20
Jul 00

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

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3.
It’s worth having a think about exactly what that sound was, though. I can’t deny that Murdoch writes wonderful melodies – ‘A Century Of Fakers’, ‘Fox In The Snow’ and others swooned me after a single hearing, for certain – but oddly I don’t think that’s his strength. Rather, Murdoch’s supreme talent is his grasp of arrangement and structure. Stuart Murdoch, in fact, knows the insides of a track better than anyone this side of Pan Sonic, and is house music’s greatest loss in our generation.

The very best Belle And Sebastian tracks – all of which are Murdoch compositions – are built around builds or repetition. That’s what made ‘The State I Am In’ such an extraordinary way to open a career: even with limited production means, Murdoch’s grasp of how an arrangement could build, how sounds and instruments would mesh together to offset his shaggy-dog life story, was masterful. More than any lyrical feint, the heartstopping moment in that song is when that chiming five-note guitar phrase drops into the mix for the first time, perfectly confident. He’s returned to the trick again and again, starting songs quiet and letting them snowball: it’s a good way of defusing the criticism that Belle And Sebastian just do pretty and unassuming, for one thing. ‘The Stars Of Track And Field’ comes on like ‘State’ Part 2, with instant-cult lyrics as a bonus; ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ gets as far as rocking; the fabulous, redemptive ‘Sleep The Clock Around’ starts subdued and rhythmic and ends up fizzing with electronics and bagpipes.

‘Sleep….’ also shows off Murdoch’s other, rarer, virtue: he knows when to repeat himself. He may love to build tracks up, but in an age of cheap anthems he’s happily sparing with middle eights and singalong choruses – as he has to be in order to lure the listener in as well as he does. My favourite Belle And Sebastian song of all, ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’, moves with hardly a break or kink through its five minutes, just a silly weeble rhythm, handclaps, and Murdoch’s mazy tall-tale words. And when I try to grope for why I love it so much all I can think of are tracks like ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, or even the old Chain Reaction 12’s, where you’d suddenly realise the track was in a completely different place than two minutes ago, and listen as you might you’d be left with never a clue how it had got there.

4.

So that’s Belle And Sebastian – what they were doing which nobody else was, why they matter when they do. And after all that, they’ve got an album out. So with everything I’ve been saying, what do I think of Fold Your Hands?

First of all, we can discount the songs written by the other band members. They’re not bad tracks, really – ‘Beyond The Sunrise’ is a curious Hazlewood pastiche, ‘The Wrong Girl’ doesn’t work mostly because of Stevie Jackson’s sprained voice on the chorus, ‘Waiting For The Moon To Rise’ is pleasant Sarah fare. But I’m not going to bother with them because there’s so little in them of what makes the band special: Stuart Murdoch isn’t just a good songwriter, he’s an idiosyncratic one, and that’s why his bandmates’ tracks feel like sideshows.

That said they’re no worse than the tracks where Stuart Murdoch drops the idiosyncrasy himself. Some of his trademarks are sounding shabby – ‘I Fought In A War’ starts a capella and builds, but pointlessly; it sounds like a model B & S classic, just one built to quarter-scale. And worse, on a couple of tracks seem like they’re pandering: ‘Nice Day For A Sulk’, title aside, is hardly bad, but it proves again that Murdoch can write a winsome melody as easily as a poignant one. ‘Family Tree’, though, is disastrous: sung by Isobel Campbell but apparently written by Murdoch, it checks off a bunch of things no self-respecting Belle And Sebastian fan would want to be – supermodel (don’t you mean superficial, ho ho), businessman, accountant, et cetera. I’d have more – make that any – respect for this sort of posturing if Elite Models and Arthur Andersen were after Murdoch and Campbell with chequebooks a-waving. As it is, it’s the indie kid equivalent of pot-bellied men in pubs intently discussing which pop stars they wouldn’t fuck. ‘I’d rather be fat than be confused’ sings Campbell, making both alternatives sound noxiously smug.

The real danger of democracy, B & S style, is that if Murdoch drops clangers like these you’re left with over half the album gone and nothing to show for it. What’s more, none of the other songs connect as easily and audaciously as the band’s classics. Even the best tracks feel slightly studied, as if Murdoch’s been asking himself whether or not he can pull certain things off. Can I pen an arrangement as glittering and structurally perfect as ‘The Model’? Yes, but if the lyric’s as baroque as the music, maybe it’s not worth it. Can I write a song from the point of view of a rape victim (‘The Chalet Lines’), and make it touching rather than harrowing? Yes, but putting it in the middle of such a jauntily uninvolved album is a big mistake. Can I smoulder like a soulboy on ‘Don’t Leave The Light On’? Yes, but not all that convincingly. Can I write a classic pop pastiche? Yes, you can, and ‘There’s Too Much Love’ is sublime end-of-album relief, but come to think of it we knew you could do that anyway. As other writers have said, if Fold Your Hands, Child had been a four-track EP, nobody would be disappointed.

All that said this is still a record I’ll play, but as a relative newcomer to the whole band I wasn’t expecting to be cherry-picking it so ruthlessly and so quickly. The best hope for Belle And Sebastian, aesthetically, may well be for Stuart Murdoch to keep pushing and exploring in the landscapes Fold Your Hands has started to map out, treating the record as a necessary step between ‘scenius’ and genius. The danger is that as his own territory expands, the friendly, fragile community his band helped create will leave the band behind for good. If they keep putting out records as apparently half-hearted as this last, though, it’s hard to see things ending any differently.

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