26
Nov 01

Belle and Sebastian – “I’m Waking Up To Us”

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(Apologies for lack of recent postings, faithful readers!)

Superficially, Belle And Sebastian’s latest reminds you of last year’s ‘The Model’ — a meticulous arrangement, a melody that’s likeable but not forceful, a puzzle-box lyric. Actually, the lyric starts off pretty direct — winningly so — though Stuart Murdoch’s delivery is so stilted it sounds like he’s sight-reading. It’s only as the song goes on that the words tangle themselves up, and I stop caring and start thinking about how the song and the sound are setting round the band like plaster.

This lot’s last EP was a three-track essay on loyalty, its limits and costs, and all the new material I’ve heard since has done its best to test mine. I’m not well-versed enough in sixties pop to say who ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’ is a pastiche of — The Left Banke is my amateur’s guess — but it certainly has the feel of a compositional exercise, as impressive and baffling as a matchstick ship in a bottle. It’s marvellous that Stuart Murdoch can do this — nobody else in British pop could — but what’s in it for the listener?

When I wrote about Belle And Sebastian in the guilty and giddy flush of finding them I talked about what I thought was their key appeal — the sense of community they inspired — and what I thought was their secret weapon — Murdoch’s gifts as an arranger. But now (and yes it was happening when latecomer me first woke up to all this) that secret weapon has become the public obvious. This music is impeccably crafted but somehow chintzy, airless.

And the community? Still going strong — Belle And Sebastian catalysed an entire subculture of mailing lists, club nights, indebted bands. But, because this band managed somehow to capture an entire lifestyle in a handful of songs, the house that B & S built now hardly needs its foundations: the fans now seem less hermetic, more outward-looking than the band.

Great bands with fan followings can feel like either gangs, or clubs. Both have a mystique, both of them make you want to join up. But the Club is a retreat from the world, a private space to play and love and be in – and the Gang wants to conquer the world, change it, mark out its patch. A few years ago Belle And Sebastian were a Gang — redefining the pop festival, beating steps to a BRIT, careening into the Top 40, then the Top 20. But ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’, charming in its way and memorable if you work at it, is through and through the sound of a Club. Belle and Sebastian have quietly detatched themselves from pop, and both pop and them are the worse for it.

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