Belle and Sebastian's fourth album was met - as far as I can tell - with reactions ranging from muted enthusiasm to bitter disillusion; Almost everyone seems to have been at least a little disappointed. Truth be told though, it is a pretty good record; B&S had an extremely hard act to follow up with their first three albums, and if most of their audience felt that they didn't quite hit the spot with this one that probably says as much about their past glories as it does about this record.
It is musically tight, and not without its moments of lyrical brilliance, but somehow it doesn't quite live up to the wit and imagination of their previous offerings. Some feel that they have detected a more serious tone than their past work, what with songs about rape and the horrors of war, but really they have always tackled serious subject matter - domestic violence and probably suicide on Tigermilk, street violence and suicide again on If You're Feeling Sinister, strokes and early death on The Boy with the Arab Strap. If anything, they just don't approach their serious subjects with quite as much subtlety here - which is not to say that they don't approach them with a healthy measure of tenderness and poetry.
This is so far the Belle and Sebastian album with the lowest proportion of material written and sung by frontman Stuart Murdoch; we get a duet between Isobell Campbell and Stevie Jackson (Beyond the Sunrise), Sarah Martin's beautiful songwriting debut (Waiting for the Moon to Rise), one Stevie Jackson track (Wrong Girl), and a number with almost all of the band's members singing in turn (Women's Realm), as well as one track sung by Isobell but written by Murdoch (Family Tree). Some have blamed the relatively disappointing overall quality of the music on Stuart Murdoch's stepping back from the limelight, but this probably isn't really fair - as I see it at least, on the evidence presented here, there is an unreasonable profusion of songwriting talent in the group.
Taking the album track by track, we have:
I Fought in a War opens the album on a depressing note: A song about the true grimness of war, it is sad and understated and really very beautiful.
I fought in a war, and I left my friends behind me to go looking for the enemy
And it wasn't very long before I would stand with another boy in front of me
And a corpse that just fell into me, with the bullets flying round...
The Model, track two, picks up the pace a bit and maintains the quality. It is witty if somewhat obscure, and musically very strong.
You know how much I wanted to meet your friend, the star of stage and local press -
The dream of all the Bowlie kids who hang around here, and I'm no different from the rest -
I'm not too proud to say that I'm okay with the girl next door who's famous for showing her chest.
Beyond the Sunrise is a bit of a weird one. It is musically bare, with a simple guitar line, distant bass, subtle drums and the occasional chiming of what sounds like a church bell. The words, delivered in turn by Stevie Jackson in a deep drawl and Isobel Campbell in a high, sweet, angelic tone, tell the story of a desert traveller's night-time visitation from a friendly spirit.
Beyond the sunrise, that is where we live
Feeding our counsel, and true comfort give
Waiting for the Moon to Rise makes me wonder why Sarah Martin hasn't written any more songs for the group, or done much more singing. She has a gorgeous voice, and for my money this is one of the strongest tracks on the album.
All the way back home, I'm telling you I caught the sun
Creeping up behind my shoulder, and another day's begun
And I'm trying hard to hide - keep the sun out of my eyes
Close them tight up now, I'm waiting for the moon to rise...
Don't Leave the Light on is quite unlike anything else the band has done, and I find it hard to know what to make of it. Strings and a steady rhythm led by maracas lend the track a far-away, swaying feeling. More than one member of the band has identified this as their favourite track on the album, somewhat to my surprise.
It's been a bloody stupid day
My baby called me up to say
Don't call me love, don't call me
It's not all she said.
The Wrong Girl has an incongruously Country and Western-ish feeling, with a Rhinestone-worthy vocal line by Stevie Jackson. It is apparently the first song he wrote, although later songs by him had already appeared on the previous album. This is a good one for anyone who has ever fallen for someone they shouldn't have, which I suppose probably includes almost everyone in the world.
The wrong girl!
The wrong kind!
Wrong hand to be holding;
Wrong eyes to go searching behind;
Wrong dream to have in my mind...
The Chalet Lines is a story of rape in a holiday camp, told from the point of view of a female victim; it is apparently based on the experiences of a friend of Stuart Murdoch's, and while it seems odd to hear it from a male singer-songwriter, it is delivered with sensitivity and feeling.
He raped me in the chalet lines;
The girl I shared with was away for the night...
Nice Day for a Sulk is a little cheerier; despite ostensibly being a song about sulking, the lyrics are ambivalent and the music upbeat.
Nice day for a mood!
The forecast is good...
Women's Realm kicks the pace up another notch, with a hand-clappy, catchy rhythm and an extremely groovy piano line. It is generally agreed to be one of the best songs on the album.
I don't care whether you hear this;
I don't care if I'm alone here singing songs to myself.
There's nobody else around, around...
Family Tree is the one song from this album that I really don't like. It is too self-consciously ooh-I'm-so-unconventional, and comes across as kind of moany. I wonder if Stuart Murdoch might have been making fun of Isobel Campbell when he wrote this for her...
It saddens me to think
That the only ones I see are mannequins
Looking stupid, being used and being thin
And I don't know why I hang around with them.
There's Too Much Love is much better; it closes the album on a danceable note, and combines classic Belle and Sebastian wit with a strong, piano-driven melody.
I feel like dancing on my own,
Where no-one knows me and where I
Can cause offence just by the way I look...
Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant was released by Jeepster records on the fifth of June, 2000.
JPR CD/LP/MD 010