Belle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian’s Studious ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ Turns 25

Belle and Sebastian’s 1996 showpiece If You’re Feeling Sinister balanced poignance and exuberance with its character-driven stories and became an indie-pop classic.

If You're Feeling Sinister
Belle and Sebastian
18 November 1996

“Old sad bastard music”—that’s Jack Black’s pejorative summary of Belle and Sebastian‘s music in the 2000 film High Fidelity. The Glasgow group’s reputation as tender, knit-wearing mommas’ boys certainly precedes them. But anyone who’s ever listened to their seminal 1996 release If You’re Feeling Sinister, which has its 25th birthday this November, knows that there’s much more to B&S than meets the eye. And those that write off their whimsical melancholia, their orchestral-imbued indie rock, as milk-mustache folk are missing out.

It’s no secret that the members of Belle and Sebastian are not called Belle or Sebastian. The closest they get is their cellist between 1996 and 2002, Isobel Campbell. Like their Scottish neighbors in Cocteau Twins—who aren’t twins—Belle and Sebastian are, naturally, mistaken for a duo. In actuality, Belle is a Pyrenees Mountain Dog, and Sebastian (Sébastien), a six-year-old boy. The group are a seven-strong ensemble led by chief songwriter Stuart Murdoch. Literature is front and center, then, even before we hear any lyrics. In the case of the band name, it’s Cécile Aubry’s 1966 novel about a young boy and his dog who lived in the French Alps during World War II that lends its title (Murdoch was a fan of the television adaptation). 

Murdoch’s prose predilection makes it to the cover of Sinister. The red-hued artwork features a poorly lit photograph of his ‘buddy in illness’, Ciara MacLaverty—they both have chronic fatigue syndrome—resting beside a hardback copy of Kafka’s The Trial. In the album’s sleeve notes, Murdoch notes that MacLaverty’s father was a writer with an impressive home library. He used to offer recommendations to Stuart, the young bibliophile, whenever he’d visit. The day that Murdoch snapped the picture that would be the cover of his band’s masterstroke, the novel on the menu was Kafka’s mysterious tale of a man arrested without explanation and forced to stand an unfair trial. 

As Belle and Sebastian didn’t do a music video for any of the songs on Sinister—or feature in their own press photos—this iconic photograph became the sole visual accompaniment to the songs on the album, many of which remain in the band’s setlist rotation today. The group even performed the album in full at 2019’s Pitchfork Music Festival, and 2020’s What to Look for in Summer includes live versions of several of the tracks. It’s a testament to Murdoch’s songwriting brilliance that a record that came together especially quickly and was criticized for its murky mix and sub-par recording quality has maintained such popularity and influenced so many artists—among them Kings of Convenience, Sufjan Stevens, Alvvays, the Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie, and Hovvdy. 

“I wrote all of those songs in three months, and that was during the period when we recorded our first LP as well, so it was a very productive period,” Murdoch tells Paste in an interview. “And it was almost like this group of people coming together was a catalyst for me writing these songs. It’s almost like I was waiting for this moment to be inspired by the band to write this group of songs.” Despite the imperfect production, the songwriting sounds unhurried and considered, the arrangements are virtuosic if not always balanced, and the lyrics, like the band’s name and album art, indulge the songwriter’s love of fiction. He sketches a plethora of characters across the album’s ten songs—snow strayers and Lisa the heartbreaker; a cynical Major and a lovesick mayfly gazer. 

Sinister was released only six months after Tigermilk, prompting comparisons to the Beatles‘ back-to-back Rubber SoulRevolver releases in December 1965 and August 1966 respectively. The Liverpudlians were a principal influence on Belle and Sebastian’s music, along with power-pop acts such as Buzzcocks and Big Star, and dream poppers such as Felt. But there was another lodestar for the band that is, at least initially, less apparent.

When discussing left-of-center alternative acts from the ’80s and ’90s, it’s propitious, if predictable, to mention the Velvet Underground. The Lou Reed-led, New York art-rockers have been cited by an outrageously long list of reverential artists: Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, Talking Heads, Pavement, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Belle and Sebastian, and numerous others. The New York Times David Bowman wrote that Velvet Underground were “arguably the most influential American rock band of our time”. Todd Haynes’ 2021 audiovisual documentary looks at the band’s career through archival footage and interviews, tracing their momentous impact on alternative rock. 

Both Reed and Murdoch incorporated their love of literature into their music. For Reed, it was the Beat movement, writers like Burroughs and Kerouac. (Guitarist Sterling Morrison even taught Medieval Literature at the University of Texas.) But where bands like My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth borrowed the Velvets’ noisier ingredients—the cat-wail screech of John Cale’s violin, the raucous guitar fuzz of tracks like “Sister Ray”—Murdoch took the converse elements, the gentler, poppier parts. 

