20
Jul 00

COMMUNITY MUSIC – The Polite Rise And Discreet Fall Of Belle And Sebastian

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1.
Belle And Sebastian are great: Belle And Sebastian are dreadful. After a couple of months spent waking up to the first, it’s dispiriting to be reminded that the second still holds. I spent three years disliking Belle And Sebastian after hearing If You’re Feeling Sinister once – pretty crap of me, eh? I was wrong. But I was of course also right – Belle And Sebastian are ferociously inconsistent, and what’s more they always have been. IYFS has a handful of epiphanies and a fair amount of breezy, samey makeweight stuff which sounds like the Housemartins: the democratisation of the band on later releases just replaces weak tracks by Stuart Murdoch with weak tracks by other people, but the basic problem remains.

I’m going to have a go at working out what that problem is, and it’s going to take a while to get there because in order to talk about the new album, and why everybody’s shutting their doors on Belle And Sebastian now, I’ve got to think about why they mattered in the first place. The problem, to be honest, is easy enough to state: as everyone says, the band don’t play to their strengths. Thing is, hardly anyone can pin down what those strengths are, beyond muttering a bit about Murdoch and lyrics and melodies. As everybody also says, there are a lot of bands out there who want to be Belle And Sebastian: why aren’t they?

So yes, Belle And Seb occasionally write brilliant, observant lyrics (though a certain kind of listener is going to like anything with boys and girls and a bit of cheap bathos), but they have a real weakness for releasing songs which turn lyrics into lifestyle. On almost every release there’s a track or two which feels smug and didactic: ‘Me And The Major’ and ‘Get Me Away….’ are low points on IYFS, and the notorious ‘Seymour Stein’ does its best to sabotage Boy With The Arab Strap with mealy-mouthed lyrics which could happily have ended up on a fan-pleasing website diary instead of on a record.

Songs like this are in a sense about community and shared values, and helped the band build up one of the most devoted fanbases in British music. It’s no coincidence that Belle And Sebastian are a band where criticism focusses so often on the perceived attitudes of fans and group: lazy writing, say some B & S defenders. Not at all, say I. With Belle And Sebastian, the fans are the music: what made the band famous were their pen-portraits of bruised young romantics, and a lot of their best songs feel like character studies of the people who love them. It’s as if, having sold the 1000 copies of their first record, B & S dedicated the rest of their career to writing songs about the buyers out of gratitude.

2.
Like any group that wins this kind of following, Belle And Sebastian have managed to articulate something new, some fresh kink in post-adolescent psychology. I think what separates the band from a lot of other indie cults is the lack of emphasis on the self: it’s stating the blindingly obvious, but a lot of the time fandom is built on a sense of a singer/band being best able to articulate the listener’s sense of personal alienation.

The Cure, Nirvana and Radiohead, for example, in their different ways made music centred on the individual’s contested relationship with the world. The response to alienation might be melodramatic flounce, apathetic self-disgust, or withdrawal into an apalled ironic paralysis, but ultimately this brand of alternative music is still about offering some kind of story. Even if that story is basically pessimistic – everyone against you, everything sold out, every effort doomed to failure – at least it gives you something, some way to organise the world into a shape that makes sense as long as you’re singing along.

But Belle And Sebastian are part of a different tradition in indie music, bands whose focus is much more on lovers, friendships, the lattice of relationships which creates and sustains community. It’s rare for B & S songs to rely on a central authorial perspective – compared to any other band I can think of, the proportion of second- and third-person tracks is huge – and even when the’re a central narrator (‘The State I Am In’) the songs are often awash with other characters, other perspectives. They’ve less in common with British outsider idols than with indie rock in America, a feedback loop of incestuous bands, intimate fans, and gigs, labels and zines which piggy back on one another constantly to create the energy and fervency of the ‘scene’.

This has obvious implications for the music. An individualist indie rock star, selling stories of difference, will look for a unique sound, a music which if not exactly innovative at least stands out from what’s currently on offer. These people may well inspite followers, but are unlikely to ever be part of what Simon Reynolds calls ‘scenius’, the constant flux of ideas and new developments which propels leaderless scenes and forces them to evolve. (For example, you can imagine Coldplay taking a lead from Radiohead, but never the other way around). He’s talking in terms of dance musics and their ceaseless search for effective sonic novelty, but there’s no reason why the concept souldn’t work for scenes where formal innovation isn’t such a priority. With this in mind the constant criticism that Belle And Sebastian haven’t been ‘developing’ their sound looks silly – they have of course been developing it (the arrangements on the new album are often more crafted than anything they’ve done previously) but within a fairly strict context of delicate, 60s-influenced pop, a context which resonates with fans and like-minded bands while irritating progressivist critics. Who they, unsurprisingly, don’t then talk to.

All this explains why the constant comparisons between Belle And Sebastian and The Smiths are so unsatisfying, too. Morrissey is a classic alternative saint, his songs first-person to the point of solipsism, his work often an explicit rejection of love, community, even friendship. He’s often very funny, he has an eye for amusing detail, but ultimately there’s an optimism behind Stuart Murdoch’s songs which is lacking in Morrissey’s, and I’d argue that it’s down to Belle And Sebastian’s sense of shared values. It’s telling to look at the two bands’ sleeves, whose superficial sepia similarities are misleading. The Smiths’ sleeves were a gallery of Morrissey’s idols: the most the fans could do was to follow the leader in worship. Belle And Sebastian’s sleeves, though, show people who could be characters from the band’s songs or kids buying their records. Admittedly sometimes they’re doing outlandish things (suckling a plush tiger isn’t high on most indie kid priority lists) but even so the aspirational appeal is friendlier and less singer-centric than the Smiths’ was, while the aesthetic fit of sleeve and music is much tighter. And so the fan community grows.

Belle and Sebastian’s in-band democracy also undoubtedly helps keep the group from becoming a personality-cult outfit like the Smiths were. But this same democracy – letting band members other than Stuart Murdoch write and tinker with songs – is ironically stretching the fanbase’s loyalty, because from a songwriting point of view Stuart Murdoch should be the star. The accepted story of Belle And Sebastian is becoming one of decline, with criticism of Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant focussing on the contributions from other band members and their dilution of Murdoch’s sound.

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