Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I once read Belle and Sebastian described as the Smiths combined with Simon & Garfunkel, and if that’s not exactly right, it’s not exactly wrong either. Basically, frontman and songwriter Stuart Murdoch sounds like he is singing ‘60’s type folk/chamber-pop but his lyrics betray his modernity, full of sly jokes, and his detachment in the face of the dire, depressing subject matter does as well. This is a band that I feel you either love or hate, and I feel that way across their own oeuvre. I like early Belle and Sebastian, with their more folk/orchestral arrangements, and definitely do not care much for their later incarnations where they incorporate newer, more modern sounds, which do not suit Murdoch’s lyrics or delivery well. The key to Belle and Sebastian is that you can’t take them seriously – the joke is not just in the lyrics, and not just in their delivery, but also in how the lyrics are delivered in the context of the music. If you don’t get the joke, then the feyness will probably turn you off. When Belle and Sebastian update their sound, however, the contrived preciousness is no longer funny, because that vocal style does not work with soul or glam (neither do the jokes in the lyrics). So, just the second and third albums for me, please. Belle and Sebastian were very much of their time – though there is a classic feel to the material, again, the intentional artifice marks it as ‘90s indie.

What I Think of This Album

At its best, If You’re Feeling Sinister showcases four things:  the band’s gentle and careful arrangements and playing; the extreme melodicism of the songs; Murdoch’s lyrical playfulness; and his caricature delivery. And it is at its best often.

This is evident, for example, on “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” on which Murdoch definitely does not sound worried in the slightest as he brags “Nobody writes them like they used to / So it might as well be me,” while he and his bandmates create head-bopping music likewise at odds with the title and other lyrics (“At the final moment I cried / I always cry at endings”). This is likewise true on the excellent title track (“If you’re feeling sinister / Go off and see a minister / He’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever”), which boasts a rollicking, country-lite beat, and gleeful blasphemy; after a found-sound/field recording, the melody sometimes reminds me of “These Days,” penned by a 16 year old Jackson Brown and first recorded by Nico.

Similarly, there is a joyfulness to the generational chasm detailed in the sprightly “Me and the Major,” with harmonica, keyboard, piano, and guitar coming together over a snappy snare to create a cacophony that the titular elder would not appreciate. “Like Dylan In the Movies” starts out with a Motown-ish bass and adds a flute part, and then piles on some funk-influenced guitar and spacey keyboards, most of it enthusiastically at odds with Murdoch’s neurasthenic delivery.

“Fox In the Snow” and “Mayfly” are exactly the kind of songs that this band’s detractors would hate – sighing, mild, and fatalistic and none of it to be taken at face value – these are arguably the quintessential Belle and Sebastian tracks. “The Boy Done Wrong Again” sounds like Nick Drake singing Morrissey lyrics, with a pleasant string arrangement. “Judy and the Dream of Horses” is bouncy and bucolic, and the trumpet, recorder, xylophone, and harmonica provide Murdoch with the canvas on which to watercolor his odd tale.

In fact, only the opener “The Stars of Track and Field” stumbles, with some unpleasant slut-shaming and a lack of tunefulness, and follow-up track “Seeing Other People” comes across like filler.

I recommend that you skip reading the band autobiography in the sleeve.

The Best Thing About This Album

“She was into S&M and Bible studies / Not everyone’s cup of tea she would admit to me”

Release Date

November, 1996

The Cover Art

Another Smiths inflection point, though again, not entirely spot on. The monochrome, super-saturated photograph is rooted in that band’s history, but the Smiths relied on film stills and professional photographs, and this is a photo of a friend taken by Murdoch, and sort of clumsily staged at that. The Kafka novel is pretentious and the ennui dripping off the model is palpable. I suppose this is also part of the joke, but it doesn’t really translate to the cover. The white font is a nice touch.

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