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Belle and Sebastian's long journey from losers to legends

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Belle Sebastian

2014 has been a big year for a relatively small band: Belle and Sebastian. The Scottish indie-pop group formed 18 years ago, and while it’s never had anything so ordinary as a hit single in the United States, it has managed to build a fan base the old-fashioned way: by writing old-fashioned songs, the kind that brim with melody, sensitivity, cleverness, sophistication, and sheer beauty. Belle and Sebastian’s influence is huge—it’s hard to imagine groups like The Shins, Arcade Fire, or Vampire Weekend sounding like they do without its influence—but the band has remained mostly a cult phenomenon.

The cult has been passionate enough to fuel a slew of activity in the Belle and Sebastian camp this year. The band’s ninth album (and first in five years), Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, was recently announced. Matador Records reissued the band’s 10 album catalog on vinyl today; the band will also be touring through the rest of the month. And Belle and Sebastian’s soft-singing, soulfully ethereal frontman Stuart Murdoch has also written his first film, God Help the Girl, which made waves at Sundance Film Festival in January before being released last month. Set in a city based on Glasgow—Belle and Sebastian’s birthplace—it’s more or less a feature-length extension of Murdoch’s songs, many of which are funny, melancholy short stories wrapped up in sumptuous pop.

What is it about Belle and Sebastian that inspires such devotion—let alone enough clout to secure so many ambitious projects?

Timing has a lot to do with it. The band gained traction just as the internet was starting to become a portal for music discovery, but before it took over completely. This was important because Murdoch and company knew how to package themselves immaculately. People still bought CDs by the hundreds of millions in the ’90s, and Belle and Sebastian’s cover art had a distinct look. It evoked used books, old movies, and (not coincidentally) the cover art of The Smiths, the ’80s indie-rock legend that most obviously influenced Murdoch and company. Right out of the gate, the band had an image that was more about mystique than would-be rock-star ego.

That consistency and cohesion carried over into their music, creating a through-line from 1996’s Tiger Milk and If You’re Feeling Sinister—Belle and Sebastian’s first two albums—to its most recent album, 2010’s cheekily self-aware Belle and Sebastian Write About Love. While many bands mythologize themselves in song, Murdoch’s aggrandizing is far more endearing and self-deprecating than most. The fact that platinum-selling artist Norah Jones contributed guest vocals to Write About Love only underscores just how nimbly Belle and Sebastian walks a self-drawn line between being losers and being legends—or at least the perception of being one or the other.

What’s particularly remarkable, though, isn’t Belle and Sebastian’s ability to maintain that difficult equilibrium—it’s how Murdoch has allowed for radical left turns in the group’s sound. Belle and Sebastian’s music has many consistent elements, like Murdoch’s breathy voice and rich hooks. Even so, the band has been willing and able to expand and challenge itself. The psychedelic rave-up of the 2000 single “Legal Man” and the Sly Stone-esque funkiness of “Song for Sunshine” on 2006’s The Life Pursuit are just two examples of how Belle and Sebastian has erased large parts of its own template, only to gleefully sketch something else in their place. The new material is familiar enough to satisfy the faithful while giving listeners and critics alike something fresh to sink their teeth into.

Belle and Sebastian’s lineup has changed over the years, and Murdoch regularly allows other players in the group to sing lead. This contributes to the group’s low-key public presence: Murdoch lets his songs speak for themselves, and he doesn’t try to elbow his own creations aside to grab the spotlight. Most Belle and Sebastian fans wouldn’t recognize a member of the band if they passed by them on a busy street—which speaks volumes about how Belle and Sebastian’s members downplay themselves not actively, as a statement on stardom, but passively, as a simple way of being.

In Marc Spitz’s Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film, published earlier this year, Belle and Sebastian is mentioned glowingly and often. Which is no surprise; no book about the twee movement—an aesthetic that favors simplicity, sweetness, and nostalgia for a quieter, more intimate time—would be complete without a discussion of Belle and Sebastian’s pivotal role in that movement.

That said, there’s more to Murdoch than the twee stereotype of fuzzy sweaters and jangly songcraft. Contrasts abound in Belle and Sebastian’s music. It’s earnest, but it’s also sly. It’s confessional, but it’s contained in character sketches and vignettes. It’s lightweight, but it has substance. But the most striking dichotomy is how Murdoch’s songs embrace two of humanity’s deepest, most resonant issues: sexuality and spirituality. If You’re Feeling Sinister‘s title track was the first big hint that Murdoch has had struggles with both romance and religion: “If you’re feeling sinister/Go off and see a minister/He’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever,” Murdoch sings sardonically; meanwhile one of the song’s characters, the conflicted Hilary, is into both “S&M and Bible studies.” That tension lends a nervy, shadowy quality to Belle and Sebastian’s otherwise wispy tunes.

Maybe a better question to ask would be “why isn’t Belle and Sebastian bigger?” The group named its new reissue campaign “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career,” after one of the many glittering gems on the 1998 masterpiece The Boy With the Arab Strap. That early song wasn’t meant to refer to Belle and Sebastian itself—yet it’s turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or has it? By one metric, the band has had a brilliant career indeed; by another, it stalled out just before hitting the mainstream, and a big breakthrough is getting increasingly unlikely as the years roll by.

Maybe, though, the band has it all figured out. In another of The Boy With the Arab Strap‘s stellar songs, “Simple Things,” Murdoch sings, “If you want to look me up/I don’t exist in usual places/Subtle as the wind is gray.” Those lines apply to Belle and Sebastian itself. And if the group has its way, huge year or not, they always will.

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