To Sing the Saddest Songs
Even when it was released, in 1996, Belle and Sebastian's second album felt out of time, like some glorious lost remnant from a fuzzy past, tender like a memory. An instant myth. Whilst the UK press cartwheeled over the boorish, coke-fueled dross peddled by the dreadful Oasis, B&S summoned the spirits of wayward geniuses from Nick Drake to Felt, Donovan to The Smiths.
Lyrical, witty, and wise, their chief songsmith —Stuart Murdoch— crafted a tender set of devotionals; story-songs detailing domestic dramas and struggles with faith, Scottish winters and adolescent sexual rites. It felt like a tender coming-of-age novel, set to fragile, twee acoustic music, and delivered with a conspiratorial whisper.
If You're Feeling Sinister wasn't so much 'released,' but gently slipped into the world; let loose like a little secret, a shared recollection shrouded in the happy/sad melancholy of reminiscence. With the band not granting interviews, playing live, or providing promotional pictures of themselves, it could've been an album that slipped into the world, then slipped swiftly into oblivion. But there was magic in these songs, magic in this recording, magic in its every instant.
Bordering dangerously close to perfection —there's not a single bad song nor, even, moment wasted on its 41 minutes— If You're Feeling Sinister attracted an army of fervent followers. In the absence of any public Belle and Sebastian presence, listeners had to pore over every lyric, every lick, every liner note. All fans had to know were the characters in the songs.
Could I Write a Piece About You Now That You've Made It?
And what characters they are! There's Judy and her dream of horses, Boy on the Bike cycling around the town, Anthony and Hillary with their crises-of-conscience, the Major and his resentment of the younger generation, and Lisa, "kissing men like a long walk home."
Come to think of it, there's an awful lot of kissing on If You're Feeling Sinister: the "just for practice" make-out sessions in "Seeing Other People," and the sexually-ambiguous "honey" (boy? girl?) "kissing girls in English at the back of the stairs" in "The Stars of Track and Field." With Belle and Sebastian instantly embraced as icons of the twee-pop movement, the amorous milieu of If You're Feeling Sinister reminds me of Simon Reynolds' summation of twee kids, who, "contrary to [their] puritanical image," he wrote, "were actually at it like knives."
As Murdoch's meek and mild songs confessed to sexual libertarianism, drunkenness, and dreams of impossible romanticism, listening to this record felt akin to getting a peak into the journals of star-struck adolescent daydreamers. Which, back in an era where a journal was kept in secret, not publicly, digitally disseminated to all comers, was a thrilling thought to merely contemplate.
All these years on, it's impossible that listening to this disc can capture that same sense of furtive secrecy, of thrilling revelation as existed upon its release. Embraced, down the road, as undeniable 'classic,' If You're Feeling Sinister is no one's clandestine discovery any more. But the years have barely dinted its magic, hardly dulled its luster, and certainly not diminished its wonder. It's, quite simply, one of the best albums ever made.
Record Label: Matador
Release Date: 18 November 1996