Holding Back the Years

Scottish indie-pop savants Belle and Sebastian keep postponing the doldrums of maturity, one album at a time

Child stars have a tough destiny mapped out for them. Not only does success put a chink in your developmental cycles, it freezes your image, eternally and prematurely, in the eyes of others. The more you grow, the more you're doomed to look like a freakish mutation of your true, innocent self. In the world of child stars, pockmarked by substance abuse and suspended misdemeanor sentences and Old Navy ad appearances, Michael Jackson is a comparative success story--and he's an embittered crank, weathering accusations of pedophilia while imprisoned in a nightmarish theme park of his own demented architecture.

To be sure, singer Stuart Murdoch was not a child when he composed the weedy, rococo rondels eventually collected as If You're Feeling Sinister(Matador), the 1997 U.S. debut from his twee Glaswegian septet Belle and Sebastian. He was already into his twenties, and had conceived the Brit-only collector's item Tigermilk while lolling in the warm placental bath of university--society's ultimate excuse for infantile regression. Nor did Murdoch's pop delicacies make him a star, except inside a few bookish dorm rooms and among the Anglophile wing of college-radio staff meetings. Yet Belle and Sebastian's limited fame, secured within a homely cocoon even more protective than academia itself--indie-rock culthood--still made the group as susceptible to the weathering of the elements as the pinkest-cheeked teen-pop ingénue.

Belle fans still look wistfully upon the art of If You're Feeling Sinister, an album that voiced all the aloof wisdom of a perfectly timed yawn. Its folkish melodies unfolded with the simplicity of hymns, its lyrics marked by the inexhaustible weariness of jaded (yet acutely sensitive) know-it-alls. Flirting with decadence only to bed down with that reliable British standby, naughtiness, the songs purred with a casual bisexuality. They suggested that the polymorphous moppets believed they were the first generation to stumble across the notion of oral sex while doodling in the back of their Spenser seminar. And for anyone who longed to linger longer o'er the nostalgic precipice of postadolescence, this well-wrought work provided an aching glimpse of romantic perfection all the more tantalizing because it was never to be recaptured in real life.

Of course, the erudite languor Belle and Sebastian apotheosized was, in its way, no less callow than the moony laments of Backstreet or the pom-pom panting of Britney. If teen pop assumes shortsightedly that all future happiness rides on the success of your first infatuation, Belle and Sebastian assume the equally limited worldview that such normal mating patterns are always a chump's game. Which left them too smart to beg off disillusionment, too imaginative to slump entirely into glum mopery, but too young to imagine the future as anything but an inexorable shedding of the joys of youth. And indeed, now that they have perfected the song as a heart-wrenching, if sallow, reverie, how do they mature without contradicting their carefully honed sensibility? How can they admit that, well, life goes on?

Judging by the band's latest missive, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant(Matador), Belle and Sebastian have chosen to grow up carefully, if also almost imperceptibly. Where on 1998's The Boy With the Arab Strap the band devised a singularly wan response to postgrad existence--they'd sleep through the future--now they've ratcheted their mossy folk-rock even closer to unabashed orchestral pop. In the process, they risk committing the greatest adult sin of all: They sometimes sound ordinary.

The finest moments here--and there are bunches--aim to top charts that haven't existed in Belle and Sebastian's lifetime, counting down the inner Hit Parade of every British tyke who ever dreamed of growing up to be Petula Clark. Nick Drake, feh: "Nice Day for a Sulk" adds a "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" piano plink and Manfred Mann namedrop to what could be vintage, pre-disco Bee Gees (You do remember "I Started a Joke." No? Cripes, don't they teach you kids anything in school?). As "Sulk" glides into the next track, the uptempo "Woman's Realm," you realize that Belle and Sebastian don't rock and they don't swing--rather, they hop from foot to foot like celebratory North Country harvesters or deranged puppets on some lysergically inspired children's program.

As always, your response to all this depends on how sympathetically you quaver along to Murdoch's keen. "It's been a bloody stupid day," he sings on "Don't Leave the Light On Baby," staggering forlornly across an electric piano, while string arrangements dart around him like flashes of summer lightning. Showing a coy reluctance to commit to consonants, he sighs a mostly indecipherable love plaint, with phrases like "He was rich and I was overwrought" surfacing unreliably. Then the tune rises into a gorgeous three-part chorus, and Murdoch rises even higher, declaring, "I know you will forgive me for my ho-ne-sty."

But will you forgive him? With that crumpled grasp at a falsetto, Murdoch either strokes your secret androgynous zone or stimulates that manly wince reflex that collects your fingers into a bully's clench. Murdoch's speak-sigh is hardly an acquired taste--either its voiceprint was ingrained in your psyche as an alienated high school lad/lass or it wasn't. But though his delicate wisp of a trill evokes (yipes) Morrissey or even (yeesh) Ray Davies, he does so without the dreadful overdraft of self-involvement associated with the former, or the archness of the latter. He asks nothing but empathy, and offers nothing but beauty in return, so it's only fitting that this poet of gorgeous, premature dissipation should fade to a whisper amid his sparkling miniatures, with echoes of transcendent sadness his only, and ever-diminishing, reward.

Yes, of course I know perfectly well how precious, silly, even stupid that sounds. But I speak as both a tough-minded scourge of college-radio simps and a devotee of the first Tiffany record when I say that Belle and Sebastian are among those few foolish heart-tuggers who have ever made me cry in spite of myself. So I'll strike this deal with their cadre of worshipers: Promise me you won't mistake that limited, beauteous sensibility for something like the meaning of life, and I promise to admit that the delicate, wounded coo that espouses it is, after all, something very much like soul.

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