Saturday, 31 March 2012
Belle and Sebastian "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" (2003) (News, Views and Music 139)
Belle and Sebastian “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” (2003)
Step Into My Office, Baby/Dear Catastrophe Waitress/If She Wants Me/Piazza New York Catcher/Asleep On A Sunbeam/I’m A Cuckoo//You Don’t Send Me/Wrapped Up In Books/Lord Anthony/If You Find Yourself Caught In Love/Roy Walker/Stay Loose
When we fans heard that our favourite anti-mainstream act Belle and Sebastian had signed with a big (well, bigger than before) record company in 2002 after a few poorly received (but for my money rather good) albums and had decided to work with name producers, there was a definite intake of breath. After all, wasn’t the whole point of the first few classic B+S albums, up there with the best music ever made, the ramshackle heartfelt-ness and the excitement that the songs could collapse at any given moment? And weren’t the band in danger of selling out if their songs about isolation and outsiders were given a mainstream audience? The good news is that ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ avoids the worst traps of most ‘produced’ albums thanks to the band working with a sympathetic producer (equal outsider and former Buggle Trevor Horn, who adds lots more, erm, horns to the band’s sound), a good balance between chief writer Stuart Murdoch’s prolific work and some cameos from the others to mix up the sound and best of all Stuart writing some of his most revealing and autobiographical songs underneath all that unexpected gloss. Somehow this album manages to sound heartfelt despite the les revealing bare-bones style of playing and doesn’t lose touch with what the un-definable essence of a ‘Belle and Sebastian’ album is. Indeed, this album doesn’t sound weird or out of place in the band’s canon despite containing many firsts (which, as ever, we’ll be coming back to later, although the most astonishing one is the band actually appearing en masse on one of their album covers for the first time) and in the end the only thing ‘out of place’ in this era were the band’s copious TV appearances (which – shock error – even ended up in a top 20 hit single for ‘I’m A Cuckoo’!)
The bad news is that the band have been trying to repeat this trick of empathy and gloss for a further two albums now, neither of which work at all well (‘The Life Pursuit’ is particularly poor, leading to a band split for a four-year period and you can see what we thought about ‘Write About Love’ in news and views 86). After an amazing eight-year period when not a single Belle and Sebastian rang less than true or unique, it’s been sad to see such a great band fall so badly in the next eight and in retrospect this album has a lot to answer for, because it just shouldn’t have worked as well as it does (‘Waitress’ is one of the glossiest albums in my collection and I usually hate glossy, especially from bands who are naturally born to sound on the verge of collapse). In 2012 the band are sadly toothless, ‘writing about love’ instead of the myriad of emotions and experiences unique to them and appearing with, gulp, special guests who can’t hold a candle to their talent (Norah Jones, why?!) Alas the band just aren’t special anymore and for all it’s good points it’s ‘Waitress’ where the rot set in. I should really hate this album for changing the band’s sound from greatness to ghastlyness – and yet ‘Dear Catsrophe Waitress’ is one of my favourite of all B+S albums, a marvellously open, moving and pioneering account from the last truly great group the world has seen (well, that’s my opinion anyway – you won’t be seeing any more recent artists on this site unless the music scene changes one hell of a lot very suddenly).
So why does this happy accident work so well? Well, the other bad news is that it’s the last twist to a cycle that’s been going ever since the band has. Vocalist Isobel Campbell had precious little to do in the band she founded (just look at how prolific she’s been since leaving in 2002 with three solo and two duet albums to her name now, all of them worth a listen) but she was integral to Belle and Sebastian as Stuart’s muse, the central figure in many of his best songs. B+S famously never spoke at all about their inspirations but if you read the Murdoch’s always fascinating lyrics as often as I do then you can certainly see an arc between his hapless narrators trying to ‘impress’ a girl when she’s in the band and his melancholy after seeing her leave and we know that the two were ‘close’ while working together. After escaping the rat-race in the most unexpected of ways, after both Murdoch and Stevie Jackson had given up on their dreams of making music a career (see elsewhere for the band’s fascinating story, which involves a business studies degree, a fortuitous work assignment and a chance meeting in a canteen) Isobel (or should that be Belle) is a representation in Murdoch’s lyrics from second album on of how life can change and barriers can be broken. Most B+S characters are similar drop-outs from society, trying to cope in a world not made for them – this album’s characters are, too, but somehow these songs are more personal and less about ‘others’ (with the exception of ‘Lord Anthony’ and the waitress in the title track anyway). With the romance over and Campbell the first to leave the band, she still manages to dominate this album with her ghostly presence, causing Murdoch to ponder over his journey to date, his lost boyhood dreams, the rollercoaster that is love and the way the world has changed since B+S started out in 1995. Founding member Stuart David leaves at this point in the story too, bringing his own brand of sonic weirdness to his charming extra-curricular project ‘Looper’ and this must have contributed to the nostalgia of the album too, most notably Stuart Murdoch’s song ‘If She Wants Me’, about writing a letter full of all his hopes (for those who don’t know, ‘Looper’ was created by Stuart David with his girlfriend, who he met after she raided her university flatmate’s address book and wrote long random letters to him; it’s a sweet if bonkers story and makes for a sweet but bonkers first CD).
