Belle and Sebastian “Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant” (2001)
‘Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’ is the sound of a band desperately trying to hang on to their trademark sound and continue with business as usual, whilst knowing that their sound and DNA have changed irreparably forever. Belle and Sebastian may have continued for another three albums and a film soundtrack after this, but this is where the great experiment of six years before truly ends and this one, album number four, is the ‘stepping stone’ between the B+S of their first six years and the one for the remaining eleven. Criticised at the time for containing too many ‘experiments’, ‘Peasant’ actually sounds quite traditional now we fans have heard what’s coming next and the mixture of the two styles on the same records makes for a rather uncomfortable, bumpy ride. For all its occasional mistakes, though – and acknowledging the fact that this is an album far below the level of the first ground-breaking pair of records – ‘Peasant’ is an album that can hold its head up high, more noble than peasant. Never again will this most wonderfully ragged but right band sound so wonderfully tattered; never again will they possess a sound that can never be confused with anyone else. And yet already, on just album four, there’s a sense of doing things by numbers that alienated some fans and a handful of experiments that angered many more, even if compared to the albums to come this is the sound of Belle and Sebastian playing it ‘safe’ (‘safe’ in this context, by the way, means being resolutely un-commercial and afraid of the charts and commercialism – B+S did always get things the wrong way round; or is it in fact everyone else who got them wrong?) Yes this album reached the top 10 for the first time and is in fact the band’s second highest charting album of all to date – but that’s more because of the growing word of mouth that had been arriving about this famously hard-to-find, promotionally-reluctant band since 1995; this album actually sold less copies than ‘Tigermilk’ or ‘Sinister’ in the long run. An album of beginnings and endings, less dominated by lead writer and singer Stuart Murdoch than before if not as much as the albums to come, it often gets overshadowed by its more illustrious predecessors - but even though ‘Peasant’ is very much the ‘end’ to a great run of works, it’s still a very groundbreaking and misunderstood record.
There are two key reasons for the slightly bittersweet, nostalgic air that hangs heavy on the album. The first is the loss of bass player and lead ‘experimentalist’ Stuart David, the first band member to leave the band from the ‘core’ of long-term unemployed and struggling musicians Stuart Murdoch had called in to play on ‘Tigermilk’ and, like Ray Davies before him on ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, Stuart knows that his band will never be the same again. More upsetting still to the band is the imminent loss of Isobel Campbell, fellow founding member, occasional singer and – more importantly – Murdoch’s muse throughout almost all of his songs. She doesn’t technically leave till after the sessions for the next curious B+S project ‘Storytelling’ (the soundtrack to a forgotten B movie where the musicians were far bigger stars than the film directors; nevertheless this didn’t stop the majority of their half hour soundtrack being cut from the movie), but her relationship with Murdoch is already in trouble. In retrospect it’s amazing that B+S carried on at all, never mind that their trademark sound ‘developed’ as much as it did in such a short time, the band ending up closer to a generic ‘commercial’ sound after this as the band get ‘lead’ by producer after producer (they’d never needed one when Campbell was in the band – Murdoch’s faith in her opinion all he needed to work out which direction to go in). Frankly losing Campbell in this way and carrying on would be like Wings continuing after Paul and Linda broke up and the latter had left the band – unthinkable. Losing your longterm partner is bad enough for any songwriter, but what made it worse was that Campbell was always an integral part of the band’s identity, far more so than the time she actually took centre stage. There’s a key song titled ‘Belle and Sebastian’ on the band’s first EP (since collected on the ‘Push Barman To Open Old Wounds’ compilation) Where Murdoch underlines what a hopeless hapless fool the narrator is until practical Belle comes into his world and turns his random babbling fantasies into reality that’s really affecting. It doesn’t take much detective work to contemplate that ‘Belle’ is ‘Campbell’ and ‘Stuart’ is ‘Sebastian’ – and the fact that the names are taken directly from a French children’s show about a dog and his boy that both singers bonded over when they met is significant too. Campbell’s voice may have been quiet throughout her B+S years but she, too, hits an outpouring of grief over her split with Murdoch which is all over her early run of solo albums, her work with the band ‘Gentle Waves’ and her collaborations with Mark Lanegan (perhaps not coincidentally, an album full of ‘break-up’ duets entirely written by Isobel) and offer up ‘her’ side of the story, in much the same way that the early Pretenders album chart Chrissie Hynde’s dissection of Ray Davies in the late 70s and early 80s, ‘The Circus Is Leaving Town’ from ‘Ballad Of The Broken Seas’ especially.
