How to Tell if You’re in a Belle & Sebastian Song

the-bbc-sessions-520da3ea5629eYou have zero interest in getting married unless it would help save a nice girl you met at a party from having to go back to Ukraine.

You work in the acquisitions department of a small independent book shop, but dread your nightly walks home through the park for reasons that are not entirely clear.

You told your homeroom teacher you were tardy because your judo class ran over, but in fact you heard a Hammond organ playing somewhere down the hall and had to investigate. You met a handsome, bookish stranger and sang a duet with him, but left without getting his name.

It’s your last year of high school and you cope with the stress of family life by pretending you’re the lead singer in a band called Belle & Sebastian.

You are quietly mesmerized by a patch of winter sunlight.

You were inspired when your sprightly friend let down her hair and danced at a concert, so much that you wrote about it in your diary for a month, but have never actually danced yourself.

You work in a nail salon, you’re always late to parties and you’ve crashed your car twice in the last month. You’re in love with a girl across town who doesn’t know your name. (Her name is Belle).

You once spent an entire day being inexplicably happy and have devoted the rest of your life to finding out why.

Right now you’re wearing a striped scarf, a woolen jacket, and argyle socks. You have a friend of the same sex who’s wearing a cashmere cardigan. You might or might not fancy them.

You once contemplated murdering a stranger who spoke to you on the subway.

You had a small outburst in the café when you realized how old you’re getting. You’re sixteen.

You missed the train and now you’re standing at the station all alone. But it’s late autumn and the world is lovely around you.

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If Charles Dickens Wrote Contemporary Christian Music: or, God and the Grotesque

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My first day of high school in 2000, my pre-AP English teacher (and Sunday school teacher, and super-woman) Mrs. Pauley ran through the list of everything we’d be reading in the coming trimester. Then she asked us, “Have any of you read Great Expectations?”

One hand went slowly up into the air. Blushing, I could feel the stares of the rest of the class as they turned to look at me.

“Boze,” said Mrs. Pauley, in her usual droll voice, “I knew there was somethin’ wrong with you.”

It wasn’t the first time an English teacher had teased me for my Dickens obsession. Two years before, I had torn through Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in short order. I’d begun speaking and writing in a pastiche of nineteenth-century Victorian writers. (“Magniloquence is a virtue much to be admired in a gentleman,” I would say, to the friends I did not have).

I found Dickens irresistibly fascinating; David and Pip and Joe Gargery and old Fezziwig were like old friends, in the same way Ali Baba and Sinbad befriended young Ebenezer Scrooge. As a poor boy growing up in an abusive home environment, I connected with the violence and destitution and rage and filth and gore of Dickens’ imagined England, with this gothic and grotesque world in which convicts leapt out from behind tombstones and frightened little boys out of their wits, in which stepmothers and stepfathers beat their kids until they bled and eccentric old women set themselves on fire.

Dickens was haunted by what Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called “the grotesque”; it was the darker half of his Gothic imagination. His books were filled with wild, extravagant, deformed figures, twisted in soul and body. He got into a fair bit of trouble when a roguish, “ogling” dwarf woman in the not-yet-completed David Copperfield turned out to have been based on an actual person, who was so hurt by Dickens’ characterization that he was compelled to revise forthcoming installments of the novel, to portray her in a less appalling light.

Arguably, though, it was this gallery of grotesques that made Dickens so massively popular. They burned themselves onto your brain. Novelist Susanna Clarke once described him as “huge—like the sky,” and the same could be said of his characters, even the most minor ones, like the grinning, inebriated old robber David meets on the road to Dover who shouts, “Oh, my lungs and liver! Oh, goroo, goroo!” It is a dark, violent world Dickens builds for his characters, and heaven bless him for it.

At around the time I was beginning my freshman year of high school, and reading Great Expectations for the second time, the Christian contemporary musician Steven Curtis Chapman released the single “Great Expectations,” a track from his massively popular Speechless album. (If you attended Christian summer camp in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, it’s likely you were subjected to the song “Dive” off of that album).

I remember the curiosity and interest I felt when I learned that Chapman had a new single entitled “Great Expectations.” His previous songs, from “Lord of the Dance” to “More to This Life,” had not been found wanting. But, like a young orphan discovering that his mysterious benefactor is something less than he imagined him to be, I found myself disappointed by the sheer immateriality and vapidness of the song, which didn’t seem to be about anything.

