Belle and Sebastian is a Glaswegian indie band formed in 1996. Named after a French children’s television series, their nine albums have received critical acclaim, and are known for their literate and wistful lyrics. I enjoy how characters and narratives feature in their songs so decided to investigate the ways language is used.
“Dress Up In You” comes from their 2006 album The Life Pursuit. Characterisation is a key element in this song. Establishing who the people in the song are is our first problem as the identities of the singer (the narrator) and the person they’re singing for (the addresse) present challenges for the listener.
The song is sung in first person, with lead singer Stuart Murdoch beginning,
I’m the singer, I’m the singer in the band
You’re the loser, I won’t dismiss you out of hand
This appears straightforward and autobiographical, and an obvious interpretation is that he’s (assuming Murdoch is singing as a male character) addressing a fan or groupie. “You’re the loser” is brutal, but suddenly softened in the next line.
As quickly as Murdoch presents this relationship he changes it, with a simple couplet that is striking
Cos you’ve got a beautiful face
It will take you places
He has rapidly moved from calling the addressee a “loser” to “beautiful.” Either way the relationship seems to only exist in the present tense, and might be temporary. However, in the second verse he again surprises us by revealing more about the two characters and the progression of their relationship.
You kept running
You’ve got money, you’ve got fame
Every morning I see your picture from the train
Now you’re an actress!
Typically for Belle and Sebastian, humour and sarcasm are employed to good effect, and here these help to establish both the narrator and the model who was once a friend and then a rival. Interestingly, the last line is also a cliché which softens the impact of the observation
Now you’re an actress!
So says your resume?
You’re made of card
You couldn’t act your way out of a paper bag
The great American writer, Norman Mailer, said that writing ultimately concerns the nature of power, and this is true here for in six lines we move from the narrator calling the other a “loser” to now confessing that he/she can “see your picture from the train.” This implies that the narrator has a regular job and sees this other person, a model, on a billboard, presumably in an advertisement. With sparse lyrics Murdoch conveys vivid characters and an intriguing relationship. This continues with the accusatory
You got lucky, you ain’t talking to me now
Many listeners might’ve realistically presumed their relationship was romantic, but yet again the lyricist changes our view by gradually disseminating information: it was platonic and sisterly. Murdoch leaves the precise nature of their connection unspoken with use of what Keats called Negative Capacity
We had a deal there
We nearly signed it with our blood
Antithesis is used by the lyricist to suggest the complexity of the relationship, and show that the narrator and the model were once close, possibly when they were at school. Their relationship has changed over the years, and this drives the narrative behind the song
You give me stomach pain
I wish that you were here
This sudden and dramatic revelation keeps the listener engaged, and its twin emotions of revulsion and longing evoke a relationship dynamic with which many would associate. Belle and Sebastian is perceived as bookish, and literate, but the diction within this song is plain, and casual: suitable for a personal monologue.
As the narrator’s anger lessens, he becomes confessional, with an accolade that’s metaphorical and striking
If I could have a second skin
I’d probably dress up in you
This couplet is telling for the use of the pronoun “We” which confirms the strong connection the two characters once shared. In a surprisingly minimal number of words the lyricist has depicted a complex relationship between two contrasting people. Given the song’s initial representation of the relationship, the title is startling, as it is most complimentary metaphor
The divergent paths the lives of the two characters have taken are symbolised by the crisp imagery of
You’re a star now
I am fixing people’s nails
with the former evocative of glamour and travel, and the second connoting a mundanity and suburban imprisonment. This song uses language with deceptive simplicity in creating haunted and wistful creatures.
In the final verse, the full extent of the truth; the gritty reality is laid bare for us, and we see just how mislead we were in the song’s opening, only a few minutes previously
You’re a star now, I am fixing people’s nails
I’m knitting jumpers,
I’m working after hours
I’ve got a boyfriend, I’ve got a feeling that he’s seeing someone else