Not that ‘Waitress’ is a down album, even with all that nostalgia in the air – indeed by Belle and Sebastian standards ‘Waitress’ might well be the most upbeat, with some glorious melodic bursts and complicated but suitable arrangements that give the band’s notoriously melancholy lyrics a new layer of meaning (the most talked about moment is the ping-pong ball that bounces across the speakers at the end of ‘Roy Walker’ and the mimicking of Brian Wilson’s ‘Woodshop’ sound effects a la ‘Smile’, which is actually attached one of the band’s most turbulent and guilt-ridden songs about memories from the past and yet somehow fits superbly).Trevor Horn weaves his magic in and out of these songs, with even the most heartbreaking given a bit of pizzazz and sparkle that, rather than negating the feeling of sadness, somehow emphasises it when heard together with Murdoch’s ever-reflective and fragile voice. Another reason this album sounds so ‘up’ is the sheer amount of times the whole band play, as if their first loss of a band member has convinced them to work together even more than normal (Murdoch only gets one song to himself, in stark contrast to classics like ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ and my all-time favourite ‘Tigermilk’ – and interestingly its probably the least autobiographical song here unlike in the past). The band’s three-part harmonies (Stuart, Stevie and Sarah) are at all their all-time best across this album and sound more 1960s then ever before, aping everything from the Beach Boys to The Beatles and CSN. As those of you who’ve read my reviews of any of these bands, that can only be a good thing and it’s a true shame that the three haven’t sung more together on their other albums because they really do have a magical blend at times.
That said, if this album has a theme it’s that of being left out in the cold – by bandmates despite all that harmony talk, lovers and friends, because of old age, tiredness and a gradual unravelling of dreams. Murdoch isn’t a writer who generally uses themes across a record (as compared to, say, Ray Davies or John Lennon) but the sadness at the heart of the lyrics of most of this album means we do get some phrases cropping up again and again. ‘Wilderness’ isn’t the most obvious word for a song lyric (it has three syllables and no obvious rhymes, a big no for most writers) and yet it crops up several times on this record, with the narrator envisioning an unhappy future over and over : ( ‘punctuated by philosophy’, presumably this album, on ‘I’m A Cuckoo’). The loss of that relationship in many ways means the loss of the band too, or at least the band the way they used to be, as a word-of-mouth, selling just enough records to make the next one group. There’s also a running theme across this album of wanting to follow ‘two paths’; perhaps the thought that the narrator wants to push ahead with the romance and see how it turns out without ruining his future happiness or his place in the band; perhaps also the paths between B+S as a cult and as an actual money-earner. Most writers would keep that sort of debate to themselves but one of Murdoch’s greatest gifts as a writer is his honesty, no matter how bad it sometimes makes him look, and closing song ‘Stay Loose’ (a song about staying the same way sung to the most forward-looking and extreme music B+S have yet come up with!) is the logical end to the mentions on earlier songs ‘Wrapped Up I n Books’ and Stuart’s bandmates offer up their own replies with Sarah Martin’s frustrated ‘Asleep On A Sunbeam’ (‘I’m waiting for you to get out of your situation with your job and with your life’, that doesn’t care for ‘planning’ ahead, simply ‘roll out the map and mark it with gin’) and Stevie Jackson’s ‘Roy Walker’ (where ‘God’ makes things grow together so surely the band are meant to be?)
Unusually among B+S records, there’s also a few nods to the outside world and uniquely political references. The narrator of ‘Office’ loses his way in the 1990s after fighting so hard for a job and the girl he loves, ‘burned out after Thatcher’ (the only time to date a politician has been mentioned by name). There’s also a most unexpected tirade against the then-new Iraq War in ‘If You Find Yourself Caught In Love’ where Murdoch bravely warns his own country that he’s ‘cheering for the other team’, contrasting the love he feels in the opening verses with how bad the loss must feel when someone you love needlessly dies in the last. We’ve long known that B+S are anti-war (‘Me and the Major’, back in 1996, is one of the best songs on the subject, with the unemployed narrator looking down on the army-man who lives down the street and gets paid to shoot people).It’s as if the band’s inner journey, where the ‘music’ is everything is slowing down to a crawl and now the band are starting to look at life outside the band.
