The Old Firm
There are some bands that need explaining. What do I mean by this? Well, once a musical act has built a mystique around a somewhat difficult-to-penetrate catalog of work, it may be that there are people in the world who need to know what this band is all about - their music sounds vaguely the same but specifically different through the years, their faces are somehow not pasted all over Spin magazine, their fans seem content to just buy their records and not explain anything to the uninitiated, etc. And if this is true today about Belle and Sebastian, which is perfectly understandable given their 20-year run (and counting), I believe that they are one of just a few acts that it has always been true about. Meaning: this band was as inscrutable on Day 1 as they are now. Who are these people? More importantly, who can answer that question? Most importantly, which album should I buy?
Sadly, I can't definitively answer any of these questions. But bear with me, because I have some ideas.
A note about my feelings on B&S: When I say that this band has been a puzzle for a long time, it is with good reason. When I first started buying their albums in the early 2000's, I had no idea who they were. I knew only that I kept seeing their name in the indie music press, and that they seemed to have really carved out a niche for themselves in the slightly-under-the-radar music community. But I distinctly remember that no one would come right out and say what they were, or who they were, or why they were important/influential. I found this vexing, and for a while I stayed away from them expecting that soon enough the hype machine would blow them way out of proportion. Interestingly, the Rube Goldberg-ian machinations of 21st Century Hype never rose above a certain plateau - it was like expecting someone in a loud room to shout, but all they continued to do was whisper loudly enough for you to catch solitary words: "twee", "retro", "Glasgow", and the like. And to this day, they are still not a band that fosters much press. A new release will generally garner about a week's worth of reviews and very infrequently yield much else. It's all but impossible to catch them on tour, though recent years have seen them embracing festival season a bit. They have generally remained that loud whisper in indie rock while they've laid down what is arguably the most solid and consistent body of work anyone has seen, or dared imagine, since Radiohead. Even though, especially in America, they seem like a novelty, a piece of trivia, an easy (if lazy) synonym for what, in the 90's, we used to call Adult Contemporary.
And even after all that, I consider myself a Belle and Sebastian fan in a very casual way. I don't wait outside record stores for their new album to be released. Who does? Ok, there's probably a few of them. But I posit that B&S fandom isn't about that. Part of the mystique they've been so successful in cultivating lies in the fact that we don't really know who these people are. I literally wouldn't know Stuart Murdoch if he was checking out next to me at CVS. It's disturbing in a way, but comforting in another. B&S fandom is casual at its root. It doesn't ask much of you--just buy the records, or some of them. Read the liner notes, word for word (this is non-negotiable). Really allow some of the music to penetrate your cool, so you can see all the warmth and sincerity within that you'd probably never lend any credence to otherwise, and then go on about your day. It is a very simple thing, in its way. Outside of record reviews, I am relatively certain I've read less than 100 words about who this band really is--I've certainly never sought out any band profiles, or interviews with Murdoch, or Isobel Campbell (another longtime member who left the group); I've never googled them to read about how they came about. As such, I know them only from the music. This makes me pretty sure that I know them about as well as anyone else who considers themselves a B&S fan. And that works for me.
What I do know is the following. Spoiler alert: this is as close as I'll get to doing any of the real explaining I mentioned in my first paragraph.
1) B&S came up in Glasgow. They were seminal in creating what many now consider to be "The Glasgow Scene". Their music is representative of that part of the world, even when their songs are set in other parts of the world, or are reminiscent of musical styles that aren't overtly Britannic.
2) When they arrived, they had a part in setting off a firestorm of "twee" music. Twee is a tricky thing. In itself, it means music that is precocious, naive-sounding (even if the lyrics say otherwise), having a pervasive sense of youth, innocence, and a corresponding lack of guile. While it is obvious that some of the twee bands that have enjoyed notoriety over the past 15 years owe something to B&S, the band itself has far eclipsed the label of "twee". In actuality, they evolved past the label because what they're doing isn't a "sound", or a modality in any sense: it's just how they think. It's just how they are. And so they rise above the genre in the same way that a band like Nirvana rises above being called simply "Grunge".
