Belle and Sebastian’s sophomore album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, released in late 1996, is riddled with faults. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s voice is quite high in the mix. The songs speed up by accident at points, showcasing a band that had only just started playing with each other.
But despite those few mistakes, it’s a near-perfect record that has become known as one of the best and most influential albums of the 1990s. And despite it not celebrating any meaningful anniversary, the legendary Scottish outfit is gearing up to play it in full—the first and last time they will do this in the U.S.—this weekend (7/20) at Pitchfork Festival in Chicago.
It’s the third time they’ve given If You’re Feeling Sinister the front-to-back album treatment, once in 2005 as part of the Don’t Look Back concert series and again for its 20th anniversary in 2016 at Royal Albert Hall, both in London. It’s not like it’s the band’s only hit album—actually, it’s their only release not to chart in the top 30 in the U.K. (it peaked at number 191)—so why do Murdoch and co. continue to come back to this release in particular?
“The one thing that draws us to doing Sinister is because the group of songs that were written,” Murdoch explains. “I wrote them just as the band was coming together, and I wrote them in a really short period of time. I wrote all of those songs in three months and that was during the period when we recorded our first LP as well, so it was a very productive period, and it was almost like this group of people coming together was a catalyst for me writing these songs. It’s almost like I was waiting for this moment to be inspired by the band to write this group of songs.”
And what a batch of songs these were. From the gorgeous “The Stars of Track and Field” through the mainly acoustic “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” Belle & Sebastian paint us a beautiful picture of Glasgow at the time, telling stories of a handful of characters all trying to work their way through heartbreak and a myriad of other issues. Reaching back to the ‘60s to essentially revive an entire new genre of twee pop, upbeat playful guitar lines (“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” “Mayfly”) interact with downtempo Nick Drake-influenced songs (“Seeing Other People,” “If You’re Feeling Sinister”) creating a succinct and saccharine sound that feels instantly classic.
But even Murdoch will admit that they were aspiring for something possibly too big for the young band at the time: “At the time, the recording process was a little underwhelming. We had a lot of fun recording the first LP [Tigermilk]. The second LP, Sinister, was more ambitious than perhaps the fledgling band. We didn’t technically pull it off because we wanted to make something that sounded in part inspired by Joni Mitchell or something. The thing is, the core of songs that jammed together really nicely, it was just a nice mixture of story songs, first person songs, love songs and out of love songs. As a fit of songs, they just hold together really nicely.”
The background of If You’re Feeling Sinister is a bit darker than you’d expect after listening to the sunny vibes of the record: Murdoch was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome at the time, unable to do much of anything outside of the house, experiencing life through the stories of others. He couldn’t play shows, let alone do any interviews, so Belle & Sebastian was a mysterious outfit of sorts back then—outside of their music and liner notes, they were completely unknown, and no one knew who they were (who’s Belle and who’s Sebastian?) or what they even looked like.
But that doesn’t stop Murdoch from fondly revisiting the period. While he admits that they’re still more focused on writing new music—“We’re a working band; we don’t like to look back too much,” he says—he likes performing these old songs, and they bring back only good memories for him.
“What you have to understand is songs are always a constellation,” Murdoch explains. “Songs are an escape from whatever you’re going through at the time. They’re quite often a catharsis. When you look back on the songs, it’s often looking back with rose-tinted spectacles about the best moments. But saying that, the previous years leading up to this point were tough, but when the band came together—by this point I had a little bit more energy—that was really a golden period for me. That was the beginning of everything good. It was actually a really nice period, and I have no qualms in looking back to that.”
Despite Belle & Sebastian generally keeping If You’re Feeling Sinister cuts in their setlists ever since, the song structures themselves haven’t changed much over the past two-plus decades. In fact, these 10 songs are performed in remarkably the same way as they were written all of those years ago: impressive as they were drawn by a new band made up of a fluid cast of members still figuring out what they wanted their group to sound like.
“I think there’s a general robustness to them,” he says. “We’re a little bit steadier now. I think we had a clear idea of what we wanted to do back then, so it’s more the case now of doing it successfully and playing the songs as they were meant to be played, but the arrangements are pretty much identical.”
This bunch of songs, deceptively simple three chord strummers, would go on to inspire a bevvy of bands in their wake, from Canadian upstarts Alvvays to New York indie pop favorites The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. It’s not hard to find those same musical throughlines and emotional storytelling in acts like Snail Mail and Jay Som, both playing Pitchfork Festival this weekend as well.
Though he admits “Pitchfork twisted our arm this time,” Murdoch is genuinely excited to play If You’re Feeling Sinister in full for the first time in America. The last time Belle & Sebastian performed it in its entirety, it ended up being some of Murdoch’s favorite shows to date.
“I think the two Royal Albert Hall shows we did were really special,” he remembers. “From our perspective, the groundswell for the original band, it first grew up in London. When we first went to London, we were shocked that there were people ready to embrace us. When we did those two shows, it felt like an old-school audience, it felt like everybody came out of the woodwork. It felt like a specific performance that we had rehearsed for with those two shows. They were unforgettable. They’re probably the two shows I’ll remember the longest time.”
If those nights are anything to go off of, those heading to Union Park in Chicago this weekend are in for something special: a legendary band thrilled to play a classic record front-to-back. Though they may not be celebrating any anniversary this time around, Belle & Sebastian are gifting the Pitchfork Festival a night to remember, one that the Murdoch himself has had circled on his calendar for quite some time.