In fact, to me ‘Waitress’ is the album that lyrically ‘Pet Sounds’ should have been and how it always reads in reviews, a deft compact tale of growing up and growing old and finding that your life has turned out in a completely different way to how you expected, only without Pet Sounds’ uncharacteristically cloying and stiff arrangements and occasional mis-steps into half-remembered clunky naivety (‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ is probably my least favourite Beach Boys song ever). There’s a real ‘journey’ to be had on this album, especially in the context of the rest of the band’s catalogue, and a genuine attempt to stretch the band’s sound as far as it will go (whereas by contrast ‘Pet Sounds’ just sounds like a lyrically tighter but more depressing version of ‘The Beach Boys Today’ from 1964 with rather jaded feeling of déjà vu). And yet despite all that experimentation somehow this album still sounds like Belle and Sebastian all the way through, even with the glossy production techniques, the tighter backing tracks, the band’s faces on the cover, the harmony arrangements, the sound effects, more horn and string arrangements than ever before, the – shock horror – lack of off-key singing, everything in fact that made the band recognisably themselves – well up until the last, curious, 1980s-throwback anyway.
Murdoch truly is on astonishing form on this record, managing to weave poetry from his pen which is the equal of any of the older, more respected masters on this site and yet it somehow manages to sound genuine and revealing despite the often intellectual or philosophical patter. Indeed, many of the lyrics here sound more like poetry than song lyrics and it’s long been a mystery of my CD collection how such obtuse and (generally) structureless songs somehow sound perfectly natural and singalongable in the band’s hands. Of the whole 12 track album only four songs have anything close to what you’d normally consider choruses and a quick flick through the lyric booklet will show you how uneven some of the verses are, with four lines balancing against eight, nine or ten. Not that that’s a bad thing – the mystery of the greatness of Stuart Murdoch’s songwriting is how he can cover up these balancing acts so that the listener doesn’t even notice. And the words themselves are simply genius: you can see for yourself by how many ‘key quotes’ examples we found above and there are plenty more gems like these spread across the album that are just as clever, witty, erudite and self-effacing as these. Even the worst Belle and Sebastian albums feature strong lyrics (even ‘Write About Love’ and ‘Life Pursuit’), but for my money only my beloved ‘Tigermilk’ comes as close to sheer perfection of words.
So why isn’t this album on this list proper if it’s such a great album? Well, even though Stuart Murdoch’s lyric writing is on absolute top form his melody writing isn’t quite as strong as it has been on previous albums. Take a song like ‘If She Wants Me’ – lyrically this is a spot-on head-hanging slab of sadness about ‘saying goodbye to someone that I love’, before a courageous chorus has the narrator vowing that he must live on to do ‘one near-perfect thing’ before he dies so that his life hasn’t been in vain, before meeting with his old flame in the present and realising that actually he’d sacrifice everything in the future for a bit of happiness in the present. It’s Murdoch at his best: using his unique take on the world to explain why we fans often feel the way we do that’s at once empathetic and bitterly honest, offering advice from hard-worn truths to save others the pain of going through the same things in life (and B+S have a particular sort of fan, it has to be said, a kind of intellectualised well-read up-dated version of Jefferson Airplane’s anti-authoritarians in the 1960s). But the glorious octave-spanning melody lines of ‘Tigermilk’ ‘Sinister’ and even third album ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ have been replaced with a largely one-note tune and an odd chugging-type riff that’s straining at the leash to be let go. There’s also something rather stylised about the whole thing, melody and arrangement, that sits at odds with some of Murdoch’s most revealing lines. In many ways that’s a microcosm of the album as a whole, one that seems to work because of the depth of feeling in the words rather than anything fancy going on on the surface, although when the words and melody and arrangement come together, as on ‘You Don’t Send Me’ ‘Wrapped Up In Books’ and a last glorious farewell to the band’s traditional sound ‘Lord Anthony’ the end result is sublime. I just wish there had been more of it across the album because Murdoch (and Jackson and Martin for that matter) have written many of my favourite melodies between them, just not here.
The songs on this album that many fans rave on about are the first two singles, ‘Step Into My Office, Baby’ and ‘I’m A Cuckoo’. Both are successful as singles, being obtuse and highly original lyrical songs that are nevertheless connected to a stomping tune and catchy riffs. They work rather less well on album, sadly –seven (or at a push eight or nine) songs are clearly from the heart but these more contrived songs, clearly about ‘characters’ rather than usual de facto hapless narrator ‘Sebastian’ (who even refers to himself in song on the band’s first few EP recordings) and they get in the way rather. It might have been better had B+S turned those songs into ‘EPs’ and saved some of their later EP work from 2002-2003 for this album: ‘This Is Just A Modern Rock Song’ and ‘Slow Graffiti’ make for much better fits, as do the period B-sides the lovely ‘Heaven In The Afternoon’, the guilt-trip ‘Desperation’s Made A Fool Of Me’, Stevie Jackson’s best ever song ‘Travelling Light’ and particularly ‘Your Secrets’, a song from the ‘Wrapped Up In Books’ EP that’s a much more acerbic and bitter farewell to Isobel Campbell and her low opinion of Murdoch than anything that made the album and might have given this album a bit more bite. But that’s all a bit unfair: for the first time in ages in writing this reviews there is nothing really bad about any of this album and heard out of context everything is great for one reason or another – although a few of these pieces seem to belong to another jigsaw altogether (just as ‘Sloop John B’ and the two instrumentals really don’t fit on ‘Pet Sounds’, despite musicologist attempts to shoe-horn them in over the years).
