"I can't remember the last time I listened to a whole album by a contemporary band. So why would I expect other people to listen to our music all the way through?" Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian said in an interview.
Exactly! Thank you! GOD!
It occurred to me recently that it might not be totally ingenuous for me to claim Belle and Sebastian as one of my favorite bands of all time. Not that I don't claim it, if asked, which I was, not long after their upcoming Paramount show was announced.
Came the question: Where do you stand on Belle and Sebastian?
My standard answers followed, about how I spent most of 1997 and 1998 listening to If You're Feeling Sinister at least once every day, putting "Seeing Other People" on every mixtape, scouring British music papers to find out anything I could about them, finding a copy of the original vinyl pressing of Tigermilk in a Paris record store for 475 (pre-Euro) French francs, and finally managing to see them play live on September 15, 2001, when their smoke machine set off the fire alarms at the Capitol Theater and half the crowd thought 9/11 was happening again...
And onward through the litany of anecdotes many a graying music fan amasses to preserve the legend of their increasingly theoretical connection to music culture.
Then I did a bit of mental calculation and realized that the last album of theirs I can remember buying was Dear Catastrophe Waitress in 2003. Aside from a couple of songs ("Step into My Office, Baby" and "I'm a Cuckoo," the Thin Lizzy one), I didn't massively love it.
Although, to be fair, that was during the decade when I semi-intentionally lost touch with the music culture I felt so disaffected from because the stupid internet kept insisting that the Strokes were important, so it might have been better than I recall.
Then came a succession of LPs, compilations, and singles that I know I heard and basically liked but really have no distinguishing recollections of.
To me, these records constitute Belle and Sebastian's blurry middle years—the music a band has to record and release to still be considered a going concern, and the ones a devout fan is allowed to sleep on and still wear the badge. I don't make the rules, man.
It's hard to remember how new and thrilling Belle and Sebastian seemed in 1997 and 1998—before so many bands obviously made sounding like Belle and Sebastian the first item on their to-do list, before "twee" became an all-purpose cultural signifier/epithet, before Zach Galifianakis could use their name in a joke about his testicles and everyone would know exactly what he meant.
Leaving aside the obvious, stunning, deathless brilliance of the songs on If You're Feeling Sinister—Stuart Murdoch was obviously born with the melody thing you can only be born with—the band had a very special tone that was evident in every cell of their presentation. Including the bits they held back.
In a shouty, distorted world, they whispered naughty asides. In a hyper-saturated color palette, they were matte and monochrome. In a time when ironic gestures of self-over-promotion were blurring lines in a most distasteful, even perilous way, they refused to do interviews or even to pose for official photographs. They were among the last rock bands to emerge in the age of enigma and mystique. And I can't deny that I miss that age.
Even though you can now easily know what they look like, and catch up with their ideas about god and the hit parade any time you like, that initial phase of discovery and wonder is my default setting for what Belle and Sebastian mean.
And nearly 20 years later, I'm still deeply grateful for it, even if I don't have all the records.