How Soon Is Then

Scottish pop sensation Belle and Sebastian rewrites history one missed opportunity at a time

Belle and Sebastian
The Boy with the Arab Strap
Matador

"Ink Polaroids." That's Stuart David's term for the song-sketches he and the other members of Scottish pop sensation Belle and Sebastian are fond of composing. Ink Polaroids are snapshots taken by pen rather than camera, usually of young ugly ducklings or promiscuous swans who stay in bed all day or roam aimlessly all night, heavenly creatures who always seem to be daydreaming, gazing out of windows, catching buses or (more often) missing them. They're ever so slightly out of step with the world, and circumscribed by its cruel limitations.

During an online chat session held on the Web site for the band's U.K. label, Jeepster, one fan asked whether Belle and Sebastian's songs referred to real or made-up people. David replied: "They're all real. They're all one person. They're all [main singer-songwriter] Stuart Murdoch. In a dress." That's as good a reading as any of the slightly scrambled perspective in a song like "Stars of Track and Field," the breathtaking opener of last year's critically acclaimed album If You're Feeling Sinister. The song's best image--terry underwear with the city air rushing through it--is titillating in part because the listener has no idea who, exactly, is wearing it; characters of both genders populate the song.

This flippantly bi-curious stance reached its most flagrant (and lazy) expression in "Lazy Line Painter Jane" (the most stirring of three singles the band released last year), with guest vocalist Monica Queen belting out "You will have a boy tonight/Maybe you will have a girl tonight." If earlier releases were replete with more bizarre love triangles than a boarding school, the new album, The Boy With the Arab Strap, is a little less libertine (despite the randy title). Murdoch--he of the cream-on-a-warm-scone croon--opens the record with a sad Polaroid indeed: "He had a stroke at the age of 24/It could have been a brilliant career."

This medically unlikely scenario topples the first domino in what turns out to be an epic-length succession of blown opportunities, from a missed dinner date with Sire Records' head honcho ("Seymour Stein") to seven weeks squandered doing nothing in particular ("A Summer Wasting").

Melancholy, occasionally verging on melodrama, is what differentiates Belle and Sebastian from their bouncier counterparts in the latest Scottish pop renaissance. Many worthy Scots have recently been thrust (primarily by BBC DJ John Peel) into the limelight: not only Belle and Sebastian, but Spare Snare, Magoo, Bis, and, oh yeah, Arab Strap (some sex shop in Glasgow must be cleaning up on those things). Romping through dole-subsidized bohemian poverty like so many minor characters in an endlessly looping Bill Forsyth reel, these acts (despite their considerable differences) are all, in their way, stubbornly stuck in that teensy cultural moment, back in the early '80s, when Orange Juice records were big on the U.K. charts. As Spare Snare proclaim on their charmingly dorky theme song "We Are the Snare": "We can't do drum 'n' bass."

Belle and Sebastian, an eight-piece Glaswegian collective of deadbeats and dilettantes with fetishes for music-school instruments and stuffed animals, are at once the most visible avatars of this scene and its grand exceptions. They probably could play drum 'n' bass if they chose to (check the brief techno non sequitur which rudely shakes awake the dreamy ballad "You Made Me Forget My Dreams" on the "Lazy Line Painter Jane" single/EP). But what they proffer instead are handfuls of exquisite numbers as insidiously addictive as butter toffees.

The delicate majesty of the arrangements on Arab Strap recalls '60s iconoclasts the Left Banke: Remember "Walk Away Renee"? But Belle and Sebastian may never own up to it: They've pooh-poohed comparisons to art-folk precursors Donovan and Nick Drake, swearing fealty to Teenage Fanclub and Pavement. And why shouldn't they claim their rightful place as the last children of the 20th-century pop age? Unlike the Major (a grizzled ex-hipster character from Sinister's "Me and the Major"), they're born too late to remember Roxy Music in '72.

They do, however, remember the Smiths, the Wedding Present, and St. Etienne. Add to their swinging-London orchestral pop (yes, they do use strings) just the right combination of shy self-effacement and grandiose self-absorption, and you've got a pop phenomenon. The group already has a fanatical following so clannish it should have its own tartan pattern. A copy of the extremely limited debut album Tigermilk donated by B&S guitarist Stevie Jackson recently fetched 810 pounds--that's well over $1,000--at a charity auction.

Though Belle and Sebastian are practically a cottage industry in the U.K. (check out that Jeepster Web site at www.jeepster.co.uk for proof), they appeal to sensitive neurasthenics everywhere. As Dorothy Parker once wrote, paraphrasing 17th-century curmudgeon La Rochefoucauld, "If no one had ever picked up the habit of reading, no one would have learned how to fall in love." Substitute "listening to pop music" for "reading," and you've got Belle and Sebastian. In fact, maybe the appeal lies in that substitution. The cover of If You're Feeling Sinister depicts an Androgynous Young Thing slouched next to a copy of Kafka's The Trial. The book is closed, and the AYT is staring off into space. Though it's hard to tell what he or she is thinking about, you can be sure it isn't Kafka.

Which brings us back to the ink Polaroids. The idea is literary only in the most sophomoric sense; it's an example of the perpetual adolescent fantasy of having a fresh new thought that no one's ever had before, of creating a sui generis "art" without discipline or even the proper equipment. Yet, when it comes to the music itself, Belle and Sebastian have plenty of discipline and plenty of equipment. In a way, they rejuvenate the DIY aesthetic by running it in reverse: their ideas aren't sweeping, but their execution is. A song like the new album's "Sleep the Clock Around," with only one hackneyed four-chord structure and a nursery-rhyme melody, lifts off into buoyant ecstasy thanks to deft use of electronics, trumpet, and bagpipe.

In ornate but tasteful settings, even the most uncomplicated of Belle and Sebastian's lyrics spark off reflections like small, highly polished gemstones. In "Is It Wicked Not to Care," Isobel Campbell coyly asks, "If there was a sequel/Would you love me like an equal/Would you love me 'til I'm dead?" Her slight but neat twist on "Love me 'til I die" tweaks the cliché just enough to highlight the possibility that such love is actually more likely to cause fatal injury than to last into comfortable old age. Or take "Chick Factor," a monologue in which a pop singer (not to say the song's singer, Murdoch) realizes that he's fallen for a fanzine writer who recently interviewed him. When Murdoch muses, "She's five hours behind," he's referring to the time difference between London and New York, but he also manages to evoke the impossibility of two lovers sharing the same romantic moment in the same way.

Or the impossibility of two listeners sharing the same historical moment in the same way. If there's "too much history between" the narrator of "Me and the Major" and the Major, history doesn't happen between them as a shared experience; it comes between them as a barrier. Arab Strap, like previous Belle and Sebastian recordings, magically levels that barrier by making retro-pop forms feel just like those elusive, fresh new thoughts that no one's ever had before. If the group's "ink Polaroids" have a moral, it's that it doesn't matter whether we've missed the bus, because there will always be another one.

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