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Holy Hell! If You’re Feeling Sinister Turns 20

Holy Hell! If You’re Feeling Sinister Turns 20

Murdoch’s inherent sadness helped add to the group’s appeal.

For many, regardless of what Stuart Murdoch and company do next, the “Belle & Sebastian sound” will be defined by what’s heard on their classic second album. If You’re Feeling Sinister serves as the prototypical B&S album, hitting all the requisite twee tropes and serving as a template for a generation of sensitive indie pop bands and their fans. From almost-peers Camera Obscura up through Allo Darlin’, B&S’s influence can be felt coursing through the indie pop underground.

And given the overwhelming quality of content on the album, both lyrical and musical, it should come as little surprise that If You’re Feeling Sinister has had an overwhelming influence. Indeed, it stands as a high watermark for both the genre as well as the band. So much so that Murdoch has been quoted in interviews claiming Sinister to be the best collection of songs the group has released to date. Every song is a pure, note-perfect indie pop gem, full of pithy lyrics, insistent melodic hooks and twee instrumentation.

More so than perhaps any other entry into their catalog, Sinister plays as a cohesive whole, an album in the truest sense of the word. Each song feels not only stylistically but thematically as part of something more, seamlessly flowing one into the next like a masterful collection of short fiction. Populated by character archetypes that would become the dominant reference points for all things twee moving forward, Sinister often feels like the aural equivalent of a Wes Anderson film, minus the overly-stylized cloying tendencies. Rather, there’s an earnestness to Murdoch’s delivery and an amateurish quality to the instrumental backing, strings wavering and horns tentatively spelling out their complementary lines.

From the outsider rant of “The Stars of Track and Field”—with the first of many lyric bon mots casually and coyly dropped by Murdoch: “When she’s on her back/ She has the knowledge to get into college”—through to the idealistically hopeful “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” Sinister manages to pack in enough characters, clever asides and witty wordplay without drifting off into the overly sweet or, worse, dull territory many of their subsequent albums have. Save perhaps The Boy with the Arab Strap, B&S have not yet managed as cohesive a set of songs as heard here, playing just as much as a greatest hits collection as an album proper.

Songs like “Seeing Other People,” “Me and the Major,” “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” and the melancholic “Fox in the Snow” are some of the best songs written in the decade. The mere fact they appear on the same album, let alone nearly in succession, is nothing short of a marvel. That Sinister harkens back to ‘60s, an era that saw the proliferation of albums, should come as little surprise given both Murdoch’s approach to songwriting and the overall aesthetic adopted early by the band—namely the focus on the album as a piece of art and the group as a collection of people, not a series of featured individuals.

That said, much of Sinister’s success lies in the album featuring the iconic lineup of not only Murdoch, but co-founder and bassist Stuart David and cellist/vocalist Isobel Campbell. It’s the latter’s presence that helps add a certain airiness to what would later become somewhat more claustrophobic version of the B&S sound as Murdoch and company began to stray from the template set forth here. But in 1996, B&S were on their way to putting out one of the decade’s iconic albums, a veritable breath of fresh air in the wake of grunge’s overwhelming hold on the underground during the first half of the decade.

Aided by an airy, folk-inspired whimsy and ‘60s pop, Murdoch’s Morrissey-esque morose lyrics and sly wordplay helped engender the group with a sense of having picked up the torch long thought extinguished with the demise of the Smiths. And while the two may be largely musically disparate, they bear a similar aesthetic that has helped endear both to the more bookish crowd. When Murdoch sings, “All I wanted was to sing the saddest song/ And if you would sing along I’d be happy now” one can’t help but feel this to be not only a painfully earnest statement, but the sole reason for B&S’s existence.

But like Morrissey before him, Murdoch’s inherent sadness helped add to the group’s appeal. In this way, B&S served as a perfect introduction for a new generation to the literate side of indie pop. Twenty years on, If You’re Feeling Sinister remains a perfect album.

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