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.