Friday 4 July 2008

Belle and Sebastian "Tigermilk" (1996) ('Core' Review #98, Revised Edition 2014)

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Belle and Sebastian "Tigermilk" (1996)

"The band might have hated being stars, but with music as powerful and captivating as this, B + S could never be anything but. For me, Stuart Murdoch is the most important writer of the past 15 years."

(Review first published July 2008; Revised edition first published July 23rd 2014)

Track Listing: The State I Am In/ Expectations/ She’s Losing It/ You’re Just A Baby/ Electronic Renaissance// I Could Be Dreaming/ We Rule The School/ My Wandering Days Are Over/ I Don’t Love Anyone/ Mary Jo (UK and US tracklisting)

'We made Tigermilk in five days. On the seventh day we rested - on the sixth we did our laundry'.

Of all the band-get togethers across Alan's Album Archives, this is my very favourite story: whilst most bands meet when they're young, at school or shortly after, and eventually break through thanks to clever managers or being in the right place at the right time or simple youthful enthusiasm, the Belle and Sebastian story is a real story of hope and talent overcoming bad luck, a last roll of the dice that actually worked several years past the point when most musicians have given up. Songwriter Stuart Murdoch has only discovered his many talents after seven hard years confined to bed, watching his friends and peers making their way in the world whilst worrying he's never ever get to join them, with the characters in his songs the only way he could 'experience' the world outside his room. His new girlfriend and cello player Isobel Campbell is tired of becoming merely the girlfriend to a successive host of musicians who won't let her anywhere near the band. Guitarist Stevie Jackson has been a member of several bands who nearly made it big, but always broke up on the verge of stardom. Drummer Richard Colburn has helped a whole number of promising auditonees record for a Glasgow University record label but never heard back from any of them once they moved on to other things. Bassist Stuart David is both disillusioned and unemployed. In 1995 most of them, Isobel aside, are pushing thirty: the age when rock stars are meant to stop and do something else, not begin a lifelong career. But Belle and Sebastian had too much talent to be stopped. All of them had by this stage given up on their dreams and tried to get on with their lives, with 'Tigermilk' made part-time on the back of a course that wasn't even for music students: but the message at the heart of most Belle and Sebastian records is that a good dream never dies and against all the odds all of them somehow find themselves in a group. And not just any group, but a great group with a writer as great as any writer that ever lived. Sure Murdoch's written his fair share of bad songs and had his share of bad ideas, but in these early days at least he rarely puts a foot wrong, making the twin Belle and Sebastian records of 1996 amongst the greatest ever made.

Stuart Murdoch's ever witty sleevenotes should be taken with a pinch of salt but usually have some truth in them. Murdoch's tale of the magical year that was 1995 on 'Tigermilk' is particularly revealing: they tell us in the third-person that 'Sebastian wrote all his best songs in 1995' and he's dead right: the songs written for the first two Belle and Sebastian albums are among the cleverest, funniest, warmest most poignant songs written by anybody. A whole series of characters recognisably living in the present day (and sometimes based on Isobel) are down on their luck, bullied, misunderstood or lonely, and Murdoch's powers of empathy are tremendous: every single one sounds like a 'rounded' character, drawn up in just a few simple sentences, all of them looking for a brighter tomorrow. It's a year Murdoch has returned to ever since (particularly on his 'God Help The Girl' film): the magic spell that saw his life change in an instant from illness and entrapment to people who shared his vision, loved his songs and encouraged him to grasp for the world.  The brilliance of this album and all the other early Belle and Sebastian recordings is that while these largely unhappy songs were written during a dark period full of illness and withdrawal, they're being recorded in a sudden rush of adrenalin, excitement and happiness as the band's dreams finally come true and that really changes the 'feel' of these songs. Yes each character is suffering, but there's a sense that there is a brighter tomorrow just around the corner, with a band sound that's quite unlike that delivered by any other band.