Sinister’s album opener “The Stars of Track & Field” features clean and bright electric guitar work much like “I’ll Be Your Mirror” or “Femme Fatale”. The narrator twitches metaphorical curtains on this track while admiring the eponymous stars of track and field, which he deems “beautiful people”. Yet the narrator’s discontent or perhaps envy is palpable, as he proposes: “You only did it so that you could wear / Your terry underwear / And feel the city air / Run past your body.” The song gathers energy as it progresses, then tempers it, and builds again, so that despite its major key, the inconsistency and embedding of non-diatonic chords make it feel unsettled, as though cutting back and forth between a runner and her voyeur.

Meanwhile, the orchestral strings à la the Velvets’ “Stephanie Says” are echoed on the album’s quietly beautiful midpoint, “The Fox in the Snow”. This tender, piano-led ballad examines a different snow wanderer on each verse—a hungry fox, a purposeless girl, an overstimulated cyclist, and, in the penultimate verse, a child playing in the snow, whereupon the narrator pauses to reflect on the innocuous joy the child takes from this simple pleasure: “Second just to being born / Second to dying too / What else would you do?” The vocal delivery is intimate, while the nylon acoustic plucks accent certain intervals from the piano’s chord sequence. 

So while Belle & Sebastian’s Velvet-worshipping dream pop and shoegaze contemporaries were obscuring the nature of their instruments with layers of distortion and effects, and in turn making their lyrics indecipherable, B&S took a natural, close mic’d approach. Every word and note was distinct and audible, and rather than feedback and distortion, they filled out their arrangements with Sarah Martin’s plaintive violin and Isobel Campbell’s warm cello. Guitarist Stevie Jackson notes that this additional instrumentation was inspired by the Left Banke and was intrinsic to the arrangements.

No singles were released from Sinister, but the de facto lead track is, arguably, “Dylan in the Movies”. It isn’t the fastest track on the album—see: “Me and the Major”—but its propulsion, primarily driven by the bass line and simple, almost motorik drum rhythm, matches the uneasy lyrical matter: “If they follow you / Don’t look back / Like Dylan in the movies,” the narrator urges Lisa, his ex-girlfriend, as she walks home alone. Here, again, is Murdoch’s pop culture proclivity: The lyrics reference D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary about Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back. Aside from the messy transition from the middle eight into the final chorus, “Dylan” is one of the group’s best and most accessible songs.

“Me and the Major” is the band’s take on punk rock. It opens with a lively acoustic guitar part built around two alternating chords before a throaty harmonica melody buzzes on top. Murdoch’s lyrics—themselves worthy of a novella—are a first-person account of a soldier’s frustration with his superior, a “man of noble standing who looks down on me like I was never born”. The Major is cynical and reluctant to engage in a dialogue: “He doesn’t understand / No he doesn’t try.” After several chances for an interaction that go nowhere—they get on the same train, the same elevator—the soldier decides to abandon his catch-22 ruminations and assuage his anger. “I want a dance, I want a drink of whisky, so I / Forget the Major and go up the town.” The train-chug punk rhythm scores his delectation as the snow falls outside. 

Another of Sinister’s highlights is “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying”. There’s an amusing juxtaposition between Murdoch’s sprightly delivery of the glum opening phrase, “Oooh, get me away from here, I’m dying / Play me a song to set me free,” which is accompanied by a cheery guitar part. The lyrics examine the power of words. “Said the hero in the story / It is mightier than swords / I could kill you sure / But I could only make you cry with these words.” Murdoch repeats the last four words several times as if punctuating their power, proving the hero’s point. 

The crux of Belle and Sebastian’s greatness is that they find themselves in between the saccharine and the overwrought—the pure and the sinister. Sinister is not an album to put on to fall asleep. But nor is it the score to existential angst. “I always just wanted to write about normal people doing normal things because I was not normal,” says Murdoch in the Pitchfork Classic documentary about the album. 

The specificity and sagacity of Murdoch’s lyrics confirm that it’s the minutiae that contains the most. It’s an arpeggiated minor chord, not a wall of fuzz; a meditation on a track runner or a child playing in the snow. The power of words themselves. With the enforced repose of CFS/ME as a catalyst for his songwriting, he and his bandmates delivered music that made small desires sound less small, but it left an immense impact. So, if you are feeling sinister, you could do a lot worse than this old sad bastard music.