Yesterday, the news came out that Belle & Sebastian are back in the studio, working on their next album. As someone who is just a bit obsessed with this band, the news felt a little like Christmas morning…or the day a few months before when they announce that Christmas morning will be happening. You get the point.
It also made me wonder what the songs will be about. When you’ve memorized almost every lyric from a single band and read most everything ever written about them, it’s inevitable that you begin to notice some common themes. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch tends to write about a specific subgroup I call “Troubled Young People.” Very often, they are also female. Last year, I made a list of the top 20 songs centering on this theme, and now seems like a good time to run it back. These are roughly in order of how troubled the protagonist actually is, and also how much I love the song.
Warning: If you’re at risk for Troubled Young Person disorder, read with caution.
20. “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”
The Gist: Everything goes wrong for a waitress.
Relevant Lyric: Dear catastrophe girlfriend / I’m sorry if he hit you with a full can of Coke / It’s no joke / Your face is bleeding / You’ll soon be leaving this town / To the clowns who worship / No one but themselves
19. “If She Wants Me”
The Gist: A young man wants to reconcile himself to his passion for artistic creativity, but also to his love for a troubled young woman.
Relevant Lyric: If I could do just one near perfect thing I’d be happy / They’d write it on my grave, or when they scattered my ashes / On second thoughts I’d rather hang about and be there with my best friend / If she wants me
18. “Calculating Bimbo”
The Gist: A calculating bimbo can’t let the past go.
Relevant Lyric: You calculating bimbo / I wish you’d let the past go
Tie-17. “Act of the Apostles Part I”
The Gist: A troubled young woman struggles with her identity and faith as the life around her begins to crumble. Heavy religious undertones.
Relevant Lyric: Later on she plays Morning Has Broken / She knows she’s bad / She is slowing everybody down / The choirmaster, usually a bastard, knows her mother’s sick / He’ll be nice to her…She thinks that she shouldn’t be there at all / Her worries make everything else seem trivial.
Tie-17. “Act of the Apostles Part II”
The Gist: The same troubled young woman skipped school to travel a good distance to a city, only to find that it wouldn’t provide any answers.
Relevant Lyric: She asked the man if the service was open / “Not today, just the choir from the radio” / “Couldn’t I sit in? I’ve come all this way” / “Will you bugger off, I’ve got work to do” / The city was losing its appeal / God was asleep / He was back in her village, in the fields.
16. “Belle and Sebastian”
The Gist: A young man watches his female friend become a star while he wallows in self-pity and worry.
Relevant Lyric: Oh, Sebastian wrote his diary that / He would never be young again / But you will / Fellow, you are ill / You’d better take a weight off of your mind and listen / To what other people say / Because things are going wrong your own way
15. “Family Tree”
The Gist: A troubled young woman gets thrown out of school for yelling at teachers and hates her family.
Relevant Lyric: If my family tree goes back to the Romans / Then I will change my name to Jones / If my family tree goes back to Napoleon / Then I will change my name to Smith
14. “Dress Up in You”
The Gist: A young woman watches her female friend become a star while she wallows in self-pity and manufactured drama.
Relevant Lyric: When things don’t go my way I have to / Blow up in the face of my rivals / I swear and I rant, I make quite an arrival / The men are surprised by the language / They act so discreet, they are hypocrites, so fuck them too!
The Gist: A troubled young woman and aspiring artist gets abuse from her teachers, peers, parents, and employers.
Relevant Lyric: Your obsessions get you known throughout the school for being strange / Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay
12. “Dirty Dream Number Two”
The Gist: A young person of indeterminate gender, but probably male, has two wet dreams, one about a funny person and one about a woman whose face he never saw.
Relevant Lyric: Things creep up on you when you are fast asleep / You are dreaming, you are sleepy / You are stuck to the sheets
11. “Fox in the Snow”
The Gist: A girl with a crazy laugh and a boy who obsessively bikes past the point of enjoyment are…troubled.
Relevant Lyric: Boy on the bike, what are you like / As you cycle round the town? / You’re going up, you’re going down / You’re going nowhere / It’s not as if they’re paying you / It’s not as if it’s fun
The Gist: A girl named Lisa is depressed, and either literally or metaphorically goes blind before making herself a pair of orthopedic shoes. The cause of her blindness isn’t made explicit, but knowing Stuart Murdoch, it might have to do with that old wive’s tale.
Relevant Lyric: The doctor told her years ago that she was ill / The doctor told her years ago to take a pill / The doctor told her years ago / That she’d go blind if she wasn’t careful / They let Lisa go blind
9. “If You’re Feeling Sinister”
The Gist: Two young people, Anthony and Hillary, “walk to their death” because religion isn’t compelling enough to make them hopeful about their difficult lives.
Relevant Lyric: But if you are feeling sinister / Go off and see a minister / He’ll try in vain to take away / The pain of being a hopeless unbeliever
8. “Judy and the Dream of Horses”
The Gist: Judy is a teenage rebel who only takes solace in a dream about horses.
Relevant Lyric: Judy was a teenage rebel / She did it with a boy when she was young / She gave herself to books and learning / She gave herself to being number one
7. “Judy is a Dickslap”
The Gist: Judy, apparently, is a dicklsap.
Relevant Lyric: (Instrumental)
6. “Marx and Engels”
The Gist: A girl with communist sympathies wants to be left alone when a man tries to hit on her to so she can read her two favorite authors.
Relevant Lyric: She spoke in dialect I could not understand / But one thing that she made clear / There was no coming on to her / There was no way
5. “Slow Graffiti”
The Gist: A young man is forced to take care of the wild girl he’s in love with, but it brings him nothing but grief and sadness.
Relevant Lyric: Listen, Johnny / You’re like a mother / To the girl you’ve fallen for / And you’re still falling
4. “I Could Be Dreaming”
The Gist: A young man disenchanted with his family wonders if he has the nerve to kill the abusive boyfriend of a woman he loves.
Relevant Lyric: Is he your husband? / Or just your boyfriend? / Is he the moron who’s been beating you and keeping you inside? / I’ve never done this kind of thing / But if I kill him now, who’s going to miss him?
3. “Lord Anthony”
The Gist: A smart young man named Anthony gets picked on in school and grows up to become a cross-dresser.
Relevant Lyric: Tony, you’re a bit of a mess / Melted Toblerone under your dress / And if the boys could see you they would pass you right by / Blue mascara running over your eye
2. “Lazy Line Painter Jane”
The Gist: A lazy girl named Jane takes a bus out of town and determines that she will prostitute herself on the bus to make some money.
Relevant Lyric: You are of two minds / Tossing a coin to decide / Whether you should tell your folks / About a dose of thrush you got / When licking railings
1. “The State I Am In”
The Gist: A young man experiences a brief reprieve from his parents when his brother comes out as gay, married a girl to save her from being deported, kicked his friend’s crutches away because thought he was endowed by God to cure cripples, confessed his many sins to a priest who then wrote a book about them, gave his soul to God (who was reluctant to accept it), and now wanders around clothing stores and takes buses for no reason. It also contains what I consider one of the funniest lyrics of all-time:
Relevant Lyric: And so I gave myself to God/there was a pregnant pause before He said ‘okay’