There’s a scene in High Fidelity, the 2000 movie that follows the recently-dumped-for-a-New-Age-dilettante record store owner Rob Gordon (John Cusack) as he tries to string a series of failed romantic relationships into some sort of coherent self-narrative, in which his employee Barry (Jack Black) barges into the record shop playing high-octane air guitar when he hears languid male vocals through the shop speakers. He’s appalled.
“What the fuck is that?!” he asks Rob and Dick (Todd Louiso).
“It’s the new Belle and Sebastian,” Dick tells him, in a voice just as languid as the music, wanting to muster the energy for defensiveness but failing.
“That’s unfortunate,” Barry informs him, running behind the counter, “because it sucks ass!” He yanks Belle and Sebastian’s 1998 album The Boy With the Arab Strap out of the deck, throws it at Dick, and replaces it with Katrina and the Waves’s “Walking on Sunshine.” Barry cranks the volume and dances around the store until Rob loses his patience and rips the tape out of the deck.
Barry walks away, exasperated. “I was just trying to cheer us up. So go ahead. Put on some old sad-bastard music.”
It’s a perfect cinematic moment — Black’s obnoxious effervescence juxtaposed with Louiso’s constitutional nervousness and Cusack’s righteous forlornness. When I, a weird and lonely twelve-year-old, first saw that scene, I thought, “He’s talking about me. I am the sad bastard. And I like the sad-bastard music.”
In the mid-aughts, as now, sad bastards like me had the internet. My parents didn’t let me talk to other people on it, but that didn’t matter, because the internet had YouTube and RSS feeds, and they delivered me to music. On YouTube, I’d spend hours “watching” “videos” that were just ripped albums set over a pixelated cover art image. On RSS feeds, I found NPR’s Live in Concert series.
One day, my RSS feed brought me a March 6, 2006 recording of a concert by a band called Belle and Sebastian touring their album The Life Pursuit, played a show at the 9:30 Club in DC. Thanks to Dick arriving at the record shop and deftly slipping in The Boy With the Arab Strap before Barry could get his domineering hands on the tape deck, I recognized their name. I put the show on.
I had never heard anything like it. It was a riot. I loved Stuart Murdoch’s stage banter (the first thing he says on stage is “you look like a better audience than last night”). But the lyrics! They were definitely sad-bastard stuff — stories about thinking you’ve fallen in love when you actually didn’t, or the existential bleakness of being a wage-laborer — but the band was funny about it. Tongue-in-cheek lyrics full of unabashedly corny wordplay (“Another sunny day / I met you out in the garden / You were digging plants / I dug you, beg your pardon”) slipped easily over chamber-pop melodies, sultry basslines, chipper horns, lush synths, jangly guitars, and Stuart Murdoch’s sweet, deadpan voice.
The effect was disarming. I soon found myself dancing as Stuart Murdoch sang “The loving is a mess / What happened to all of the feeling?” — not in an attempt to escape from the mess, but in celebration of it, a celebration of the small miracle that I had ever felt any love at all. Murdoch and co. came on the scene in the late ’90s, when grunge plunged you into the depths of your absolute worst feelings ever and kept you there. Belle and Sebastian spoke to those same feelings, but they lifted you up into buoyancy with them instead.
They’re able to do so because they sing songs about people who aren’t but could be you, could be me, could be people we know, all of us carrying the burdens of trying to live dignified human lives in a world constantly undermining that dignity.
There’s Anthony in “Lord Anthony,” a bullied kid unaware that it “doesn’t pay to be smarter than teachers.” There’s the nameless Asian minicab driver in “The Boy With the Arab Strap” who has a “love-hate affair with his racist clientele.” There’s Sukie in “Sukie in the Graveyard,” an artist who didn’t enroll in art school but whose work still “wiped the floor with all the assholes” who did. There’s Lisa and Dylan and Chelsea and Judy and Doris and Mary Jo, each carrying their own inescapable disappointments and idiosyncrasies. Ultimately, these stories are someone else’s; you can’t quite scream their lyrics about heartbreak as though you were saying them yourself to a lover who wronged you.