'It's got to be fate that's doing it': The Belle and Sebastian story, clearly, was meant to be and made by some super-power somewhere (something that must have occurred to Stuart Murdoch somewhere along the line too, seeing as he was working part-time as a caretaker and living over a Glasgow Church when most of the following events took place, his 'home' when he returned to University). Had Stuart never been poorly with m.e. (something we'll return to in a bit) then he'd have probably never turned to writing as his way of connecting with the outside world he could no longer be a part of and as the only thing that made his days brighter; although a fan of music the closest he'd ever come during his eighteen years of health was a bit of DJ-ing during his 'first' time at university. Had Glasgow not had an unemployment youth training scheme named 'Beatbox' (where 'Electronic Renaissance' was recorded) - which was meant by the Government more as a punishment for the unemployed to keep them off the streets and never intended to be a way for indie musicians to form bands - Belle and Sebastian might never have got together, with Stuarts Murdoch and David discovering their shared, similar ambitions while at a cafe across the road. Had Stuart not got better when he did the pair might never have met - and he almost certainly wouldn't have met Isobel during one of his first days returning to Glasgow University in the queue for the toilets at a gig by V-Twin, where he discovered a musical soulmate who encouraged him to form a band (that group's bassist Bobby Kildea will later be in Belle and Sebastian too). And Belle and Sebastian might still never have existed had Alan Rankine not decided to leave ‘The Associates’ (who were having an OK career in the 1960s) and made the about-turn to become a lecturer, setting up his own label for student releases as part of the 'music' department and giving a listen to the band's 'Beatbox' demo tape even though strictly speaking none of the musicians were on that course (Stuart was, we think, taking English; some sources say Business Studies). Even that last point has one whopping big 'if' about it: none of the music teachers I had would have dedicated so much time and effort to releasing an album by a band who weren't even on the music course at the university, even if they had their own established music label that released one single a year. After all, the demo tape the band gave Rankine (some of which appears on the 'Dog On Wheels' EP in 1997, although the rest has all since been bootlegged) is wonderful in retrospect but far rougher and less original than the album 'Tigermilk' became: while evidently talented, I'm not sure I'd have been the one to tell that year's music class they'd been beaten to that year's sole release ('the student label 'Electric Honey' only ever made one record a year) by a student they didn't know and his friends who were all brought in from outside the university. Like many of the best music stories, from The Beatles on down, there are just too many coincidences for you to think it wasn't meant to be by somebody somewhere.

The band were given the go-ahead for a whole record - the only trouble was, they weren't really a 'band'. Stuart had kept in contact with his Beatbox classmate Stuart David and encouraged him to play bass, so that was sorted. Mick came from Beatbox too to lend a hand. Isobel has her cello on campus which gave the album much of its classical feel. For the rest of the band Murdoch looked towards the people who were actually on the campus grounds despite never having met them before: they included Chris Geddes, a talented teenage keyboard player who was studying a different course too (numerology?!) and Richard Colburn, a mature student who was interested in young bands and helped out on many of the University demos (as not many other students could afford full-time drummers). Rankine also recommended Stevie Jackson, whose band 'The Moondials' had also released a single on 'Electric Honey' and who had been expected to be huge himself, until a sudden band split left his jobless - even so, it took several requests for him to get involved and he eventually acquiesced on the condition that he was helping to make just the one record. With the band in place Belle and Sebastian had a few quick rehearsals at Stuart's strangely understanding church (Richard was his new flatmate there) and then set off to record the entire album. 

