“It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career”: why Belle & Sebastian’s back catalogue is worth a revisit

With a new album coming out in January, the indie band have reissued their back catalogue on vinyl.

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Ahead of a new album in January, Belle & Sebastian have reissued all of their albums, plus three compilations, on vinyl. The collective name for them is It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career, which is reminiscent of the title of a 1983 Television Personalities compilation, They Could Have Been Bigger Than The Beatles.

Belle & Sebastian, of course, are much better known than Dan Treacy’s TVPs. Often, it has felt like their singer and main songwriter Stuart Murdoch would have been quite happy to stay as under the radar as Treacy, a bona fide hero to a generation or two of DIY aesthetes and indie kids, who has never had to worry about major label or worldwide tour logistics. At the same time, it’s hard to believe Murdoch would ever have turned down the opportunity to appear on Top Of The Pops, as Belle & Sebastian did in 1999 with “Legal Man”.

Their first album, Tigermilk (1996), was recorded as a Stow Music College project, and limited to a thousand vinyl copies. Stuart Murdoch’s melodies and shaggy dog tales set them apart while his fly-away vocals and the album’s under-production harked back to the golden age of Eighties indie. The mid Nineties was also a high water mark for the Nick Drake revival, and songs like “The State I Am In” seemed like direct descendents of Drake’s Hazey Janes I and II (though, kick me if you will, I’d say Murdoch is a far better lyricist). Just months later came If You’re Feeling Sinister (1997) on the tiny Jeepster label, and suddenly they were seen as saviours of melodicism and chamber pop, at a time when The Verve and Ocean Colour Scene’s retro rock was everywhere, an unhappy bi-product of Britpop. This was an era summed up by the heart-sinking title of Paul Weller’s album Heavy Soul, and Belle & Sebastian’s opening brace of albums provided necessary light, colour and detail. Three EPs, collected on the Push Barman To Open Old Wounds compilation in 2005, were all equally impressive, and nudged them into the Top 40. Their following was rabidly loyal and scarily insular – The Smiths were an obvious comparison.

At this point, with their upcoming third album the hottest ticket in town, Murdoch decided to change the internal politics of the group – at least, I’m guessing it was Murdoch as he seemed to be de facto leader. The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998) had some fine Murdoch songs (notably the title track and “Sleep The Clock Around”, heard recently in an episode of The Killing) alongside decent but lesser efforts from other band members: Stevie Jackson’s “Seymour Stein”, a mope about success, was sweet while his “Chickfactor” was rather too obviously indebted to Big Star’s “Thirteen”; bassist Stuart David’s jazzy, spoken word “Space Boy Dream” passed the time.

This was no one-off experiment, however. 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like A Peasant had even less of Murdoch’s input, but this was now countered by a much fuller production, complete with string quartet and harpsichord. “I Fought In A War” started with an a capella verse and had one of Murdoch’s loveliest melodies. Jackson’s “The Wrong Girl” was airy, acoustic Motown-alike, and trumped his songs on The Boy With The Arab Strap; Sarah Martin’s vocal on “Waiting For The Moon To Rise” was marshmallow soft, but cellist Isabel Campbell’s “Family Tree” was breathier yet. It was a bravely low-key album, has aged very well, and suits a blowy autumn day to a tee.

At the time, though, it was seen as a serious mis-step. Possibly the last major group to switch to this form of songwriting democracy was Creedence Clearwater Revival, and they had splintered immediately after the disastrous Mardi Gras in 1972. Belle & Sebastian now began to shed original members, Stuart David being the first to leave in 2000. The soundtrack for Todd Solondz’s disappointing 2002 film Storytelling, and an American tour, took up most of that year and seem to have been a turning point. The soundtrack is simultaneously sweet and bleak, but it’s still a film soundtrack, largely instrumental, and as such disappointed fans still expecting their fill of Murdoch’s wry kitchen sink observations. No matter. The string quartet and piano on “Fiction” are exquisite (I’m reminded of Richard Wright’s parts for Zabriskie Point), while the melancholy “Fuck This Shit” is, I’d guess, an intentional nod to Midnight Cowboy. It’s good medicine if you’re in the mood.

Critically, they were still in a hole, and Isabel Campbell left in the middle of their 2002 US tour. Coincidence or not, the group suddenly seemed liberated. They had experimented with an outside producer for the first time the previous year, working with Mike Hurst on standalone single “I’m Waking Up To You”. 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress was recorded under the guidance of Trevor Horn, fresh off his success with TATU’s “All The Things She Said”. Opening track “Step Into My Office Baby” bore little resemblance to TATU or ABC’s Lexicon of Love, or indeed anything on the last couple of Belle & Sebastian albums. It had an acoustic punch, a new drive and clear confidence behind its sly lyric about career possibilities. It also picked up regular plays on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 morning show. And so, neatly, nimbly, Belle & Sebastian stepped away from the indie ghetto.

The Life Pursuit (2006) and Write About Love (2010) continued to blend the songs of Murdoch (still the primary songwriter), Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin, to the point where the joins are hard to spot. Their next album, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, is due in January and promises a new Europop sound, synth hooks sparring with Murdoch’s lyrics about relationships, books, and the restorative powers of pop. It’s good to listen to these albums with a bit of distance and perspective. Their manic fanbase may have dissipated since Dear Catastrophe Waitress, but this has enabled Belle & Sebastian to stretch out and away from the needy indie crowd. As an observant and often very funny songwriter, Stuart Murdoch can stand alongside Neil Tennant and Ray Davies as well as his countryman and fellow yarn-spinner Al Stewart. This is a catalogue well worth revisiting, with many of its surprises, as so often, being hidden on the albums that are most commonly dismissed.

Each album comes in a gatefold sleeve with a download card, and a Japanese-style obi strip; some are doubles and some have inner sleeves, but not all of them. Dear Catastrophe Waitress comes with an alternative cover, from the original photo session.

Out now on Jeepster and Rough Trade in Britain, Matador in the US.

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.