BELLE AND SEBASTIAN – Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant
So it’s my turn. And what strikes me about the album as a whole is that the closest B&S get to their own favoured classicism – however much they can sound isolated, innoculated, in their own little world – the better they are. Their triumph is to make me – a globalist who yearns to flee that hidden, disowned parochial Britain, with its fear of sexuality and restrained, buttoned-up emotions – find glamour and attraction and fascination in what I ultimately despise. At their best (which is only half of this album, maximum) they ring true emotionally and rationally, to such an extent that they remove themselves completely from the repressed world they grew up in, and which they’re chronicling.

Apart from the utterly excruciating cod-country “Beyond the Sunrise” (easily the worst song B&S will ever write, and one which I actually find somehow offensive in the way it tries to force home its message of cod-religious devotionality, as though they’ve gone Christian rock) the first half of this album is far superior to the second. It’s telling that it arrives in the most definitively B&S way imaginable – “I Fought In A War” is one of their best songs ever, and after so many years of extended peace and removal from serious threat to our liberties, which have all but removed the idea of “mortality” and “survival” from pop, it’s all the more necessary to hear. What time and context is this? A genuine war in the distant past, or something modern, mental, imaginary, and indescribably necessary? Is the “bedsit infamy of the decade gone before” the poverty / hedonism (delete according to social class) of the 1930s or (more likely) the complacent student culture of the 1990s, which now *has* to be swept away by some kind of full-scale conflict (the shadow of the Second World War contributed directly to the freshness and excitement of the 1960s, because it made everything that had happened before a certain date seem untouchably distant, the stuff of another world, and we now lack that definite turning point in our recent past)?

Whatever, it’s brilliant, and “The Model”, which follows, is perfect. There’s something about the chord sequence that moves you in itself – it’s quintessential B&S romantic melancholia. While “Waiting For The Moon To Rise” and “Don’t Leave The Light On, Baby” don’t reach those heights, they still manage to sound sensitive without being sentimental, ineffably sad without wanting to drown in their own misery.

“The Chalet Lines” has grown on me – initially I found its plain, unembellished account of a rape overtly straightforward and baring-his-soul, but listening to it now it’s one of Stuart Murdoch’s best vocal performances ever, in its plaintiveness and utter refusal to sound particularly distressed or angry (and, therefore, a distillation of the band’s entire ethos). But you have to balance it against its appalling predecessor, the bland 60s pastiche “The Wrong Girl”, and its unspeakable successor, the unashamed knock-off “Nice Day For A Sulk”. Their previous ability to hold a mood and sustain it throughout an album has been utterly lost, in favour of thrusting, obvious “mood changes” like this.

Apart from the closing “There’s Too Much Love”, which shows their recurring subject matter of loneliness, isolation and social embarrassment at its most affecting, they never again manage to capture the heights of the first half of the album (“Woman’s Realm” is just not that interesting, while Isobel Campbell’s “Family Tree” is dislikeably cloying). And there’s a sense in which Belle & Sebastian’s best years are behind them, in which they’re more likely than ever before to descend onto autopilot, to sound embarrassingly middle-of-the-road, lost in pastiche, or in doomed attempts to appropriate styles like devotional country or jaunty 60s pop. At their best, they’re still untouchable, but you definitely get the feeling that the wheat-to-chaff ratio is worsening enough that the album after next will sound like a poor imitation of the Beautiful South.