Tigermilk starts with the Belle and Sebastian ur-text and one of their greatest songs: The State I Am In. If you’re curious about the band, have a listen to this shaggy dog story of a song. Your response will tell you whether they are for you or not.
Over the quietest of strummed chords, in the softest of singing voices, Stuart Murdoch delineates the boundaries of his lyrical world and his approach to writing – a combination of knowing ambiguity and mundane specificity – in just a few lines.
I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975
I was puzzled by a dream, stayed with me all day in 1995
My brother had confessed that he was gay
It took the heat off me for a while
He stood up with a sailor friend
Made it known upon my sister’s wedding day
I heard this song for the first time in 1999, when Tigermilk was released on CD, and was knocked out by it. By this time, Belle and Sebastian were already indie favourites in Britain, big enough for kids like me to know about them without having to work too hard. My enthusiasm for the band was shared by a couple of close friends, but not by my wider social circle, who found them twee, precious and wimpy. My girlfriend Mel also finds them twee and precious, and doesn’t get why I like them (or why I’m writing this post).
Belle and Sebastian were an aural palate cleanser for me then. I’d spent my younger teens listening obsessively to American grunge and alternative rock music, and while I still wanted music played primarily on guitars (I was — am — a guitar player), I needed something other than angry guys screaming and playing loud and hard all the time. I was getting it anywhere I could find it. Belle and Sebastian were just one source.
But what does this music say to me now?
When you listen to music from your youth as an adult, it can be hard to listen objectively. Every song on Belle and Sebastian’s first three albums calls up memories for me. Walking to school; sitting at the side of a public tennis court with my friend in the summer holidays waiting for my turn to play a few games; being driven by my dad to my grandfather’s funeral; walking home from Southend town centre on a cold Sunday evening not long before Christmas; writing a philosophy essay for my theology A Level course. I listened to this band a lot for about a year and a half while at sixth form and pretty much stopped when I got to university. I have almost no adult memories tied up with this band.
I put I Could Be Dreaming on my iPod on the way to work the other day and it was glorious. Belle and Sebastian songs have a tendency towards the brisk. It’s part of their charm, as it makes their songs come over like over-excited kids, an impression strengthened by their primary-colour chord changes and simple arrangements, with Grade III-level touches on cello and trumpet. I Could Be Dreaming drops the school-music-lesson instruments and replaces them with a couple of lightly overdriven electric guitars and some beautifully cheesy 1970s synthesiser and beat-group organ. The group’s playing is spirited. The song is at a tempo that faces drummer Richard Colburn with that tricky decision: do you play propulsive eighth notes on the hats or looser, swinging quarters? He went with the quavers, giving the song an oddly Krautrockian feel; Neu! relocated to the Glasgow suburbs. The twee-est group of the nineties end the song having built up a surprising head of steam; Stevie Jackson thrashes away and Colburn bashes his cymbals, while someone (Isobel Campbell?) reads out a chunk from Rip Van Winkle.
Tigermilk is a fine album throughout, with only one misstep, Electronic Renaissance — not a bad song as such, but one that could scarcely be more out place, with its Boys of Summer drum machine pattern and Pet Shop Boys synthesisers. But even great songs like I Could Be Dreaming are not without their flaws. Something about Murdoch’s lyrics, which I used to think were brilliant, now rub me the wrong way. Other people’s sexual confusion, physical abuse by a partner or sexual abuse as a child are invoked in startlingly throwaway fashion, as if Murdoch’s unaware these things do happen to real people, and that they are not trivial events or mere grist to Murdoch’s lyrical mill. He sounds, being blunt, like a child trying to seem grown up, or a sheltered young man trying to seem wordly. But he was, still, a (fairly) young man then, possibly not knowing too much of where he wrote, and this tendency is less marked in what I’ve heard in his later songs.
This lyrical weakness aside, Tigermilk still sounds charming to me, and stronger than the two albums that followed it in quick succession. If You’re Feeling Sinister is hampered by too many songs of one tempo and key (E) and a drop-off in the album’s home straight (I really don’t get the high regard in which Judy and the Dream of Horses is held). The Boy With the Arab Strap, meanwhile, has some absolute belters (Dirty Dream Number Two, the title track), some charmers (Is it Wicked Not to Care?, A Summer Wasting) and some unbelievable dreck (Chickfactor). So I’d recommend Tigermilk as the only Belle and Sebastian you need to get if you’re only mildly curious, but B&S don’t tend to attract that many casual fans — rather, an equal proportion of haters and devotees who base their worldviews and aesthetics on their favourite band’s. Years after I last listened to them seriously, I can still hear why.