Belle and Sebastian’s Undeniable Charm Two decades in, the Scottish band's indie-pop remains resonant
BROOKLYN, NY — Our memories begin at a microscopic level — at the scale of molecules. We hear a song, and our brain’s auditory cortex transforms the sound waves into electrical signals. Chemicals are released across synapses. A rush of hormones lends color to the memory as a specific network is mapped out between neurons. That pattern gets reactivated when we hear the song again.
In the high school parking lot, my friend hands me a mix CD. We’d received our college acceptance letters a few weeks ago, and we were headed to opposite coasts — her to California, me to New York. “I hope our friendship can be something more than memories we look back at in a photo album,” she said. I can’t remember all the songs on that mix, but it included Belle and Sebastian.
The Glaswegian band is, for me, a metonym for adolescence in its shy sweetness and fragile optimism. The marshmallow-sweet melody, the twinkling piano, and the swell of strings in “We Rule the School” (from 1996’s Tigermilk) isn’t twee. It can’t be, because we’re raw sincerity (and more scared than we admit) as we mentally map the distance from Californi-a to New York. It’s 2001, and we don’t yet know what FWB or DTF means — to borrow a phrase from the Old 97’s, we’re just “longing for the future perfect kiss.” Our gaze is trained on the big cities in all their terror and promise. But right now, looking down at the CD in my hand, I know that we’re still here together. It’s senior year in suburbia, and we rule the school.
It’s no surprise that the music we encounter in middle or high school when our brains are still developing has such a strong hold on us through the years. My neurons fire again in that pattern when my temporal lobe processes the A-D-A-E trumpet solo and nudges the hippocampus and amygdala — I close my eyes and see my friend and me sitting on her kitchen counter. We’re sipping on sugary Snapple tea and listening to “Judy and the Dream of Horses.” At the line about “books and learning,” she turns to me, says she’s annoyed about the boys calling her Hermione, from the Harry Potter books.
This isn’t a wholly accurate recollection, of course (neuroscience tells us that memory is not pure recall, but rather, a slightly altered reconstruction), but the flood of feelings is real. That song warms me. In that song, the world feels smaller, and our future more manageable.
The songs of Belle and Sebastian are inextricably bound up with high school and college memories — the mix CDs we exchanged when we were all back home together for the summer. So when frontman Stuart Murdoch started the set at Brooklyn Steel with the beautifully disconsolate “I Fought in a War,” his form silhouetted in red light, I knew the night would be special. (The song, from 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, isn’t a protest song, though we should adopt it as one — Murdoch said the song was inspired by the atmosphere of J.D. Salinger’s For Esmé – With Love And Squalor.)
From there, the band picked up the tempo and brightened the mood with “I’m a Cuckoo” and “Sister Buddha.” The latter is a sunny new song penned for the film Days of the Bagnold Summer (the band’s album of the same name arrives September 13th on Matador Records — you can pre-order it here). Murdoch shed his orange jacket and set down his guitar, slim hips swiveling as he danced, hopping on and off the monitors. Caught in the cross-currents of memories, I forgot for a moment what I was doing in the photo pit. This lithe figure twisting his way across the stage in polished Oxfords seemed like a fey, tambourine-shaking emissary from my adolescence — a reminder of what it was like to live lightly, free of the weight of accumulated regret. Is this what we mean when we describe music as filling our hearts? A song triggers a neurochemical reaction, and our pulse slows as we remember less complicated days.
This is, of course, from the perspective of a fan. What is it like for Murdoch, singing songs penned more than twenty years ago? He quipped that “once you reach a certain age, there’s rose-tinted glasses and everything in the past looks pretty great.” Murdoch and Stuart David met in 1994, and though there have been lineup changes, most of the core — Murdoch; Stevie Jackson (guitar, vocals); Sarah Martin (vocals, violin, flute, keys); Chris Geddes (keys); Richard Colburn (drums) — remains. “We don’t agree on much,” Murdoch later remarked with a smile — “but we agree on Velvet Underground and Glen Campbell.”
The set spanned the band’s two-decade-long discography, with Martin delivering a bittersweet “Waiting for the Moon to Rise” and Jackson taking over lead vocals on a jaunty “The Wrong Girl.” Murdoch worked a bit of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” into “A Summer Wasting.” Throughout the night, video projections played in the backdrop — some mod, rifle-wielding girls (from the artwork for Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance), a collage of the band’s earlier album cover art (moody duotone photos that echo their forebears, The Smiths), and sometimes just a simple, colorful patterned backdrop. The bi-level venue thrummed with lighthearted energy through the night. Belle and Sebastian is a grown-up band now, adding strings, horns, synths, and dance beats to their performances. They command festival stages without losing that gossamer quality of bookish daydreams — the wistful, lilting ruminations that had us falling in love with these songs back in the ’90s.
“Are we gonna do this, or are we getting too old?” Murdoch queried as he sat down at the piano toward the close of the night. The crowd cheered, more than ready to take up the challenge. “I’ll see you in a minute then,” he smiled, and as the first lines of “The Boy With the Arab Strap” unfurled, around forty fans shimmied their way across the stage. The dancing was not entirely in rhythm, but the grins on everyone’s faces — that unmistakable expression of “oh my god, I’m on stage with Belle and Sebastian” — that’s the freedom we find in moments when we let joy overtake us. I’ll recall those blissful smiles for years to come.
I wonder sometimes if we’ve forgotten how to be fully present in the now, unburdened by thoughts of what was or what could have been, or what’s next. Maybe that’s part of getting older — the past piles up at our feet, and each step we take is a bit slower than the last as we pick our way across the rubble. We lose family and friends along the way, and we also lose that adolescent version of ourselves, wide-eyed, hopeful, and maybe a little indestructible. These days, I feel like I’m ossifying, writing with curtains drawn tight against the intrusive light of day. But I hope I’m never too old or too tired to shoot shows. Live music reminds us that we still have these songs, these hands that can still make things, and these feet that can still dance.
Belle and Sebastian closed out the night with “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” but I’ll end my reflections where I started, with “We Rule the School.” Those lyrics seemed like a good mantra then, and they still do today. Do something pretty while you can — don’t be afraid.