Even for those who didn’t know (and B+S never talk about these things – or indeed anything usually - so that’s probably most people) it’s clear that something is up on this album. Most B+S lyrics tend towards the melancholic anyway, but generally speaking are sad on behalf of the host of memorable characters who inhabit an often untrusting and uncaring world (there’s a long list of Judies, Janes, Lisas and Belles, any or all of whom could be modelled on Campbell herself). Almost all of this album is told in the first person, full of ‘I’s and ‘Me’s unusual for Murdoch’s writing style, due perhaps both to an outpouring of grief and a slowly coming to terms with the fact that this ‘fairytale’ relationship didn’t work itself out and also the fact that without Belle as the second half of the character Murdoch doesn’t have the heart to write from ‘Sebastian’s point of view (not till recently, anyway, when Murdoch seems to have gone back to singing about her ‘retrospectively’ and bidding her a moving ‘farewell’ on ‘Write About Love’). The one exception to this is, the one song that cannot be autobiographical, is ‘The Chalet Lines’ – and, well, this graphic and disturbing song about a rape victim too afraid to tell the police might well be the most revealing song of all, describing love and romance in the most unsettling, imagination-less way possible. Two songs stand out as being obvious references to the fallout though: ‘Don’t Leave The Light On, Baby’ (in which Murdoch’s narrator receives an angry phone call from his loved one ending with the spiteful words ‘don’t call me love’ and who poignantly decides not to leave the light on her for her as usual that night because he knows she’s not coming home that night – or possibly ever) and ‘Women’s Realm’ (in which Murdoch declares ‘I don’t care whether you hear this’ and then pours his heart out about a lover whose ‘tired of playing games’). Both songs speak volumes even if by, say, Pete Townshend’s or even Ray Davies’ standards this isn’t exactly anger or bitterness and even if the narrator is still busy trying to keep the news from himself at all costs, going about his business as usual (one of the key lines here is the line in ‘Light’ where he finally agrees that ‘it’s best to go down without a fight’, too scared and upset to broach the subject head-on). The key line on this whole album comes right at the end, on virtually the last song this first line-up of B+S sing, that ‘I can’t hide my feelings from you now’ and several other songs talk about ‘honesty’ and revelations, unusual for a songwriter who almost always only talks about himself through observing other people.
To put it mildly, ‘Peasant’ is the end of a long run of impressive work from Murdoch that stretches back to ‘Tigermilk’ and is right up there with the very best work by anyone we cover on this site (which, of course, means everyone at anytime in our eyes). It had been a mighty unexpected five years for Murdoch, who had started off 1995 unable to do anything for long periods and who spent most of the time in bed after contracting chronic fatigue. As a fellow sufferer, I know well the symbolism in Murodch’s writing: unable to actively take part in the wider world outside his bedroom window, Stuart described what he remembered instead, the characters from his youth who were either struggling or about to struggle and the author’s ‘shock’ on his rare days out when he sees that the rest of the world hasn’t changed at all. ‘Tigermilk’ was written and recorded when Murdoch couldn’t even stand upright as the author’s one desperate link to a world that seemed to have abandoned him – I don’t need to tell regular readers how similar this is to the very website you’re reading or how shocked I was when I found out the similarities we shared (B+S never talk in interviews – more because of Murdoch’s problems tiring easily as I’ve since found out, and he rarely talked about it then or now; one day when the rest of this website is written I can’t wait to return to ‘Tigermilk’ and re-write my review given what I know now). Thankfully Murdoch has been on the road to recover for some 15 years now, but as a sufferer I know well what a threat the illness can be even when you’re well and how scared you are that a bad spell is about to return. The emotional stress of this period causes some very illuminating lyrics scattered throughout this album: Murdoch might hand the aside ‘And I have been sleeping badly lately...’ from the song ‘The Model’ to colleague Stevie to sing, but it hangs in the air like a shadow over the rest of the song, delivered with a ‘menace’ that only a fellow sufferer could have written. Elsewhere the narrator of ‘Too Much Love’ ‘drags’ himself across the dancefloor, convincing himself he’s having a good time, although his body has different ideas, the soldier of ‘I Fought In A War’ sees nothing but a ‘sickness’ that ‘went beyond the bedsit infamy of the decade before’ (chronic fatigue is often linked with ‘gulf war’ syndrome which was in the news a lot around in 2001 just before 9/11 – perhaps Murodch saw a documentary and empathised with the sentiments?) and the angry narrator of ‘Women’s Realm’ tells his even angrier lover to ‘close your eyes and settle for a compromise’, desperate for the silence that can restore balance to his world. In truth, there’s nothing like as many references here to ‘sleeping’ as on the first two albums, but it is very much there.
