I’m tempted to call If You’re Feeling Sinister the album of the quarantine. It definitely is. But then again, there are a lot of albums-of-the-quarantine these days. Plus, I’ll call Sinister the album of just about anything.
It’s the best batch of songs Belle and Sebastian has ever recorded: clever, charming — and catchy, to boot. Moreover, it’s the sort of album a band can only make once, an amateur classic as ingenuous as it is genius.
The Scottish pop band was always a bit of a mystery. Their 1996 debut, Tigermilk, ran just 1,000 copies. They gave no interviews. They didn’t even appear in their own press photos.
But a fanbase emerged. And those fans were abuzz when, five months after Tigermilk, the band released a second album. On the cover, technicolor red, a woman lays resting her head in her hand. Propped behind her, Kafka’s The Trial.
Despite its name, sinister, the record is not — it’s more often described as twee — but the characters on Sinister stick out in their own little ways. The boys in “Seeing Other People” who kiss each other “just for practice.” The misfit in the title track who can’t find her faith. The boy in “The Boy Done Wrong Again” who done wrong again. Together, these folks inhabit a world of cheeky one-liners and fanciful goings-on, all dreamed up by frontman Stuart Murdoch.
At the time, Murdoch was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Most days he stayed home, but some, he rode the bus around town and wrote songs about the people he saw. Describing those songs, Murdoch once said, “they’re about desiring the subject of the song but also desiring to be the person who the song is about, to be partaking in their activities, to be part of their life.”
In rare moments, he hits that note square. The title “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” for example, drips with maudlin sincerity. The song itself, however, boasts an almost-danceable guitar riff and one of the funnest on the record: “Nobody writes them like they used to / So it may as well be me.”
And write them he did. Equal parts Beatles’ Rubber Soul and indie compilation C86, Sinister jangles about with classic flair and D.I.Y. unruliness.
The band recorded most of the tracks in one take, vocals and all. Recording took five days; mixing, three more. Somewhere along the way, the mix was pancaked flat, muddling the strings, brass and percussion.
The sound fits. Sinister is simple fiction, its characters flat and its stories plainly told. Furthermore, the heart of the record — the dream of being out there rather than in here — is just a dream, out of focus and out of reach.
Nowhere does Belle and Sebastian stretch that truth more than “Judy and The Dream of Horses,” the slow-burning closing track. “She fell asleep till it was morning,” Murdoch sings, “She dreamt about the girl who stole a horse / Judy never felt so good except when she was sleeping.”
The guitar picks up.
The trumpet kicks in.
And for the last two minutes of the record, dreaming feels almost as good as the real thing.
Matthew Kellenberg is a rising junior majoring in economics. His favorite Belle and Sebastian deep cut is “Winter Wooskie.”