of face
It’s the courage to turn your back on the way you were raised
All of us—even me with my delightfully tolerant and open-minded parents—have been shaped by the way we were raised. We get our all-important definition of “normal” through that experience: the cherished traditions, the do’s and don’ts, the shoulds and shouldn’ts. Forging an identity separate from parental and traditional expectations is necessary to initiate the process of individuation, the path to becoming one’s true self. It takes courage to do that because we are all conditioned to seek approval from those who guide us, our peers and our families. “The Way You Were Raised” deals solely with the heavy expectations heaped upon men, but the concept is universal: we all have to face the choice of exercising the courage to be ourselves or go along to get along.
Tree Bursts in Snow is a strong, passionate, exciting and soul-level delightful work that should be celebrated by all. Let’s hope Louis avoids The Murdoch Trap and maintains his artistic integrity so we can hear more from this wonderful band in the near future.