If there is a theme on this album it’s of life drifting on beyond your control. The soldier on ‘I Fought A War’, the confused pursuer of ‘The Model’, the poor rape victim of ‘The Chalet Lines’, the bruised lonely narrator of ‘Don’t Leave The Light On, Baby’ and even Joseph (the father of Jesus) in ‘Beyond The Sunrise’ (all Murdoch songs despite the varying singers on all of them) are confused as to the changing worlds around them, with other figures clearly in control while they are left feeling helpless and powerless. We’re used to hearing Murdoch’s companions ‘powerless’ in the sense that they tend to live in a faceless modern world that couldn’t care less about them but in which they have to interact in order to survive, overcoming bullies, bosses and boredom in equal measure. This album is different, however: the narrators of these songs aren’t figures the singer passes by on the street and emotionally and intellectually connects with – they really are him this time around and each and every song is in the first person as a result. To take the first song as an example, just look at the title: ‘I Fought In A War’ might be the lyrical sequel to ‘Me and the Major’ and the musical close cousin to ‘It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career’ but it’s made personal this time around; the narrator might have enjoyed debating the pros and cons of peace and love with a major too steeped in his ways in the past but this time he’s in the thick of the action, stuck in the dugout surrounded by heavy casualties and contemplating a war that ‘stretched before me infinitely’. This is not the sudden flowering of music from an inspired writer who finally finds his calling after several years ill in bed – this is not the music of escapism, it’s music used as therapy, to work out problems in everyday life, and as such this makes ‘Peasant’ a key B+S album, even if it is a bit hit and miss.
Lyrically, then, this album is a tragedy. Musically, however, it sounds much like a comedy all the way through, played with the same bright breezy melodies as usual as if the narrator hasn’t yet noticed the world changing all around him. There’s a particular ‘shine’ on the usual B+S brass here that sounds like an oompah-ing band playing in the park rather than the accompaniment to perhaps the most autobiographical set of songs Murdoch ever wrote. It’s as if Murdoch and co were trying to ‘cover up’ the very honest admissions in the lyrics by adding more upbeat songs here than usual for a B+S album. Indeed, ‘Nice Day For A Sulk’ might be the most upbeat song Murdoch ever wrote, despite the grumpy title, with its memories of a time when life was carefree and sulking was done for fun, not a reaction to an unsympathetic world. Many B+S albums try to tell us two things at once, but only ‘Peasant’ really succeeds, thanks to an album that’s all smiles on the surface and where the grief only really carries on on the inside. Study the lyric sheet, though – and unlike some bands B+S fans should always study the lyric booklets, for these songs are more like poems than pop songs - and the sadness is there all right.
However, this album is not solely the work of Murdoch. Following on from his first song, the well received ‘Seymour Stein’ from ‘Arab Strap’ about the manager of a leading record label who came to ‘poach’ the band and completely misunderstood their ethos, Stevie Jackson gets his second song onto a B+S album. ‘The Wrong Girl’ is a curious song, continuing Jackson’s obsession with the Beatles (who are namechecked heavily on his excellent solo LP ‘I Can’t Get No Stevie Jackson’), which is never a bad thing of course, but sounds oddly empty sandwiched in between perhaps Murdoch’s two heaviest songs on the album. Opinions differ as to whether it’s Campbell or Sarah Martin who write and sing on ‘Waiting For The Moon To Rise’ and ‘Family Tree’ (B+S never ever give writing credits for their songs!) – I could be wrong but in my opinion it’s clearly the former on ‘Moon’ (with its lines about having to struggle through drudgery in the day, looking forward to escapism at night – or in the future perhaps?) and the latter on ‘Family Tree’ (with its classic lines about how ‘I’d rather be fat than be confused’). Both songs are the highlight of the record, whoever wrote them, especially the latter which is one of my all-time favourite B+S records, a call-to-arms songs for misfits everywhere in true B+S fashion. It’s true that Murdoch still writes and sings the other eight songs on an eleven track album – but given that he’s sung and written every single B+S song bar one till now shows that Murdoch is cracking under the strain and, indeed, won’t be quite as in command on any future B+S product again.