We’ve been invited with the Son, sings Chapman:

We’ve been invited to come

And believe the unbelievable

Receive the inconceivable

And see beyond our wildest imaginations

So Lord, we come

Oh, Lord we come…

With great expectations

Now, musically the song isn’t bad. It has a subtle but wonderfully evocative piano intro and a stirring string section. And I’m willing to concede that my disappointment may have been a case of… well, misplaced expectations. When you title a song “Great Expectations,” I expect greatness. I expect gritty ballads about orphans and outlaws. What I got instead was another generically written worship song with some abstract lyrics about power and glory and the obligatory pun on “Sun / Son.”

Lest it seem like I’m picking on Mr. Chapman, I should add that this is a problem endemic to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), both then and today. (“Your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me,” sings Passion on the most recent WOW album). So often Christian-brand music, and worship music in particular, sings ethereally of “approaching the throne room” to encounter God’s grace, compassion and mercy. But rarely do these songs give any indication of what this is actually supposed to look like, nor how God’s goodness and mercy manifest in our actual lives, the place where we live and move and breathe.

We’re left with uplifting platitudes that fuel a quasi-Gnostic spirituality divorced from the realities of time and place.

Yes, this is a long way from Dickens in the opening chapter of Great Expectations, describing Pip’s encounter with the runaway convict Magwitch: “A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled.” But it’s also a long way from the very best of which Christian music is capable.

Which brings me to this man:

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In January 1968, Christian, country-western musician and recovering drug addict Johnny Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison in California, one of the most notorious prisons in the country, a place where the most dangerous criminals were imprisoned, men who were just waiting around to die. Those two shows became the basis for one of Cash’s most celebrated albums, the live album At Folsom Prison.

Listening to the opening and most famous track, “Folsom Prison Blues,” you can hear and practically feel the exhilaration of Cash’s audience as he states his name and launches into his dark, hopeless and morbidly funny ballad about desperate men in desperate places:

When I was just a baby

My mamma told me, “Son

Always be a good boy

Don’t ever play with guns”

But I shot a man in Reno

Just to watch him die…

 And when you hear the loud howl of recognition that one guy yells out right at that moment, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that here was a musician with a preternatural gift for connecting with people in their deepest pains and regrets, a man who descended into caves of guilt and despair and emerged out of them again like the apostle Paul with a burning revelation of grace, a revelation that made him almost irresistibly compelling to the Magwitches and Havishams of the world—freaks, outcasts, thieves, murderers—life’s grotesques. The people whom ordinary church music could never reach.

This aspect of Cash’s legacy, and the controversy it raised among regular suburban churchgoers, is perfectly captured in a scene from the 2006 movie Walk the Line:

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The best Christian music, the most truly “Christian” music, whether it’s performed by outsiders like Dylan, Bono, or Cash, or by artists in the Evangelical mainstream like Jars of Clay, Rich Mullins, or Gungor, never loses sight of this world in search of the next one. Unlike the disembodied worship songs of so much CCM, with their vague descriptions of a personal, mystical experience, they remain fixed in their own time and place, in the reality of original sin, in the rhythms of liturgy, in the simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying beauty of nature, in real situations that real people face.

The best Christian music sings about actual things: an open field of wild flowers; a mudslide in Decatur, Illinois; the moon spilling laughter on the cold Dakota hills.

And Christian-brand music will never be relevant until it follows the examples of its best and most talented artists, and embraces this crooked world.

 

 

“If You’re Feeling Sinister”: A Look Back

if-youre-feeling-sinister-belle-sebastianIn 1995, Stuart Murdoch’s life did not seem to be moving anywhere fast. The twenty-seven-year old Scotsman had been suffering for upwards of six years from the effects of myalgic encephalomyelitis, better known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Because his condition made even playing on the piano an exhausting endeavor, he was unable to find work.

Living in Glasgow on public assistance, Murdoch joined “beat box,” a government program for the unemployed. He would later compare it to a “refugee camp for unemployed musicians.” The unemployed took a music training course and played music together. Once a month they were given access to a recording studio.

It was here that Murdoch first connected with the people who would form Belle & Sebastian; and it was here in the summer of 1996 that they recorded what are now widely regarded as two of the best albums of the 1990s, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Though the beloved indie band has covered a range of genres in their nearly twenty-year career, from folk to shoegaze to chamber pop, and has stylistically referenced bands as disparate as The Left Banke and The Smiths, the elegiac wistfulness of If You’re Feeling Sinister has become their defining sound. Even after they gained renewed critical acclaim and an unprecedented level of public attention with The Life Pursuit (2006), a collection of irresistibly danceable power-pop anthems, critics and long-time fans rightly pointed to their earliest work as their magnum opus.