3) They are hopeless romantics. And I mean this in the best possible way. When they released Write About Love, they held a contest for their fans to ACTUALLY write about love. They picked the winning work and…I dunno, gave that person a prize of some sort. (It wasn't me. I'm not bitter.) This is a band that not only wants to sing lullabies, but to inspire people to create lullabies, or hard-fought theses, or short stories, or what-have-you. They are so entrenched in what it means to be a romantic that they want their fans to feel the same. And so it becomes a large part of their identity in an artistic sense. (I'm using "romantic" in the traditional sense of idealism, less in the "Joan Wilder" sense of the word.)
4) B&S incorporate many (read: MANY) different genres into their music. Overall, if I had to list one unifying trait that nearly all of their songwriting possesses, I would list only a vague 60's pastiche. Musically, it sounds like what the Baby Boomers may have been listening to before Three Dog Night, before The Animals, long before Woodstock. It's an aesthetic that is playfully stuck in time, even as they routinely reference club DJ's, mobile phones, and trans-world travel in the lyrics.
5) And this is the really important thing: their songs are narrative. I know what you're thinking - most songs are narrative, at least somewhat. And that's not necessarily untrue (though don't try convincing Roger Waters, Xiu Xiu, or Omar Lopez-Rodriguez). But what I mean when I say B&S songs are narrative is the difference between books and films. Most songs are more like movies (or, in the case of modern American pop, insipid television shows), but B&S are more like books, with well-defined characters, twist endings, plays on words, double-entendres. This doesn't mean all other songs pale in comparison to B&S songs - it means only that when listening to B&S, you rarely get the feeling that the main character in the song is any one person in the band, or even the band as a whole; rather, it is more as if the protagonist of the song is someone no one as ever met or imagined, a literary creation. A person that exists in the band's collective head, but one that you give all your own human trappings to as you listen, in the same way that you do with Jane Eyre or Tyler Durden. The characters in their songs exist in songs, but could just as easily exist on pages. Other artists' songs tend to more often portray the protagonist as the singer, or as a fully functioning amalgam of real people that take little to no imagination to bring to life - and that is where the narrative difference comes into play. If you're settling in for a B&S album, get ready to be told some stories.
And that's about it. I don't think B&S would care if I knew more about them. I don't think they really want me to. And that is totally fine. Because I know what I need to know.
As a case-in-point, a brief look at one of their songs. "Love on the March" starts with a beautiful a cappella that sounds like it's straight out of Mother Goose: "Animals come / banging their drums / street clears in summer". The music then kicks in, and we hear some bossa nova that is reminiscent of "The Girl From Ipanema". The song details a failed courtship in first- and second-person narration, all the while lamenting the social ills brought on by the rival football clubs and their dedicated fans. It is at once a very intimate story about two lovers who just can't make shit work, and a social commentary about what happens when you don't show enough respect to the correct team on the correct day. It starts like a children's story, and by the end it sounds like a riot in a filthy Scottish alleyway (albeit a riot fed through a Tropicalia filter) - it is lyrically self-deprecating, it is doubtful about the future of the couple in the song, and it paints an extremely vivid picture of a place and time that many of us will/would never experience on our own. Like the best of literature, it transports us to another time and place.
I took the title of this piece from Stuart's brief write-up about the above song, which appears in the liner notes of 2013's The Third Eye Centre compilation album. In it, he describes how the Rangers and Celtic football clubs in Glasgow "...seem to be the only big engines left. They power the city…", and are collectively known as The Old Firm. The loose organization about which little is known but much is suspected, feeding the energy of the community they're in simply by being a vibrant part of said community. Does this sound like anyone? Perhaps a band I've been rambling on about…?
Like a great work of fiction, set to the perfect music.
(Note: This piece is from 2014, previously published on a blog that got very little readership. I only had to change a few dated references, it is largely the same as its original form. If you have thoughts on Belle and Sebastian, PLEASE sound off in the comments!)