Ironically the album’s class-baiting title (remembered by Murdoch as one of his ‘favourite’ pieces of graffiti, seen emblazoned across the walls of a pub toilet in his youth) couldn’t have fitted a more class-less B+S album, one which is dominated by the characters of Murodch and Campbell. All of the first three albums, to gradually lessening extent, deal in class: the art student mocked by her own teachers for having ideas above her station (‘She’s Losing It’), the school-leaver shop assistant groped by her store manager, powerless to complain at risk of losing the only job she’s likely to get (‘Expectations’) and the music lover of ‘Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying’ figures that rich pop stars don’t write for the likes of him anymore. The curious title of ‘Peasant’ is very B+S: faintly literary (the band even ‘mock up; two of the album tracks into books, clutched by the models on the front cover, perhaps a reference to the earlier track ‘The State I Am In’ in which Murdoch writes his ideas into a self-help book that the character in another song, ‘Mary Jo’, admits ‘doesn’t help at all’), slightly historical, completely out of left field and completely the opposite of the compact, catchy title most record companies would demand. Frankly, though, it’s on the wrong record: this is a surprisingly straightforward album, with less poetical turns of phrases than normal and the lowest quota of ‘made up’ everyday people of the band’s career; the only song that ‘fits’ is ‘Beyond The Sunrise’, the most overtly historical song of the band’s career, where Joseph puts down his half-glimpsed visions of ‘angels’ down to liquor and claims his wife was no ‘saint’ – never have the biblical characters sounded more working class. The cover models by the way have nothing to do with B+S – maintaining a longstanding tradition the band broke on ‘Arab Strap’ by appearing on the cover – but are instead a pair of sisters from the Icelandic experimental group ‘Mum’, appearing apparently at random (perhaps the band were making up for having ‘nicked’ the name of sister label act ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’, who were apparently less than impressed than anyone looking up their work on the internet was instead met by pages about B+S’ third album!)
Overall, then, ‘Peasant’ is not the best or the most rounded of B+S albums. Fans interested in the band should get one of the first three albums (preferably ‘Tigermilk’) to experience the band at their best when they sounded like no other. Some songs here sound like ‘filler’, the problem that began to affect ‘Arab Strap’ but more so, with tracks like ‘The Right Girl’ and ‘Nice Day For A Sulk’ easily the weakest B+S tracks until their frankly horrible album ‘Life Pursuit’ in 2007. Others, like ‘Beyond The Sunrise’ are huge gambles, experiments that most fans tend to hate, although I have a sneaking respect for it myself, the sound of a band who know things are changing and their sound will have to stretch to fit the format in the future. The rest of the album, though, is largely excellent: ‘I Fought In A War’ is a marvellous coda to the ‘war and peace’ dialogue that’s been going on on these albums for some time, ‘The Model’ is a thrilling patter song that says more about the hopeless narrator than the title figure he’s trying to chat up, ‘Don’t Leave The Light On Baby’ is a B+S jazz blues that’s eerie and beautiful by equal measure, ‘The Chalet Lines’ is a remarkably brave piece of writing, fragile but with an inner strength on a subject few other writers would handle with so much care and best of all ‘Family Tree’ might have nothing to do with Murdoch but is in many ways the archetypal B+S song, deploring a world where everyone is encouraged to act the same and where people might as well be manikins, without any of the humanity and emotion that makes living worthwhile. Yes ‘Peasant’ might not be perfect – ‘old’ traditional fans dislike it for making too many leaps forward, whilst later fans spurn it for not making enough – but at its best ‘Peasant’ is an album that will make you think and in many cases make you cry. It’s an album that very much deserves a re-appraisal and contains many moments that are among the best and most original this most wonderful and unique bands ever gave us. Far from being a youthful peasant, this album is of mature and noble birth.