Finally, a word about what might well be the best sleeve-notes ever written for an AAA album. Stuart Murdoch’s stream of consciousness hints at the themes of loss and wildernesses we’ve been driving at but doing so in the same obscure way as the lyrics, moving off to talk about such things as Stuart’s favourite ever word (it’s ‘creepeth’, bizarrely!), how he feels like ‘Chicken Licken’ expecting impending disaster that never happens but secretly enjoying the excitement (notably the bad things that happen on this album are all imagined as happening in some near-future rather than happening now), the trouble males have communicating, taking photographs (note how Stuart is impressed at how other people ‘pose’ and can’t do it himself). Lord of the Rings (notably about ‘two towers’) and, err, Glasgow weather. It also ends with the intriguing hint that Stuart ‘meant to talk about the other guys in the band for a while, but I’m going to go and make dinner for a friend, so it will have to wait’. Whaaaat? Is this a hint that the band aren’t a unit and the most important thing in his life now Isobel has gone? A mischievous dig at how the band never write the sleevenotes? Or simply another red herring in an album full of mischievous or perhaps unintended hints on the same theme? (usually Stuart’s liner notes are full of talk about the others, particularly Chris Geddes). Whichever way the whole five-page monologue is superb, even by Stuart’s high standards, saying everything whilst saying nothing and making the purchaser of the album feel like a real comrade-in-arms. Because if ever there was an inclusive band it was Belle and Sebastian and the loss of this touch on the last two albums – one heard often across this album’s sympathetic characters struggling to cope with their emotions in an odd and mysterious world – is a truly sad day for music. For starting that downward spiral I want to rage against ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ for creating all these faults that weren’t there before and led to first the rest and then the emasculation of this fine band– but instead I’m blown away by how good this album is for the most part, a spot-on update of the band’s old sound without losing the heart and soul perhaps the greatest cult band of them all. Hmm, what was that about wanting two paths to follow?!
‘Step Into My Office, Baby’ is a lively song to start the record and an obvious choice for a single, what with its urgent riff, easily recognised chorus and some of the best band interaction on the record, criss-crossing verses between the three singers for the first time in years (indeed, this is the band’s best-selling until follow-up ‘I’m A Cuckoo’ did better still). But this really doesn’t sound like Belle and Sebastian: usually we feel great sympathy for their characters but only really pity for this one, a hapless love-struck office worker, one who works tirelessly to spend time in his girl’s presence but goes into ‘decline’ by the last verse when things go wrong (or so we infer from a drunken and unusually explicit penultimate verse).Usually B+S manage to give us a whole novel in under three minutes, but this one feels more like a comic inhabited by silhouettes and shadows. There are lots of great things about this record: the way the song blurrily slows down and swirls out of focus is a neat trick at replicating a hangover (a trick 10cc did first with ‘The Anonymous Alcoholic’ in 1978), a lovely horn-flute riff (again, this album is more ‘Pet Sounds’ than ‘Pet Sounds’ what with its unusual mix of instruments) and a triple-aaahhh refrain that’s quite lovely. Best of all the song slows to a complete halt for the middle eight with Murdoch singing quietly to himself, with just a string section for company – it’s a really wistful sound and perfectly suited to both his voice and this part in the song. Violins were always part of the B+S sound, of course (Sarah Martin started as a violinist with the band) but here the effect is tighter and more controlled, playing against the ‘normal’ band instruments rather than just backing them up. As we said in our intro this all makes for a killer single and its easy to see why so many people bought it (as its witty and neat enough for rock fans who’ve never heard B+S, but quirky enough not to put old fans off). The only trouble comes when it kickstarts one of the deepest records in my collection – the quick-hitting lyrics with every pun available on office life (‘she’s got an out-tray full of guys’ being the best) don’t belong on the same album as ‘You Don’t Send Me’ or ‘Lord Anthony’. Still, already there’s evidence that Trevor Horn has got the balance between the ‘old’ sound and the ‘new’ sound needed to ‘shift vinyl’ about right.
