Like a Polaroid of an allegedly adorable newborn passed around at a family reunion, Belle and Sebastian’s 1997 album If You’re Feeling Sinister was hailed by virtually every critic in the western world as the cutest thing on the face of the earth. And, while I’m sure it must be nice to see your album plastered all over year end “best of” lists, I don’t imagine the band was particularly thrilled to be treated as some sort of precocious toddler.
In some ways, of course, Belle and Sebastian was a precocious toddler, and therein lied the album’s beauty and timeliness: it was refreshing and exciting to hear a band that could sound utterly guileless even when caricaturing a girl who “was into S&M and Bible studies.” But beneath singer Stuart Murdoch’s gentler-than-thou voice and goofy rhymes, beneath the band’s terminal shyness (photographs aren’t allowed; concerts are rare), beneath even the pastoral melodies that you could imagine Art Garfunkel singing, lay an acute, occasionally acid intellect and wit desperate for the attention it deserved.
So maybe we owe the critics some thanks: they might well have brought out the best in Belle and Sebastian. Quite possibly spurred by their twee image, B & S followed Sinister up with three more experimental, full-bodied EPs, including the magnificent Lazy Line Painter Jane, whose title track was hands down last year’s best song. The band’s new album, The Boy with the Arab Strap, not only cements its reputation as the fastest of college rock’s fast workers, but follows in Jane’s footsteps, upping the material’s range, complexity and heft.
If Sinister was elegant in its constancy, The Boy with the Arab Strap is uplifting in its fluctuation. All of Sinister’s songs came from Murdoch; four different band members contribute tracks on the new album (they’re still not even batting .500: the group is a collective of nine), and, though I bet they’re too good-natured to actively compete, they push each other to impressive heights. Isobell Campbell’s pleasantly smoky ballad “Is It Wicked Not to Care?” and Stuart David’s spoken-word arrangement “A Spaceboy Dream” are more than just ego-boosting filler (ever hear Andy Summers’s “Mother” on Synchronicity? My condolences if you have).
Best of all the new talent is Stevie Jackson, whose “Seymour Stein” sets off a brilliant run of songs that carry through until the album’s end. “Stein” builds Jackson’s decision not to have dinner with the somewhat notorious president of Sire Records into a cataclysmic love song that’s half self-reference (“I heard dinner went well/you liked Chris’s jacket/He reminded you of Johnny [Marr]/before he went Electronic”), half candy-coated naivete (“North Country girl/I think she’s gone to stay. . .Seymour bring her back to me”). If it’s not the album’s centerpiece, it must be its tone-setter: the winsome result of innocence touched by industry.
Take Arab Strap’s title track, for example. Named after a sexual aid and opening with a description of “the odour of old prison food,” it’s propelled by, um, handclaps. And make what you will of the contrast between “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career,” a sardonic requiem for a 24-year old stroke victim, and “Ease Your Feet Into the Sea,” which politely encourages “my darling, it’s the place to be.” Murdoch extends his Sinister songs in both directions â€“ toward mordant cleverness and acute gentility. The pressure of growing up hammering at him from both sides?
Fortunately, the band’s increased musical depth doesn’t come across as the least bit forced. “Sleep the Clock Around” gets a pipe to sound a hell of a lot like a theremin; “A Spaceboy Dream” breaks down into a free jazz excursion halfway through; “Dirty Dream Number Two” gets a string section to swing. Most importantly, though, Belle and Sebastian has mastered the art of propulsion they discovered by way of the Velvet Underground on “Lazy Line Painter Jane.” The band doesn’t pack quite that much white heat here, but “Sleep the Clock Around,” “Dirty Dream Number Two,” “Simple Things,” and to a lesser extent, several other songs, reach similar greatness because they move so convincingly.
The best thing about The Boy with the Arab Strap is that it sounds uniquely auspicious. Belle and Sebastian, I’m convinced, have an absolutely classic album in them, and, wonderful as this one is, it feels transitional. The band’s still trying to figure out how to integrate all of its unique personalities; perhaps to that end Stuart Murdoch has left a few of his songs sounding somewhat unfinished.
And maybe they still have some emotional maturation left in them; maybe they’ll learn to reconcile their intellectual alertness with their barely tainted purity. I, for one, hope not. Any band named after a cartoon I watched when I was five that names its album after a tool that gives you an erection has a stronger grasp of playful juxtaposition than I could ever fight with.