Essential Records: Belle & Sebastian 'If You're Feeling Sinister'

Posted by Billy Gil, October 10, 2014 05:45pm | Post a Comment

Matador reissued Belle & Sebastian’s classic 1996 album If You’re Feeling Sinister on vinyl recently, and it’s been a lot of fun to revisit an album that meant so much to me in high school.

Last time I wrote about how The Smashing PumpkinsAdore was a gateway album for me when I was 16. Enamored of that album’s nocturnal aura, I sought music with a similarly mellow, melancholic vibe. I was also an avid Rolling Stone junkie at the time. I remember reading their four-star review of The Boy With the Arab Strap and deciding it was something I’d like, and I went out and bought it on a whim. I was right—I became totally hooked on this band, their vintage aesthetic and gently orchestrated sound, which sounded mind-blowingly fresh to me at the time.

I suppose it wasn’t just my decided lack of worldliness that was to blame there. You certainly couldn’t hear anything like Belle & Sebastian on radio or MTV, and this was still the infancy of the Napster years. My parents’ lame computer could only hold about 100 songs. There was still a lot of going out and buying CDs on whims then.

That Christmas, I asked for and got the older If You’re Feeling Sinister on CD. Though Arab Strap still holds a special place for me as the album that introduced me to a new musical obsession, Sinister spoke to me in a totally different way. Right away I recognized the similarity between the slow build of opener “The Stars of Track and Field” and Arab Strap’s opener, “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career,” in that the band’s second through fourth albums, in particular, were structured in much the same way. But I took that as a strong stylistic choice, even if some reviewers dinged them for repetitiveness at the time.

Song two struck me differently. It’s hard to think of a song like “Seeing Other People” as being shocking in any way now, with its stately piano line and tasteful arrangement, but it was the most strikingly bisexual song I had ever heard at the time. “Kissing just for practice/Could we please be objective cause the other boys are cuein’ up behind us/A hand over my mouth/A hand over the window” delivered in Stuart Murdoch’s fey, just-woken-up swagger. I didn’t really know what they were singing about, but that’s part of what hooked you in the band’s early days—their songs and publicity photos were somehow vidvid and yet incredibly vague at the same time, and that mysteriousness and room for imagination was incredibly appealing to a young music fan who didn’t really know who he was yet. The lyrics weren’t specifically queer, but lines like “You’re gonna have to change or you’re gonna have to go with girls/You might be better off, at least they know what they’re doing” implied a casual schoolyard sexual fluidity in some imaginary European place and time that only existed in a foreign film.

Of course, I hadn’t yet heard the band’s first album, Tigermilk, which was more explicitly queer in its lyrics, but Sinister was fun because it wasn’t obvious. The title track’s “she was into S&M and bible studies” is shot out so quickly you might miss it, were it not such a direct and noticeable line. It was more that Sinister captured the in-between moments of being an outsider, orientation-wise or otherwise. “Like Dylan in the Movies’” “If they follow you, don’t look back/Like Dylan in the movies” made avoiding assholes in high school feel cool and rebellious rather than awkward and timid. It would be a long time before I came out to anyone, but hearing that album felt crucial by making youthful sexual experimentation seem like something non-threatening, almost blase.

Right around the same time, I found The Smiths (beyond “How Soon Is Now?”), who I would come to love for similar reasons and many, many others, but I suspect I’m not the only one who was led to them by B&S. A lot of my newer favorites like Orange Juice or The Bats or The Go-Betweens I definitely discovered through that line from B&S to The Smiths and beyond.

Being a Belle & Sebastian fan also just made you feel instantly cooler. I knew that I had better taste than most of my classmates from that point on. It helped give me a much-needed identity at the time. Entering college, I was like the “music guy” and definitely tried to make a lot of people listen to Belle & Sebastian and whatever other college rock I was into at that moment. Now I work for Amoeba, go fig.

Now, it’s been great to see Murdoch so active as of late, from his God Help the Girl film and soundtrack (which I haven’t seen yet but the 16-year-old me would have been ecstatic over) to their heroic two-night stand at the Ace Hotel’s Theatre in L.A. this week. I feel like just about every music nerd in L.A. was at one of these shows, dropping the usual pretenses about who knows whom and just enjoying a collective favorite band that was so formative for many of us. The band dug out plenty of Sinister classics, with Stevie Jackson going wild on the harmonica for “Me and the Major” and the wistful “Judy and the Dream of Horses” making a perfect finish. (Though I’ve focused primarily on the lyrics and feel of Sinister, particularly with how it dealt with sexual ambivalence, it’s worth noting that this is Belle & Sebastian’s most consistent album. Even the featherweight “Mayfly” and mopey “The Boy Done Wrong” hold up pretty well.)

Revisiting the band via Sinister’s reissue and their shows this week was like visiting an old friend and finding that seemingly no time has passed. It brought up great memories and also embarrassing ones, like following Stuart Murdoch around at Coachella or awkwardly trying to talk to Sarah Martin and Chris Geddes at shows. It also left me optimistic for the band’s next outing, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, scheduled to come out in January. I also just feel grateful for hearing this album when I did, and taking away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever.


'The Boy with the Arab Strap' will be reissued on vinyl Nov. 4, preorder here.

Preorder the new Belle & Sebastian album, 'Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance,' out Jan. 20

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Vinyl (200), Essential Albums (7), Essential Records (35), Belle & Sebastian (12)