Word has it that once, early in his Muggle-adopted life, Harry Potter received a tissue for Christmas. As if living in a cupboard under the stairs, sans birthday parties, wasn’t enough pathos to reel us in and make us adore the kid. Such Roald Dahl-esqe morbid perversity agelessly appeals to us (recall: James, whose parents are trampled and killed by an elephant, leaving him in the hands of wicked aunts. The boy then goes on to become the captain of a very large flying peach). Who doesn’t want to read about tough-luck tykes with buck teeth and split ends who become wizards or get to run a chocolate factory? And who, for similar reasons, doesn’t want to listen to Belle and Sebastian these days?
The Glasgow indie band has conquered sensitive souls nationwide with its lush, anachronistic pop songs featuring alienated, maladjusted little martyrs. A lyric like “So they jab you with a fork/You drop the tray and go berserk/While you’re cleaning up the mess the teacher’s/looking up your skirt” induces the same sort of bite as Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. But Belle and Sebastian offer some fairy-tale solace, reminding little losers “too tall, much too tall for a boyfriend,” not to be scared: “Like the books you’ve read/You’re the heroine.”
Taking their name from a French children’s book about a boy and his dog, the band has played off an adolescent bookishness, evoking that consuming escape of reading that seemed so intense when we were very young. In a 1997 song they refer to a mousy girl “reading Judy Blume,” then advise her to “give yourself up to the allure of Catcher in the Rye,” or to get away with Kerouac and his open roads. Most of their songs fit into the bookstore’s awkward Young Adult section, dipping into sexual experi(ence)ments, the fairy tales and daydreams of childhood (“String Bean Jean,” “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” “The Rollercoaster Ride”), and the hunky-doryness of teenage fun. The music itself has a playground sound—a string-bean-jean nostalgic simplicity at once comforting and disconcerting. Pubescent protagonists struggle to grow up, expressing horror at the notion of adulthood: “Oh, Sebastian wrote in his diary that/He would never be young again/But you will/Fellow, you are ill.”
Stories about a boy and girl singing duo, also called “Belle and Sebastian,” are sprinkled throughout their songs and album covers, while the actual seven—or six, now that Stuart David has left for Looper—band members remain elusive and famously media-shy. Their literary poses can come off either pretentious as hell or too earnest for comfort; through their innocent, jsshy sound, it’s often difficult to discern which. But most of the time, the concept works, regardless. The fictive identities add up to a cinematic world, with smart intertextual references and odd visual props.
So is the Potter/Dollhouse factor why this sweet band from Scotland has reached near-mainstream popularity? They’re almost as irresistibly everywhere as Harry himself (though with less range—the band appeals mainly to twentysomethings). Is this why not only the indie kids but also bow-tie-wearing, Republican-voting, post-prep-school poster boys pine away to their tragic ballads? Or why two months ago, my friend Thomas walked into a bike repair shop in New Hampshire, greeted by the sounds of The Boy With the Arab Strap, and then last week, when his bike was sick again, it was Tigermilk, in New York? Or why their current album—Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant—entered the Billboard Top 200 at a decidedly un-indielike 80? Or is it just that their songs are so damn catchy?
Hand-clappable tunes and delicious cover design aside, sharp narrative-driven writing has been what saves the band from being merely annoying or silly or cute; too bad Fold Your Hands Child entirely abandons the vivid narrative vignette model. Have the stars of track and field and the boy who dreamt he went to Mars all grown up, lost weight, undergone orthodontics, and found jobs? Or just killed themselves? The new album’s narrators address more mature themes like rape and war, no longer occupying themselves with strange obsessions like “making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay.” These new narrators, in fact, have few distinguishing characteristics and no proper names, and their words are as wishy-washy and thin as Isobel Campbell’s little-girl voice, sliding off the ear like sugar through fingers. This may be attributed to the band’s democratizing its writing process, with Stuart Murdoch relinquishing much of the control to his bandmates. On Belle and Sebastian’s previous albums, the deceptive la-la left stubborn, pithy remnants, but now you’re left humming sweet nothings in an airy voice. There’s just not enough witty perversity here to counter the candy sound—though there is, hooray, one nameless girl who smells of milk and has horsey teeth.
Which is not to suggest that Fold Your Hands doesn’t have moments. “I Fought in a War” is epic and haunting, “Don’t Leave the Light on Baby” incorporates some unexpected ’70s funk, and “There’s Too Much Love” leaves a carefree taste in your mouth. The female vocal parts are completely pretty, if you ignore the words. Singing chores are shared more, and there’s more exploration than before: duets, harpsichords, bells. But the melodies aren’t as instantly catchy—the music sounds as if it has passed childish excitement, and is dulling out. If it was displacement and age-anxiety that fueled the sweet moroseness of Belle and Sebastian’s other records, perhaps Fold Your Hands Child is a result of fitting in, horsey teeth and all. Hopefully, it’s just a stage.