They're simply too comfortable in those second-hand ideas, too enraptured by their own laboured mystique to consider any true leaps forward. The emperor's borrowed clothes, anyone?
For all their assumed fiddledee-twee meekness, [a]Belle & Sebastian[/a] are a contrary lot. The preciousness of their sprawling concern – the studied insularity, their refusal to bow to the music industry – has always seemed intentionally antagonistic: as much a dangling carrot for hype-wary cynics as a call-to-arms for the eternally outcast. It’s little wonder then, that the Glaswegian collective have polarised opinion; their immaculately contrived iconoclasm ensures indifference to their singular viewpoint is virtually impossible. With the repackaged rerelease of their first three EPs (1997’s ‘Dog On Wheels’, ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ and ‘3… 6… 9… Seconds Of Light’), the reasons why Stuart Murdoch‘s outfit have attracted both fawning admiration and guffawing derision become abundantly clear.
[a]Belle & Sebastian[/a] may appear to flaunt the nostalgia card casually (none of the 12 tracks sound as if they were recorded after 1971) but their hatred of modernity and, indeed, reality is deeply ingrained. Like The Smiths and Suede before them, B&S have created an alternative world – a petal-scattered retreat where eternal adolescence is lionised and near-obsessive introspection is heralded as an ideal lifestyle choice. But though their predecessors managed to maintain an objective distance from their imagined situations, [a]Belle & Sebastian[/a]’s schtick is both self-congratulatory and, inevitably, self-defeating. It’s thus impossible to sympathise with tiresome characters like the emotionally unstable protagonist of ‘Dog On Wheels’ – a pathetic man-child whose only confidante is the toy of the title. Similarly, ‘String Bean Jean’ archly deals with another misshaped misfit – this time a woman whose jeans are marked [I]”seven to eight years old”[/I]. This is nursery-level whimsy: awkward pathos that mistakes cartoonish mawkishness for otherworldly charm; cloying and, yup, twee to the nth degree.
Yet if the music that accompanies these vignettes is accordingly out of time, B&S‘ occasionally magical grasp of melody prevents them from disappearing entirely into the kitsch bin. While ‘Dog On Wheels’ sets a defiantly old-fashioned precedent (Morricone brass flourishes, cavernous Velvets drums) both “Lazy Line…” and “3… 6… 9… Seconds…” see their sound blossom into grander vistas. So, ‘You Made Me Forget My Dreams’ is a heartbreaking punt through Simon & Garfunkel‘s tremulous backwaters, while the uncharacteristically meaty ‘Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’ is B&S‘ most accessible song to date – a moment of Proper Pop Joy that temporarily knocks the twee tag on its tousled head. Elsewhere, however, the back-breaking deference to their heroes (most notably Murdoch‘s ever-embarrassing mimicry of Nick Drake‘s wispy croon) scuppers any chances B&S have of inspiring genuine trailblazing status. They’re simply too comfortable in those second-hand ideas, too enraptured by their own laboured mystique to consider any true leaps forward. The emperor’s borrowed clothes, anyone?