5. “The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House” (2005)
Based on Murdoch’s first-hand observations on Israeli-Palestinian tensions after a visit to the region with keyboardist Chris Geddes, “The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House” ups the geopolitical stakes of B&S’s touching character sketches. Originally appearing on the 2005 Help: A Day in the Life benefit compilation, the song compares and contrasts what it’s like on both sides of the conflict, its protagonists being an Israeli checkpoint soldier (“the girl with the gun”) and a Palestinian boy so shellshocked he “can’t sleep without gunfire”. And yet, Murdoch’s tale finds their common humanity as they cross paths when “The boy cracks a joke / He is sweet”, with their biggest bone of contention being that “He listens to hip-hop in Gaza / She listens to Coldplay in Lod”. Here, Murdoch might be at his most political, which works because he’s also at his most personal too.
4. “Your Cover’s Blown” (2004)
On the sly, slinky “Your Cover’s Blown”, Belle and Sebastian get as close to being the dance-pop band they probably secretly yearned to be all along. Imagining a little fling as a spy thriller, Murdoch’s insinuating vocals are at their most alluring and suggestive as he gets as close to playing the bad boy as someone with a fragile disposition like his can. Indeed, it’s out of character to hear him croon, “Pick up the girl in someone’s borrowed Mini / Take her to dinner, use her boyfriend’s money”, but that’s why “Your Cover’s Blown” is such a thrill. And the music lurks and lies in wait with Murdoch every step of the way, the almost neon synths and Jackson’s gently funky guitar more lurid than you normally get from Belle and Sebastian. So even when Murdoch reverts to form and calls off the covert affairs — “Hey, lady, put the phone down / Cancel all operations, tell your friends to cool it” — something’s changed about Belle and Sebastian on “Your Cover’s Blown”, as they’re just a little braver and more transgressive here.
3. “String Bean Jean” (1997)
Stuart Murdoch has always been masterful in letting his fans get an indirect glimpse of himself by crafting other characters for him to react to and interact with. Whether he’s crafted a semi-autobiography in song or a short fiction anthology set to music, Murdoch’s practically created an imaginary Glasgow for his listeners, peopled by wallflowery introverts who are drawn so vividly that you feel like you know them and Murdoch — or at least, folks like them. One of Murdoch’s most beloved characters is Jo, aka “String Bean Jean”, because “the label on her jeans says seven-to-eight years old”.
Appearing on the very first B&S EP, 1997’s Dog on Wheels, “String Bean Jean” confirmed that the stories told on If You’re Feeling Sinister were worth continuing to follow, as Murdoch’s narrator drifts in and out of Jo’s life, helping her pay the “leccy bill” and making ends meet, while he gets his “fingers dirty at the school of rock”. So while we were learning about String Bean and company, we were really getting to know more about Murdoch and letting him into our lives a little more as he was reticently doing the same.
2. “A Century of Fakers” (1997)
On the face of it, “A Century of Fakers” seems like Belle and Sebastian’s most caustic moment, as if Stuart Murdoch is about to go all Holden Caufield on you, calling out the phonies. As witty as he is cutting here, Murdoch’s first lines are wryly nasty, “There are people going hungry far away / They’ve got nothing on their plates / And you’re filling your fat face with every different kind of cake”. His observations are as vivid as ever, but more withering than normal, as he sees through insincere chit-chat and points out the posers reading books they’ll never finish on what appears to be B&S’s most biting social satire.
But the thing is, Murdoch never sounds hard-hearted or mean-spirited singing in his shy, gentle voice, making the words feel more tender and understanding in tone when sung. And when he closes out the fragile tune by claiming, “Everybody’s trying to make us / Another century of fakers”, Murdoch seems to flip sides or at least comes to terms with his and everyone’s inescapable flaws. Whether Murdoch’s redeeming the fakers or furrowing his brow at the purity trolls, “A Century of Fakers” is a rallying cry as fragile and strong as they come.
1. “Lazy Line Painter Jane” (1997)
There’s really nothing like the sinister tone of “Lazy Line Painter Jane” anywhere else in the Belle and Sebastian catalog, which came as even more of a surprise when it appeared early in the group’s discography. The darker mood of the song, its throbbing bass, and — especially — guest singer Monica Queen’s brash, wailed vocals, all provided a counterpoint to the fragile, understated profile that Belle and Sebastian had cultivated up until then.
Comparing the romantic fates of Murdoch’s good girl and Queen’s bad girl — “You know a girl who’s tax-free on her back and making / Plenty cash / While you are working for the joy of giving” — Murdoch’s eye for detail has never been keener and more arch. Or more empathetic, especially when he duets with Queen, reassuring Lazy Jane, “You will have a boy tonight / And you hope that she will see”. But ultimately, what’s most scandalous about “Lazy Line Painter Jane” is also what’s best about it, that Belle and Sebastian came out of its shell, proving they could be a full-on, locked-in rock band with chops and an intuitive feel.