The title track is also a curio for the band, with a one-line chorus repeated often with a few scattershot quick-snapping rhymes in-between that don’t leave as much room as normal for Murdoch’s usual lengthy prose (not as lengthy as mine, I know, but lengthy for a songwriter). The franticness of this song is also unusual for such a laidback band who only really matched this tempo on ‘Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’ and ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’, although alas this song isn’t quite as classic as those two. Thematically this on more usual grounds, with an outcast young loner working as a waitress with the ‘weight of the world’ over her and juggling a life getting laughed at by her peers and putting up with abuse from customers. Intriguingly its very similar to the David Crosby song about a waitress ‘Been Through Here Quite Often’ which came out the same month as I recall – why were empathetic waitresses suddenly so popular in 2003?! As ever, Murdoch offers encouragement to his creations, revealing in the second verse that she is the one from her peers who will survive and find happiness, because she’s the only one to have a vision beyond the tiny town in which they live. The song ends on the promise that they’ll be ‘blown to the wall’ when she reveals her secret project to them: along with the unexpected return to the school-years of an outsider character from the band’s work circa 1995-97, is this a last goodbye to muse Isobel Campbell? Is this song actually retrospective and the ‘secret project’ she’s working on is actually the band’s album ‘Tigermilk’, created as a ‘product’ to sell on a business studies course but destined for greatness? Alas there’s everything’s a bit too sketchy in this song to be sure and there’s a middle eight (missing from the lyric sheet – a common occurrence with B+S songs) that really doesn’t work, rhyming ‘bold’ ‘old’ and ‘told’ in quick succession without adding much to the song. Never less than interesting, though and another song that could never have been written by any other band.
‘If She Wants Me’ is a classic as song: the words are poetic and near-perfect (as we’ve seen, they might be a goodbye to both Campbell and Stuart David, bandmates both, especially the opening about a ‘letter’) and there’s another catchy chorus that somehow manages to transform this sad song about wasted opportunities into a ‘Hey Jude’ type singalong about overcoming obstacles, in true Murdoch style. But the melody is weak and the band sound bored, all apart from Murdoch anyway to whom this song sounds close but his fine vocal is spoilt by an unexpected and unwelcome key change at the end of each verse that makes him go all high-pitched and squeaky. I used to dislike this track because it sounds so dull by B+S standards, but I’ve grown to love it the more I’ve played it because the words really are very very clever, looking back on a relationship (possibly with Campbell) with love not bitterness, with the narrator even praising his maker for seeing him ‘do alright’, even if it’s just for a small portion of his life. There’s a lovely opening where the narrator equates the loss to ‘being hard, like coming off the pills you take to stay happy’ and admitting that this goodbye is ‘to someone that I love’. The chorus where he asks for strength to do ‘just one-near perfect thing’ so that he’ll be remembered is delightful indeed, with this girl clearly a ‘muse’ for some important project rather than just another lover. Reading the fourth verse again I’m more convinced than ever that this song is about Stuart David – the ‘she’ of the title suddenly reverts back to being a ‘he’, with Murdoch writing a letter that calls his former bandmate a ‘genius’ and praising his ‘curious nerve and passion’ (a pretty neat summation of one of the band’s most interesting characters). By the end, though, Murdoch seems to be back to writing about Campbell again, urging her to ‘take the baton’ and not look over her shoulder at her past with the band however much he misses her. The end result is one of the best songs about a band break-up ever, right up with The Beatles’ ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Third Week In The Chelsea’ and Pentangle’s ‘People On The Highway’, moving in its message but also refreshingly honest about the grumpiness and sadness the split leaves behind. Murdoch’s always been a passionate writer about people he loves and his writing his finding new levels of meaning with this lovely song about loss and why we struggle on all the same when our reason for living gets taken away from us. I only wish he’s been as inspired when writing the tune for this song and that the band and producer had paid slightly more interest in arranging this lovely song.
‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ is, to date, the last time we get to hear Murdoch solo on a B+S album, even though its something they used to do quite often in the early days. Unusually, though, it’s on guitar not piano and its not as emotional as earlier songs like ‘Chalet Lines’ but a full-blown Dylanesque folk song with image after image fleeting past in a rush. If this song has a theme, though, it’s of new beginnings – the narrator is eloping with a new lover, meeting her at a ‘statue’ before travelling round the world in search of new inspiration. The narrator, though, doesn’t feel worthy of his new love and in one of Murdoch’s most descriptive lyrics ends up in a ‘borrowed bedroom, virginal and spare’ in which he feels he doesn’t belong, doubting his actions all the way. Watching a baseball match together, the narrator muses on how awful life is for the players not actually on the pitch in the middle of all the action and leaves for his old life, only to get bored again and request to meet her at the statue a second time. Given the other ‘band’ references across this record, this could be Murdoch bringing the band out of retirement after the loss of two members after trying to find a ‘new’ life for himself (something that finally happened, after much delays, in 2009 with Murdoch’s ‘Heaven Help The Girl’ project that sadly disappeared seemingly overnight) – or simply a neat bit of imaginative writing. Either way, it’s an unusual song for Murdoch, made all the stranger by the lack of any outside members on the song. Indeed ‘Piazza’ ends up sounding like a demo, but not like the lovely-though-fractious demos that actually ended up on the band’s first few EPs. Murdoch copes with the scattershot quick-paced vocal well, but it’s not as suited to his warm voice as his other songs and ends up sounding like the runt of this album’s litter. Nice to hear the band stretching themselves so late on, however.
