It seems impossible to describe Scottish band Belle & Sebastian without using words like “precious” and “whimsical,” which are the two adjectives least likely to describe any of my favorite bands. That precious whimsy (or whimsical preciousness) is the cardigan-sweater-wearing heart of twee pop, the fey subgenre that typically grates on my nerves—and the one Belle & Sebastian came to epitomize beginning with 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister.The idea that B&S are less punk than Yo La Tengo, or somehow more fey and delicate than late 90s indie rock betrays a fatal chauvinism and a complete lack of imagination. And for a music culture that rejects "labels" and "genres", people seem awfully at ease with pigeon-holing Belle and Sebastian.
When the album came out, I was in my junior year of college and spending a lot of time at my school’s radio station, KCOU, which opened my musical horizons beyond the steady diet of punk on which I subsisted for years. I was a budding indie-rock snob—Yo La Tengo had blown my mind at a show in late ’95—so I was primed to greet Belle & Sebastian’s delicate songs with open arms. Yet I have little memory of If You’re Feeling Sinister’s release. It’s like remembering someone from a party years ago, but not recalling much about him other than you weren’t very impressed.
Because beneath the fey surface there's an awful lot of pain, violence, and disappointment in the songs of If You're Feeling Sinister. And what the band offers is not answers but ambivalence - a comfort with contradiction, and ultimately the notion that most of life falls somewhere between "fail" and "kick ass."
Belle and Sebastian write songs about youth for adults, and for people who understand or have lived through that gap between youthful expectation and adult reality. The characters in their songs are constantly shifting from identity to identity, from innocence to experience and back again, and do so without falling into the cliched binaries of masculine/feminine, young/old, rebelliousness/conformity, sin/faith, strong/weak, gay/straight. Everyone, they say, is all of these things all of the time. As a band, they are communal and democratic, privileging no one member, and allowing the warts and occasionally weak singers to shine through. This, they seem to suggest, is an organizing principle for life.
Perhaps what's most subversive about their music (and this is true of Morrissey as well) is that the very idea of twee-ness is so threatening to your average unreformed and reactionary beta-male. And fearing that B and S will turn you into a pussy is the Calvin pissing on a Chevy sticker of music fandom. Whimsy is anarchy stripped of its fascist impulses. Preciousness is just emotional poverty made plentiful in song. If you can't rock to that, maybe you need to grow up.