‘I Fought In A War’ opens the album in traditional humble B+S style for the fourth and final time. Like ‘The State I Am In’ ‘Stars Of Track and Field’ and ‘It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career’, Murdoch sings the first verse a capella and the band only slowly creep in around him. Like the other songs, the fact that Murdoch is alone and singing in such a sad and lonely way really adds to the song’s feeling of being trapped and isolated. The stakes are notably higher this time around though: even the stroke victim in the third song didn’t face a life as cruel and torturous as this. The narrator leavers his ‘friends’ behind, sees his colleagues cut to shreds around him and sees nothing but ‘sickness’ in his future, the threat not necessarily being what he’s faced or is currently facing but the idea that life could be like this indefinitely, the difficult times stretching on ‘forever’. All the narrator has is ‘memories’ of life back home before all hell broke loose: of ‘looks’ and ‘words’ his loved one gave him and spoke to him ‘back when we were getting on’ and an imaginary vision where she sits looking into the eyes of someone else ‘making shells back home for a steady man to wear’. While the ‘battlefield’ imagery is one both suitable and fitting for B+S’ songs (‘Me and the Major’ setting out Murdoch’s view that most soldiers are mugs, fighting wars because that’s all they know how to do rather than for any grand heroic concepts), ‘I Fought In A War’ seems too personal to just be another anti-war song. Instead it seems as if it’s just a metaphor for the ‘battleground’ that life is proving to be – given everything we’ve written about above, could it be that Campbell was talking about leaving the touring group and that this is Murdoch’s paranoid response to what she might be up to without him? Certainly Murdoch has never sounded so alone as when he sings the song’s opening verse (much longer than on the other three examples) and when the rest of the band finally come into the song they sound every bit as uncertain and scared (the string section, in particular, seem to have come out of a horror movie soundtrack). Like many of Murdoch’s best songs the lyrics to this one are fascinating, written more as an essay or a short story than a pop song with words that barely bother to rhyme, and yet sound perfectly suited to the song’s eerie melody line, one that jumps from key to key throughout, as lost and homeless as the man in the song. The closing brass trill that finishes the song doesn’t completely resolve either, always a hint the writer is going through a situation that’s ‘ongoing’ and hasn’t reached its own resolution yet, making for an unsettling song all round and one of the album highlights.
‘The Model’ is a quite different song, more like the ones on ‘Sinister’ in the way that Murdoch and Jackson cross lines about a girl whose playing hard-to-get, although this time the song is less about ‘the model’ and more about the ‘pursuer’. A sing-song, nursery rhyme-ish melody can’t disguise the very real anguish at the heart of the song: ‘Sebastian’ (for that’s surely who the un-named narrator is) as socially awkward and hopeless as ever – but this time around she’s not smiling like she used to be, instead she’s very cross. Murdoch starts each verse with the words ‘I will confess to you’ before giving his point of view across (none of which sound all that much of a cause for concern) about why he ‘missed your party’, the whole song seemingly the response to the piqued final verse where ‘she’ puts him down ‘in a whisper in a choir stall’ and probably didn’t think twice about – it’s very B+S that the narrator should come up with a whole wordy song full of excuses for a matter the ‘model’ doesn’t even seem to have noticed! The song is breathless and urgent, as if the narrator has a lot on his mind but isn’t quite up to addressing head on yet so what we get is a song that sounds like an admission of guilt but somehow ends up embracing many ‘old friends’ instead: ‘Lisa’ from ‘Dylan In The Movies’ and a few other songs making a cameo appearance. The end result is a story we don’t really understand, along with just enough hints to make it clear how ‘serious’ this song is underneath all the ‘fun’; the narrator’s drooping eyelids hinting at a return to life back in his ‘ill’ days and what sounds like a very final final line (‘It’s days and months before I see you again’) hinting at the turbulence hidden and misdirected in this song. Musically Murdoch and Jackson have never sounded better together, Jackson acting like the voice of reason to Murdoch’s increasingly histrionic narrator and the band put in another fine performance.