‘Asleep On A Sunbeam’ is Sarah Martin’s chance to shine on a song that’s a dead ringer for Murdoch’s 1998 composition ‘A Summer Wasting’. That song was a hymn to the glories of having six whole weeks of no deadlines with which to re-connect with life and nature – this one finds Martin urging someone to do exactly that, to revel in doing nothing and find inspiration not through perspiration but through letting inspiration come to them naturally. Again I might be reading too much into this, but this sounds very much like Murdoch himself, especially the way he gets to sing the third verse (about how he used to have ‘plans to conquer the country’, in contrast to Sarah’s agreement to ‘follow every direction’ he takes them in). After eight years of hard work and a decision to move to more commercial means this song sounds like the counter-argument, that as long as the band members have warmth, shelter and nature around them they’ll survive. It’s a pretty song this one, with Sarah’s always breathily soft vocals perfectly suited to such a relaxed setting and the lyrics are top-notch, though not perhaps up to ‘Family Tree’, her shining moment with the band from the last album proper ‘Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Preacher’. Her vocals also work well with Murdoch’s, with this the most successful duet in the band’s canon (she can sing a hell of a lot better than Norah Jones, anyway, special guest on B+S album ‘Write About Love’!)
‘I’m A Cuckoo’ is another of the album’s more commercial songs, although it sounds more and B+S like than ‘Office’, thanks to such old traits as a funky guitar riff and lyrics that include words like ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Harajuku’ that just aren’t in most songwriter’s lexicographs. For the most part this is another sad song about splitting up with someone, with the narrator getting ever more histrionic as he imagines a ‘wilderness’ without her. This song must surely be autobiographical again, with talk of how things come to ahead when the narrator was ‘feeling high after a show’, adding the witty comment ‘we lost the singer to her clothes’ (certainly Campbell’s wardrobe after leaving B+S seems to have expanded greatly) and the narrator’s troubled line ‘I was revealed, I was home in bed, a kid again’ is a very Murdoch line about finding himself unable to cope in an adult world he doesn’t understand. (Further lines reveal ‘I was the boss of you’, suggesting this isn’t just another romance). Thus far ‘Cuckoo’ is a terrific attempt at writing your demons out in a song that still manages to be commercial and quirky (the guitar-bass riff that underpins this song is one of the band’s best) that somehow manages to tell the whole story, not just the bit that makes you look good. The trouble is that the chorus belongs to a different song entirely – there’s another great song to be had about how the narrator pinches bits from everywhere, even name-checking key influence ‘Thin Lizzy’ to make sure we get the point, but this sensitive song about loss isn’t it. I wonder how many of the people who bought enough copies of this song to make #14 in the singles charts actually understood the message, too, but then this is a song that works well on lots of different levels and features another production that somehow manages to keep the essence of the band sound when translating it into a completely new soundscape.
Side two is more serious, beginning with Murdoch’s most sarcastic song ‘You Don’t Send Me’. ‘Cuckoo’ ended with the narrator remembering all the times he helped ‘her’ out when she was said and wonders whose around to comfort him – this song continues the theme and sounds like it was started before the split, complaining that the relationship is all one-way and that she doesn’t ‘send’ him anything any more (whether cards, flowers, presents or love we never quite hear). The song sounds much more serious than usual for B+S and Murdoch sings his lines in a very cold, detached way, mirrored by a fantastically sulky trumpet part that on its own sounds like it should be playing in a festival, but in this context sounds like a sulky teenager. There’s more references to music again too, just to make the point clear, with Murdoch writing one of his best lines when he asks what happened to the times when music made them both ‘lying on the floor, laughing, crying, jumping, singing’. The trouble with these two emotional souls is that there is no emotion anymore, that everything has got grown up and out of control. Listen out for the opening xylophone riff by the way – a dead ringer for Brian Wilson’s work on ‘Pet Sounds’ (see above), for which this track is a dead ringer for that album’s ‘I Know There’s An Answer’, with the narrator realising that he now has to discover life on his own without his companion in check. Despite the lack of nearly everything connected to B+S (the short, grumpy lyrics – six lines of verses and two repeated lines of choruses make it the shortest non-film soundtrack song of Murdoch’s career – the negative message, the lack of a guitar or keyboard riff) this song is a great success, a logical progression from the band’s sound of old with Murdoch’s vocal especially good. Perhaps the band ought to do grumpy more often because they do it rather well!
