Giving thanks for a few of our favorite albums
For most of us, Thanksgiving is typically a time of vast reflection, a time when we get all sorts of introspective and express our gratitude for the lovely people and fortuitous moments in our lives -- that is, of course, when we're not preoccupied with our overwhelming sense of materialism or indulging in our ever gluttonous ways. This year, in that same spirit of sentimentality, we've taken some time to offer up thanks for the albums we're most grateful for, the life changers.
By Josiah Hesse
When Belle & Sebastian released If You're Feeling Sinister in the fall of 1996, the only music I was listening to was Christian rock and Weird Al Yankovic. (Naturally, I was the coolest kid in town.) Living in the religiously conservative Midwest, my being exposed to a twee-folk band from Glasgow, Scottland was about as likely as me having a conversation about intersexual art in the post-modern era. But a few years later, the internet began penetrating the hermetic farm-lands of Iowa, and soon Napster was pulling back the curtain on mind-blowing libraries of new music.
I couldn't say for sure what lead me to the name Belle & Sebastian (most likely the Monday-morning-mix-tape scene in High Fidelity), but once I had file-sharing access to their catalogue, the music of B&S began to speak to me in a way that DC Talk and MxPx just weren't incapable of.
Growing up a thin-skinned, effeminate boy in land of square-jawed farmers, I was downright shocked that a band could get away with making music so blatantly precious as this. Where I came from, being caught listening to a song titled "Judy and the Dream of Horses" could end with a trip to the hospital.
Yet, like I said, this music spoke to something fundamental to my personality (or at least the personality I kept hidden in my bedroom). This was domestic music -- blankets and tea music, good-book-by-the-fireplace-during-a-snowstorm music. Unlike the rap-metal or boy-band jams that dominated the radios of the late 1990s, Belle & Sebastian's music was proudly intimate, unabashedly vulnerable, with brave undertones of fluid sexuality.
For teenagers growing up at the end of the 20th Century, there seemed to be a weird social contract that the music you listened to had to represent some kind of rebellion against your parents. And at least sonically, my parents saw nothing offensive about my playing You're Feeling Sinister a thousand times a day.
Though if they took the time to listen to the lyrics of these songs, they'd discover a world of surreal sexuality and macabre dandyism. In the album's title song, frontman Stuart Murdoch writes about two characters named Anthony and Hillary, the former a desperate victim of rejected love who "walked to his death because he thought he'd never feel this way again," while Hillary was a lonely outcast with a strange proclivity toward "S&M and bible studies."
I later read Paul Whitelaw's Belle and Sebastian: Just A Modern Rock Story, and learned that Stuart Murdoch was a God-fearing Christian who lived above a church and worked as its care-taker (Side note: it was in the chapel of this church that the band recorded "Lazy Line Painter Jane," giving it that expansive, lo-fi sound, like a live album with no audience.) Yet this Christian was a vegetarian and supported gay-marriage -- which was pretty much unheard of in the Pentecostal scene I was involved in.
Like Bono or The Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, Stuart Murdoch wrote about spirituality through the lens of semi-repressed sexual need. In the album opener, "Stars of Track and Field," he describes a character who entered the sport merely so she could "wear terry underwear, and feel the city air across your body," while at the end of "Sinister" Murdoch gives up on telling Hillary to leave the house and visit a clergyman, suggesting instead that "you'll probably feel better if you stayed and played with yourself."
In the year that Sinister was released, every teenager in my hometown was listening to Blackstreet's "No Diggity" and 2Pac's "How Do You Want It," while I was soon to find comfort in Stuart Murdoch's pubescent naivety in lines like "if I remain passive and you just want to cuddle, then we should be okay and we wont get in a muddle."
I've always found a kind of temporal sanctuary in the music of Belle and Sebastian. I've long-since given up on belief in God, but the message of If You're Feeling Sinister (romanticism over rationalism; social reject = creative visionary) remains with me these years later.
Without it, I might still be a factory worker in Iowa, pretending to love football, large breasts and plates of syrup-soaked ribs. When all I really wanted to was to "wear terry underwear," and remain passive while cuddling.