‘Beyond The Sunrise’ features Jackson again, singing in a much deeper, less natural way than usual playing the part of ‘Joseph’ to Sarah Martin’s ‘Mary’. Whilst the lyrics don’t mention Jesus or the act of immaculate conception and could indeed be a red herring, there is a musical feel here very like lonely wanderings down dusty desserts and an old fashioned turn of phrase that points to this being a biblical reference. Some fans hate this song for not doing very much at all – and it’s true that you do have to work at this song – but what’s there is lovely. A snatch of mellotron, a backwards electric guitar, chiming gongs and an acoustic guitar played so softly and gently that the ‘snatch’ at each new chord sounds deafeningly loud. Jackson and Martin cope well with Murdoch’s roleplay, Jackson making ‘Joseph’ far sadder and melancholic than the usual figure painted in the bible, unsure whether to take his wife’s story of ‘angels’ at face value and wondering ‘why me?’ at the big revelation to come (which never quite does in this song –it’s clearly set before Mary finds out she is pregnant), sizzled from drink and in ‘denial’ of Marty’s ‘saintly’ qualities, yet still deeply in love. The song has a real ‘cowboy’ flavour the band will milk further on ‘Storytelling’, with its lonely harmonica and features some truly lovely harmonies from Murdoch. Lyrically its unusual and a complete one-off for B+S – is Murdoch perhaps replaying the ‘Belle and Sebastian’ story as a biblical one, telling the story of a relationship that just had to be and has happened many times across the eons? (If so its notable that ‘Mary’ is presumably ‘Sebastian’ in this incarnation, ‘talking to the fairies’ or angels in this case, while Joseph is more practical – and its interesting that it should be in this of all periods that Murdoch tries to write a song from the ‘other’s perspective). I’m rather glad that B+S didn’t make this song the template for all their music to come (everything is so quiet it’s hard simply to decipher what is going on), but unlike most fans I rather admire this song, which tries something very different and does it rather well.
‘Waiting For The Moon To Rise’ is Campbell’s first song for the band (or is it Sarah Martin? See above...) which effectively kick-starts a prolific period that runs for the next ten years and only seems now to be beginning to run out of steam. As the only real place we get to hear Campbell and Murdoch singing together it should be significant – and yet apart from a rather vague sense of being unhappy and looking forward to a freer future there’s not much really happening compared to other songs on this album. The image of the ‘moon’ waiting to ‘rise’ once the more celebrated and brighter-burning ‘sun’ has finished his work is a strong one, however, surely a metaphor for life away from B+S as a band. There’s a strong third verse too where, aping Murdoch, Campbell realises her best chance of living the life she wants is only in her ‘dreams’ and so she refuses to give them up, sleeping on despite the tug of the light from the sun (the band?) trying to pull her back in again and closing her eyes tight. Listen out too for the first verse where the sun ‘creeps upon my shoulder’ – the sudden success of ‘Tigermilk’ after several years of failure for almost all the band members caught most of them by surprise (the first pressings only went up to 500 because the record label assumed it wouldn’t even sell that amount). Musically there’s a strong churning cello part (traditionally the part Campbell plays on B+S albums, although given the usual lack of credits goodness knows whose actually playing this part on the album!) that’s set against a rather irritating squeaking synthesiser, as if two completely separate worlds have opened in on each other and collided. A fascinating song, if not quite up to the best of the album.
‘Don’t Leave The Light On, Baby’ is another classic, a first-rate song about loneliness and isolation that – unusually for this album – makes no attempt to hide the sorrow at its centre. Murdoch starts off by singing that ‘it’s been a bloody stupid day’ and while he doesn’t elucidate why we can guess – the lover calling him to tell him not to ‘leave the light on, baby’ takes on a whole new significance when he adds that the pair are drifting apart and that she tells him ‘Don’t call me ‘love’ – don’t call me!’ Admitting that ‘I know I truly love her, but I’m wrong for her’ the narrator doesn’t know what to do – he really wants her back in his life and for things to go back to how they used to be, but he also knows that won’t make her happy. The closing verse then finally works out what to do: to ‘go down without a fight’, letting her fly without holding her back however much he misses her (its fitting that the music of this section should so strongly recall ‘Bless You’, John Lennon’s equally giving song to Yoko during his ‘lost weekend’ and heard on ‘Walls and Bridges’ – perhaps Beatlemaniac Stevie Jackson had been playing the album to Murdoch?) Moving in the extreme, Murdoch’s humble request to ‘forgive me for my honesty’ is forgiven – this is a tremendously adult picture of a relationship where neither party has done anything wrong but still go their spate ways. Musically this song is the perfect fit, a slow moving requiem for time gone by that’s dragged out to a slow pace but is nevertheless infused with tension throughout, sounding very much like the weary withdrawal in the song. Campbell, Martin and Jackson join in for some beautiful harmony parts that in this new context sound chilling and cold rather than possessing their usual warmth (which must have been especially hard for the former to sing) and Jackson in particular is on great form here, having never sounded sadder. One of the two truly great songs from this album (along with ‘Family Tree’), this song deserves to be much more widely known than it is nowadays.