‘Wrapped Up In Books’ was the band’s third single and unlike the first two is very much in keeping with the old B+S sound. It’s another break-up song, but this time it’s sad not about the end but all the wasted opportunities along the way, with both characters too nervous to say what they want (in another of Murdoch’s best couplets, ‘our aspirations hidden in books, our inclinations hidden in looks’). They’re also too nervous to come out and say that they’re un happy by the end, with Murdoch reflecting ‘I never want to leave you – we’ve never had a fight’ whilst at the same time aware enough that ‘change is on the cards’ despite outward appearances. There’s yet more lines about wanting ‘two paths to follow’, the conscientious narrator wanting to know how their lives would turn out both together and apart and yet another reference to an empty summer, but one that’s disappearing fast, with hard decisions soon to be made. Sarah Martin’s harmony comes in at this very point and then dances around Murdoch’s main vocal for the rest of the song, another neat touch that shows attention to detail. There’s another sublime Pet Soundsy moment after the first chorus when the band are replaced by a melancholy horn riff and a busy bass riff, something that sounds very close to how that album’s outtake ‘Trombone Dixie’ might have sounded had The Beach Boys finished it. The rest of the song, though, is urgent and determined, based around a strong bass riff that sounds more Motown than the usual array of B+S influences and unlike some of the melodies and arrangements on this album is a strong fit for the lyric. In all, this is another very strong song and easily the best of the three singles. Typically B+S, though, they relegated this song to the back of an ‘EP’ where this song played second-fiddle to a retro computer game starring some book-worms!
‘Lord Anthony’ got a bad press when this album was first released but goodness knows why – its the one last great moment of B+S ramshackleness on the album and fittingly enough its the first B+S song set in a high school for some seven years, as if Murdoch’s prolonged goodbye on this album has reminded him of how he used to write. The central character isn’t really a lord at all, just a scared, slightly effeminate schoolboy with a posh accent who is completely out of his depth in the raw and angry world of state school playgrounds. Murdoch doesn’t shirk from the realities of life here, unlike other songs that treat bullying as a novelty, and there’s really heartbreaking moment when he urges the character to forsake his pride and become what his peers want him to be, to make life a little easier. That said, the character is stronger than the omniscient narrator refusing to give in despite knowing that ‘it doesn’t pay to be smarter than most teachers, smarter than most boys...’ We know the narrator is wrong, that the central character should always be himself and Murdoch is half-angry, half-disillusioned when singing these lines, repeating his diatribe from ‘Storytelling’ about football being a pointless game for good measure. Lord Anthony’s reasons for his misery seem to stem from his desire to be a girl, judging by Murdoch’s sensitive portrayal in the lengthy second verse – if Murdoch hadn’t been listening to Ray Davies’ multiple songs about cross-dressing he should have done because the two are a close match, empathetic but realistic about the obstacles to be overcome. The end result is a truly heartbreaking song, handled superbly with a sympathetic string arrangement that’s just the right side of syrupy and a touch of the melancholy harmonica that made the band’s ‘Storytelling’ album so compelling (despite containing just five ‘proper’ songs). ‘Lord Anthony’ may not be a match for the characters in earlier classics like ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ or ‘She’s Losing It’ but it’s still a superb song and an anthem for misfits everywhere, especially the moving moment when ‘Lord Anthony’ finally leaves school and his captors behind. If you have an ounce of empathy then you’ll be cheering Lord Anthony on too.
After a pretty piano interlude we get the short sudden stab of ‘If You Find Yourself Caught In Love’, the single that should have been but sadly never was. Another classy bit of songwriting from Murdoch, it starts out as quite a generic song about love before stretching out into pure B+S territory. Even though the breathless music is among the happiest in the whole B+S canon, this is another sad tale with the hapless narrator only realising how great being in love is when he isn’t any more. There’s a terrific bit of writing early on when the narrator reminisces about how love used to inspire him onto greater things but right now he’s slumped in front of the telly watching ‘another TV I love 1999’ (only four years before album release, remember, so hardly nostalgic viewing back then). The narrator then acknowledges that he used to believe ‘love’ meant ‘freedom’ and it doesn’t – the only freedom has is on his own reading books (another common B+S theme). Murdoch even reaches out to the audience as in the days of old, telling us all with a wink that ‘you’re all too good-looking not to live’. The best part of the song arrives at the end, though, with Murdoch turning the song on its head and figuring that the opposite of love must be hate and must be a bad thing – so why are so many people signing up to fight? The Iraq War was big news back then, mainly thanks to 9/11 although it had to be said the Gulf War had never actually gone away and was a wound that wasn’t healing long before. Murdoch rightly turns on the military, telling soldiers he’ll be ‘cheering on the other team’ and hoping they remember that the people they are shooting at have loved ones too. Back in the uncomfortably jingoistic period shortly after the twin towers, when even Neil Young and Paul McCartney were playing concerts in honour of American military, this was brave indeed and a welcome reminder at the end of this song how fleeting life and love can be.