Writing and recording twenty songs in the space of a few weeks would be a career-worthy accomplishment for any band. But Belle & Sebastian went a step further, crafting songs that seem to have been whispered out of the ether, songs that don’t so much seem to have been written as captured.

Take, for example, the Satie-like simplicity of “Fox in the Snow.” With piano, guitar, violin, and vibraphone, the band conjures up a serenely autumnal world in which soft-hearted youth have fallen on hard times. For me the special gift of Belle & Sebastian, my all-time favorite band, has always been its ability to evoke the rhythms and changes of the seasons, using lyrics and music to engage the senses so fully that it really feels as though the listener is standing on a wintry street corner in Edinburgh.

Fox in the snow

Where do you go

To find something you can eat?

Cause the word out on the street is

You are starving

If the lyrics are precious, they’re also devastatingly effective, compressing whole years of hope and despair and angst into the space of a few verses. “Fox in the Snow” showcases what would become one of Belle & Sebastian’s hallmarks, their knack for writing realistic, sharply observed character sketches about people who are young and lost and very much in over their heads.

Just prior to the recording of If You’re Feeling Sinister, Stuart had moved into a bachelor flat above a church. There he worked in the parish hall and sang in the choir in between writing songs for the album.

“I always wanted to write about normal people doing normal things,” he recalls in a Pitchfork documentary about the making of the album. “Because I wasn’t normal, I was out of the game. It was very attractive to me what normal people were doing.” So he set out to write songs about the “normal” folks he ran into in the streets and on the buses of Glasgow, though his own sly perceptiveness was always winking through, creating vividly eccentric figures who are instantly recognizable and yet somehow bigger than life: a track star who was driven to fame by the lure of getting to wear terry underwear; Hilary, who’s into S & M and Bible studies; Judy, who walks the streets dreaming of horses.

Of the ten songs on this album, the penultimate song, “Boy Done Wrong Again,” is the weakest, a slow sleeper that saps much of the energy from an otherwise rollicking back half. Like Tigermilk before it, the album begins in minimalistic fashion, with only the quiet plucking of strings to accompany Murdoch’s voice. But as “Stars of Track and Field” progresses, the rest of the band gradually joins in, adding new instrumentation (organ, trumpets) layer upon layer, building slowly and progressively to a powerful conclusion that promises good things to come. “Seeing Other People” is a near-perfect evocation of early morning and the ambivalence of two people trying to let go of each other but not being able to. “Me and the Major” explores the unbridgeable gaps between classes and generations with lyrics that are both spirited and resentful: “We’re the younger generation / We grew up fast / All the others did drugs / They’re taking it out on us.”

In terms of pure atmosphere, the next two songs are probably the album’s high point. “Like Dylan in the Movies” recalls Murdoch’s experience of having to walk through Kelvingrove Park, a shady Glasgow park. The combination of guitar, strings, and xylophone powerfully evokes a sense of the year ending, of autumn, and twilight. “Dylan” is followed by the wintry and underrated “Fox in the Snow.” The placement of these two songs on the album, and their musical kinship, seem to suggest that one is a continuation of the other. It’s worth listening to the two back to back.

“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is a light rocker about a naïve young man. Musically it’s as good as anything on the album, but the lyrics are achingly, almost embarrassingly sentimental. “I always cry at endings,” Murdoch sings, and then, as if already regretting this exercise in vulnerability, adds in the next verse, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant to say at all.”

However, the shortcomings of this song are more than offset by the eerie brilliance of the one following. If You’re Feeling Sinister’s title track is also the album’s standout, with a backing track of children playing and enigmatic lyrics that have been variously explained as a satire of organized religion and the final thoughts of two people preparing to kill themselves.

 

Finally, “Mayfly” is a jangly guitar ballad in the style of The Byrds, while “Judy and the Dream of Horses” closes the album in high spirits with an almost pure distillation of pop craftsmanship.

Not satisfied with the production quality of the original recording, Belle & Sebastian recorded a live performance in 2005 for All Tomorrow’s Parties. It’s worth hearing just to assess the differences between the two recordings—in 1995, the band was young and unproven, while in 2005 it was one of the most successful indie rock bands in the world. But the original is the reason for their breakout success, and it remains the better version of their best album.

Song Friday: “Alaska” (The Silver Seas)

Silver-Seas_Alaska_coverI ran across these guys after one of their songs was used as the final song of the first season of Breaking Bad. I was inspired to listen to their whole discography, and I have to say, of all the songs I’ve heard this year, this one is probably my favorite. It’s gorgeous, sad, nostalgic, hopeful, and swooningly romantic.

And I have no idea what it’s about. Maybe someone can enlighten me.