‘The Wrong Girl’ by contrast isn’t poor, it’s just empty compared to what’s going on here. Jackson’s second song doesn’t quite have the originality of his first and he turns in a rather uncharacteristically poor vocal for it too, almost as if this is a ‘rehearsal’ take added to the album at the last minute. The song only has three verses, all of them short – which by B+S’ essay-standards (just see the ‘key lyrics’ above) is very short indeed and yet even these few lines don’t actually make sense even if they still fit the band’s loose theme of ‘the wrong kind’ of girl bringing the most out of the narrator and giving him confidence. At least the song has plenty of space for the band’s instrumentalists though, with solos for piano, keyboard and horn section that are quite effective and lots more B+S harmonies in full swing, Murdoch returning the favour on the last song by offering up the perfect harmonic foil to Jackson’s rather gruff lead. Ultimately, though, this is light relief on a very heavy and powerful album and so by the end of the record ‘The Wrong Girl’ ends up being rather overlooked, ‘the wrong kind’ not only for the simple, sweet narrator but for this record too.
‘The Chalet Lines’ is another song seemingly designed to make us uncomfortable, a more graphic and straightforward account of rape than on ‘You Made Me Forget My Dreams’ a few years before. Murdoch’s near-solo performance (accompanied by just a cello) is a tour de force, vulnerable but full of inner strength as he embodies the character of a girl taken advantage of who suffers even more in the aftermath, unable to connect with friends who expect her to get ‘over it’ or go to the police. Murdoch’s always been strong on details and there are many in this song, her face ‘like a smear on the windowpane’ of the bus she takes randomly to leave the place where it happened, the gap of time where ‘it happened a month ago but might have been yesterday’ events are so fresh in her mind, her graphic account of what she’d do to him if she met him again and her angry despairing comment on trying to get on with the rest of her life: ‘What’s the fucking point of all?’ There is no such place as ‘The Chalet Lines’, by the way, but there are hints that the ‘chalets’ are the little cabins in holiday places like Butlins or other holiday camps (‘I’ll have to leave the camp now, anyway), the irony being that a place connected with ‘fun’ and ‘carefree’ times can be the scene of such a life-changing crime. My only wish is that Murdoch had written a melody-line as strong as his lyrics, as the song tends to drift along, hesitantly stumbling, which makes the words hard to hear and understand and the song does tend to disappear musically hidden in between two of the catchiest songs on the record. Still, that shouldn’t take away from the power of both lyrics and performance which rate among Murdoch’s most moving and pioneering work, a requiem not so much for the event that occurred as for the changes the character knows it will bring in her life, robbing her of her childish innocence and filtering every stranger she meets from hereon in with the same suspicious gaze. Murdoch is good at writing for victims, but few ever had to endure as much as the character in this song.
‘Nice Day For A Sulk’, though, is probably the weakest song on the album. These three verses might be fuller and longer than Jackson’s three on ‘The Wrong Girl’, but by Murdoch’s standards he has no space to show off his usual eye for detail and ability to get into the skin of the people he writes about. A quiet day where nothing really happens and the narrator ‘sulks’ for ‘fun’ because he feels like it, this is clearly set in some rose-tinted past (hence the references to lots of past bands, although the only real link between ‘Manfred Mann’ and ‘The Jam’ is the rhyming of their names). The narrator is pursued by a girl with ‘horsey teeth’ who ‘smells of milk’ and gets discovered in ‘a cheapo bar with a bag of chips’ but nothing serious happens in the song – at least not until the final lines where Murdoch confronts the growing schism to come, commenting ‘Summer lasts forever when the band’s together’ and acknowledging it might not always be so. Musically this song tries so hard to be upbeat and charming that its’ actuallty rather charmless, the melody straining Murdoch’s voice to breaking point and the band adding a rather irritating three-way arrangement of lolloping piano, squeaky mellotron and peculiar synthesiser bleeps that sounds more like a day I’d want to forget than remember. A curiously empty and bland song on an album generally overflowing with ideas, it even fades in rather than being given a ‘proper’ start, as if the band couldn’t be bothered to think up a suitable part for it!
