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Belle and Sebastian: The State I’m In

 

B and S

 

The opening track on Belle and Sebastian’s  debut album Tigermilk is “The State I’m In” and this vignette hosts some memorable characters. I first really listened to it on Karon Beach in Thailand, and often played it walking around Singapore beneath her towering skyscape. The jangling, Byrds-like guitar adds to its sunny glow.

The initial verse contains remarkable personal and family detail, and insight into our narrator’s psychological condition. “The State I’m In” utilises language in clever and complex ways to create vivid characters. The first line’s hyperbole offers humorous, arresting insight into our narrator.

I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975

I was puzzled by a dream, stayed with me all day in 1995

These simple, matter-of-fact, year-specific declarations engage the audience by provoking many questions, and the revelations continue through the following verse

I got married in a rush to save a kid from being deported

Now she’s in love

With this we learn that he’s compassionate, and even self-sacrificial, but then wonder who the girl’s now in love with: is it our narrator, or another? He then recounts another relationship in which he has been vulnerable: that with the priest whom takes his admissions, breaks confidentiality and the Seal of the Confessional, and turns these into art

He took all of my sins and he wrote a pocket novel called

“The State I Am In”

By the finish of the opening stanza’s confessional intimacy we’ve learnt of the family’s dynamics, challenges and history courtesy

He stood up with a sailor friend

Made it known upon my sister’s wedding day

We then hear the final affront where his highest authority hesitates before belatedly accepting our narrator; no wonder he’s in a despondent state

So I gave myself to God

There was a pregnant pause before he said ok

His self-loathing finds pathetic and final expression in the song’s last verse

            Now I’m feeling dangerous, riding on city buses for a hobby is sad

The language used in the lyrics is deceptively simplistic, but depicts vivid characters.

With this complex domestic context established our protagonist, or possibly antagonist, reveals in a striking act that shocks

I was so touched, I was moved to kick the crutches

From my crippled friend

Is this truth, or is it a comedic device; a strange metaphor? Certainly its oxymoronic nature invites deeper thought. Should we be horrified, amused, or both? Subsequently the narrator confesses this act of violence, and events take another unexpected turn with the priest acting immorally.

We find dark humour in the idea that a religious figure would steal a story and publicise it in a novel. Little wonder that our main character is disturbed! With this development the song title is invested with wicked irony that generates sympathy.

This powerful vignette catalogues key moments in the narrator’s life as he seeks purpose and meaning. The final image offers a positive picture of one, troubled as he is, wanting to do earthly good. There’s poignant use of circularity with the repetition of previous detail

Lead me to a living end

I promised that I’d entertain my crippled friend

My crippled friend

Expertly using first person perspective, the lyricist provides understated descriptions to provoke us, and our reactions encompass the witty, the sad, and the frightening. Belle and Sebastian have created some vivid characters, and this song invites deep contemplation.

 

karon

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Belle and Sebastian: Dress Up In You

model

 

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.

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“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

girls