That distance between you and the songs’ subjects lets you get lost in the music. And the details of the characters and their stories make the source of every feeling clear and concrete, and thus, in the case of heartbreak and tragedy, mercifully finite. When we can clearly see where sadness comes from, that it has a definite beginning (“Day upon day of this wandering gets you down / Nobody gives you a chance or a dollar in this old town,” Murdoch sings in “The Boy With the Arab Strap”), we understand that it could also have a definite end. Crucially, Belle and Sebastian’s characters manage to fathom their potential release from their temporary prisons of human despair through interaction — with each other, with us.
Sometimes that interaction has deep, long-lasting effects, like in the often funny but mostly heartbreaking “I’m a Cuckoo,” where Murdoch sings “Now it’s my time of need / I’m thinking, do I have to plead to get you by my side?” Sometimes its effects are more fleeting, like Sukie doing everything she can to make a life as an artist, including posing for “scholars of art” and living with a guy she isn’t exactly wild about. Each interaction is given the same amount of attention, spoken about with the same specificity and the same seriousness that never veers into solemnity. Even when asking, “What is it I must do to pay for all my crimes?” Murdoch’s inflection manages to inject the line with a faint hint of humor, as if cocking his head to ask himself and all of us, “Is everything I have done really that bad? Or do I just believe it is, because I’ve been punished so thoroughly?”
Each song is an invitation to feel sad or let down or confused or unlucky in love, and then to revel in the fact that you’re not the first or the last person to feel any of those things. Our everyday woes are both small and our entire worlds; that’s the nature of leading a life. Corey Robin reminds us that the lives we hope to lead under socialism will still have many moments of unhappiness, but those moments can be ones of simple, human grief (devastating, crushing, not life-ending) that don’t rise to the levels of misery (hysterical, merciless, life-ending) onto which capitalism now launches them.
The simple pettiness of our heartbreak and anguish is often made exponentially worse by their interaction with a political and economic system constantly threatening to fling us into absolute penury. We can’t just be in our grief, because if we miss work over our heartbreak, how will we pay our rent? What if fully sitting with our personal devastation pushes us into losing our health care? Belle and Sebastian’s music gently reminds us that we can transcend our miseries, but only if we see them not as our own private crosses to bear, but as shared experiences with Stuart and Sukie and the minicab driver.
That mutual recognition of misery is at the root of the notion of solidarity. We talk plenty about an exalted type of solidarity: the linking of arms in the streets, the taking down of the boss on the job. But Belle and Sebastian sing about everyday acts of solidarity, recognizing the personal struggles we all have in common.
If you want to dig through Belle and Sebastian’s catalogue for blunt recitations of leftist and leftish themes, you certainly can. In “Women’s Realm,” on the 2000 album Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, they sing about not being able to afford an education (“What went wrong? Your grades were good / It would take a left-wing Robin Hood to pay for school”). They even have a song called “Marx & Engels,” in which the narrator juxtaposes images of misery on television with his own failure to woo a girl who just “wants to be left alone with Marx and Engels for a while.” And the band’s very origins are in a Scottish social-welfare program for unemployed musicians.
But this music’s relevance to socialists is not to be found in lyrics or aesthetics that are particularly politically charged. It has none of the bombast of Bruce Springsteen’s “working-on-the-highway” ethos (though I’d love to hear Belle and Sebastian cover Bruce’s “4th of July, Asbury Park,” which is about Bruce making out under the boardwalk with a girl called Sandy, who we find out halfway through the song is his boss’s daughter). Belle and Sebastian’s songs are about minutiae. They’re about the little things — choking on a cornflake, doing the laundry, paying for a cup of tea, tending to a garden — that make up a life and where, often, we also find the answers to bigger questions (“She did brass rubbing / She learned she never had to press hard”).
Living is not all revelry. We don’t always find the answers. Sometimes we want music to make us feel bigger and prouder and mightier than we are (thanks, Bruce). But sometimes we want the opposite. Sometimes we ask music to make us smaller, weaker, more scared, more pathetic, more of a sad bastard. Belle and Sebastian’s music makes us feel exactly as we are — and reminds us that even that is worth singing about.