‘Women’s Realm’ sounds like its going to be a song where Murdoch finally makes good on the promise of the last few albums of writing a women’s lib song after several close shaves. However it’s another turbulent song about his relationship with Campbell that ends with him ‘sleeping better in a sleeping train in a shed in a station with a torch and a copy of woman’s realm to keep you warm’ than he does at home, worrying about what to say during the pair’s next phonecall to each other. Musically the song is similar to the title track of ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’, with a catchy rolling piano lick that’s nicely jazzy if surprisingly upbeat given some of the sentiments. Campbell sings a full verse of the song, interestingly the verse about trying to ‘compromise’, and their friends ‘growing up’ and settling down to have families which adds a new perspective on a song that’s really one long moan. Murdoch’s doesn’t keep the song personal though, he spreads it out to the universal by picturing ‘a town shut down’ for the weekend and yet one that still has ‘enough to do’ to mean he successfully delays the inevitable and decides ‘it’s too late to call you up’. Along the way there’s a classic Murdoch couplet oozing with discontent and injustice: ‘It would take a left-wing Robin Hood to pay for school while your dad’s a boozer and you keep him alive’. By the end of the song the narrator has turned to dancing for a bit of fun, but he gets there too late and the only people there are the cleaners he helps ‘clean up’, as if he’s now the responsible one unlike his friends. The key line in this song is at the beginning, though: after six years of ongoing conversations, with Murdoch writing his songs for ‘Belle’ aka ‘Campbell’ to hear he starts by saying that ‘I don’t care if you whether you hear this or if I’m alone here singing songs to myself’. Change is clearly on the cards...Less developed than most B+S songs, this is another tricky song to get a hold of but which makes much more sense when you know the B+S story, wrapped together with an infectious hook that successfully covers up the whole story of the lyrics in the first place.
After ‘Family Tree’ the ending of ‘Peasant’ is rather anti-climatic. ‘There’s Too Much Love’ is one last slab of guilt from Murdoch, ‘hanging about’ waiting for someone (presumably Campbell) to appear and getting crosser and crosser when she doesn’t appear. He says that’s she’s ‘angry’ with him in turn for being two-faced, but he never claimed to be any different to anyone else out there (‘underneath I am the same as you’) and besides is too brutally honest for his own good to be two-faced (‘I’m brutal, honest and afraid of you’). Murdoch has never sounded quite this unhinged, especially on the line ‘Just hope that you are on my side my dear’, while the title seems to be ironic, the ‘too much love’ coming from ‘her’ seeing other people and not from ‘him’ forgiving her as usual. The narrator is back to dancing as his greatest passion and escapism, but the significance here is that ‘dancing on his own’ seems pointless and that without a partner he might as well not bother. The music for this song is upbeat but angular, as if the narrator is stabbing at the notes rather than singing and even the usual B+S choir can’t soften the blow (especially as they’ve been mixed rather oddly and in the background – perhaps that’s to make Campbell sound like a ghost?) An unusually bleak ending, B+S will never again have this same sound of strings-and-brass and so this song is a ‘farewell’ in many ways, if not a fond one. Not the way the album should have ended, even if the sentiments make much sense of the other songs on the album.
Overall, then, Belle and Sebastian display all the talent they’d shown on their first three albums, but they’re distracted by the splits that have either arrived or are to come. Murdoch has spent so long talking about other people’s problems successfully that it’s rather odd to hear him sing about his own and yet there’s no doubting the brilliance of many of the lyrical couplets on this album. Five years on from the amazing ‘fairytale’ of B+S’ creation, however, the end of the story seems to be in sight and reality has crept into the story, with none of those involved quite sure whether to come clean and accept that this is a new, rawer, angrier band or sweep the whole thing under the carpet and carry on as before. If ‘Peasant’ occasionally over-reaches itself, though, and seems to be trying new things just for the sake of it then that doesn’t take away from the sheer bravery and verve of the band for attempting anything new at all and ‘Peasant’ has much going for it even if its not quite as consistent or as original as the albums before it. The album also has two real classics in ‘Don’t Leave The Light On, Baby’ and ‘Family Tree’ that more than make up for the occasional miss-fires, making this a very underappreciated record and one that’s been much misunderstood (if only because of the band’s reluctance to talk about the struggles that went into making it!) It’s sad to say goodbye to the band’s sound at all, of course, before the band go in quite a different, more commercial direction on their next few records (Murdoch perhaps recognising that without ‘Belle’ there’s no point in writing more ‘Sebastian’ songs to her for a while) but there are several great goodbyes on this record and more than a few interesting new directions to travel in. Fold your hands, reader, and say a prayer for this troubled album which tries to tell the tale of one of the biggest upsets that ever happened to at least two of the chief protagonists who worked on this album and yet which is still in such shock that it also tried to pretend that it never happened at all. Overall rating – 7/10
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