‘Roy Walker’ is Stevie Jackson’s song and –along with period b-side ‘Trevllin’ Light’ – his best, a very Murdoch-ish song about synchronicity and how ‘God’ plays nature like a ‘symphony’. The band sing in three-part harmony for the most part and there’s no let-up between verses, with everyone giving their all. Even by B+S standards this song is impenetrable – I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find a single mention of Roy Walker anywhere in B+S’ history, although Jackson’s writing partner is named Roy Malloy which is halfway there – but thankfully its all intriguing and memorable rather than forgettable and dull as so many obscure songs are. The sound effects on this song are wonderful – the opening steel guitar riffs are mixed to sound as if they’re underwater, there’s a load of power-drills in the middle for no apparent reason, a smattering of horse’s hoofs when the lyrics mention ‘saddling horses’, there’s a glorious a capella drop out towards the end and there’s even a flipping ping-pong ball being batted across the speakers at the song’s end. If the rest of the album is ‘Pet Sounds’ for the 1990s then this surely is ‘Smile’ reborn – and those of you who are regulars to this site know what high praise that is. The only downside to this glorious song is how short the whole thing is, wrapping up in barely a couple of minutes despite containing more production touches than all the other tracks on the album put together. Fabulous!
The album ends on a quite different note with ‘Stay Loose’, a real departure for the band that finds them heavily into 1980s territory (most reviewers plump for Smiths or Orange Juice comparisons – in truth this song ‘feels’ like a Felt song being programmed into synths by the Human League).Everything about this track is ugly – Murdoch sings double-tracked except for the choruses and is clearly acting a part, while the cold icy banks of keyboards deliberately sound just out of date to sound unfashionable without being gloriously retro just yet. So far so clunky, although its clever (and rather Pete Townshend-like) that a song about the need to stay relaxed and open to inspiration is given such an uptight and dissonant accompaniment. The second half of the song comes alive, however, thanks to a marvellous double-pronged guitar attack that chases its own tail round a series of flowing chords that sounds even more ‘human’ than normal in this cold landscape and a very quiet, near acoustic final two verses sung by Murdoch and Jackson together. These verses, about surviving from second to second after some major disaster see the narrator finally realising what his faults are and what part he played in a relationship gone wrong, with both singers finally dropping their detached guard to sing from the heart about how ‘I was always asking for more, I kept running round in circles, I kept looking for a doorway’ and ending with the album’s theme ‘I’m going to need two lives to follow the paths I’ve been taking’. Its a brave stab at something different this song and you need to get through the harder passages in order to get the glorious pay-off at the end, although a majority of fans won’t give it that long a chance in the CD player (many hated this song when the album came out). For me, though, it’s the ending this album needs, a blast of reality mixed with a sudden realisation and the moment when inspiration finally arrives after years of waiting.
Full marks to the band, then, for not giving way to this ‘new’ sound completely on first hearing and especially to Stuart Murdoch for raising his game at a crucial phase in the Belle and Sebastian story. The highest praise, though, should go to Trevor Horn who somehow managed the impossible with this album, which sounds new and then-contemporary, with lots of tricks of the trade thrown at it and yet it never once stops sounding like a Belle and Sebastian CD or particularly like a Trevor Horn CD. If only the band had continued working with him on the next two (to date) albums then ‘The Life Pursuit’ might not have sounded so dull and ‘Write About Love’ could have ended up less generic. That said, it’s not the fault of ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ that the follow-ups to this album are pale facsimiles of it and, despite the odd broken plate full of spaghetti, it manages to work well as both bite-size portions and sumptuous meal, just like the Belle and Sebastian days of old. It’s looking awfully as if this will be the one last great Belle and Sebastian album, but then the success of this one was unexpected back in 2003 after two poorly-received CDs and a short soundtrack album. For the most part ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ is a delightful album, one that’s as true to life as music can be without sacrificing beauty, ideas or inspiration. I’m not often impressed by albums from the naughties, even AAA ones, but ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ is easily my favourite B+S album after the early recordings ‘Tigermilk’ and the EPs collected on ‘Push Barman To Open Old Wounds’, having the same mix of wonder, compassion and philosophy but from an older, more wounded perspective. Well, well, well, a Belle and Sebastian album with a famous producer and a record label budget that still sounds like them – who was expecting that, eh?