So, 'Tigermilk' (named after an instrumental taped at the sessions but never used, becoming the first of only a handful bona fide Belle and Sebastian outtakes) is an extraordinary album made in extraordinary circumstances. Even more astonishing than the circumstances behind it, however, is the circumstances behind it's recording. Belle and Sebastian had a grand total of five days to record this album in the canteen and even they weren't full days (the band had to break for 'lunch' when the rest of the university came in). They even lost the first of those days when attempts to perform the songs as 'backing tracks' with overdubbed vocals fell apart - the band, low on rehearsal time, simply didn't know the songs well enough until Murdoch stepped aside from his guitar and piano and sang guide vocals instead. The result was bleary, ragged and ramshackle, but equally exciting, brilliant and daring. The sounds that only ever existed in Murdoch's head - and which had gone down rather badly during an aborted attempt as a solo singer in Glasgow bars - sounded great when backed by an actual 'band'. At this stage they'd known each other months at best, weeks in the case of Richard and Chris. And yet one of the greatest things about 'Tigermilk' is the ensemble playing: the guitar-piano-bass-drums backing is tight and powerful (especially the criss-crossing guitar battle on 'You're Just A Baby'), the string section powerful and already integral to the sound (featuring Isobel on Cello but not yet Sarah Martin - she joins on the next album) and Mick Cooke (for now technically a 'guest' in case joining B and S interfered with his work for other, 'bigger' local bands) already a star on trumpet. Together with Stuart's voice and - occasionally - Stevie's, Belle and Sebastian already have a sound quite unlike any other band; poignant, vulnerable and smoky, as filled with grim city soot as Glasgow city centre and the hopelessness of a generation brought up on Tory-sponsored job closures and dead-ends (John Major is at the end of his time in office, with the 'long term optimism' of the album shared by many bands counting down the days till he's out of office in 1997) and a toughness other 'Indie' bands of the day didn't possess (especially on this, Belle and Sebastian's feistiest album), but also a feeling that there is a rainbow somewhere for discovery by the characters one day.

The band still weren't hailed as future musical stars yet, though. Legend has it that Murdoch got round the extra time taken to make the album by presenting the results as part of his 'business studies' coursework and promised to come up with a great plan to promote it, which was after all what he was actually meant to be studying at the time! Luckily, once again, fate was kind: Stuart David had the perfect solution on how to sell a record by an unknown local band nobody outside Glasgow had heard of: he'd come across the internet. That seems an obvious solution now, in the 21st century, but the internet was something very few people could access in 1995 and fewer really knew how to work. Luckily, however, the few pioneers who did were statistically quite likely to be young, trendy and into listening to and buying albums by young cult bands who didn't have any records out in the shops and the record sold out quickly. Even Record Collector Magazine, by far the most respected music journal of its day in Britain, were intrigued enough to cover the story and report what a fine album it was - which was where I came in (Record Collector never ever recommended anything recorded later than about 1978, so when a 'new' band  got that much fuss you knew it had to be good). History has never recorded just what Belle and Sebastian got for their project, but if they didn't get an A* - for their business skills if not their music - then the whole education system needs a re-haul.

Luckily for us, 'Tigermilk' was released - and immediately became the highest profile record the University's label had ever had thanks to scores of early internetters who fell in love with the band (though the University had a good run across the next few years, with Snow Patrol not far behind). oweverLucYes, fans look back now and wonder why an album this good by a band so clearly going places wasn't released with a bigger publicity blitz and scratch their heads over its 'limited edition release' of 1000 copies - but at the time Belle and Sebastian had given up trying to make music a career individually; they were just doing it for the sheer joy of meeting up with like-minded people. After all, the university wasn't interested in what they were doing in music terms: while the band (never ones for talking) have always been vague about this period it seems from reading round the subject that the band were only allowed to release this record because it would give them a chance to learn 'business skills'. In other words, it was the 'promotion' of the album that was the key, not the creating of it (you sense that Murdoch's actual tutor probably didn't even listen to the record). What I've never understood about this story is why this has never happened again: since writing my first draft of this review way back in 2008 we've had one of the worst global financial meltdowns and more under-25s out of work globally than in any other period. So where is the access to courses like Beatbox and Glasgow University's music scheme? Surely all it takes is a tape recorder, a mixing desk, a couple of microphones and a tutor sensitive enough to recognise talent and that's several great new bands formed and off the streets already, at a fraction of the price of other 'rehabilitation' schemes. Belle and Sebastian are evidence of the untapped potential that's always been there in every generation and here, in 2014, this article seems like a good place to moan that it's all being thrown away (if nothing else it's better than paying money to a company with too much anyway to hire a person for free 'work placements' that in older times would simply have been hired properly and paid a wage; with practices like these the UK will never ever get out of debt in my lifetime).

Even more remarkable than all of this is, for me, is that Stuart Murdoch (writer, for now, of every song on the album) managed to write that well about the world outside his house when he was in a position of barely leaving it, having not even begun to start writing until a few years before. Those of you who are regulars to the Alan's Album Archives site or have been kind enough to be-friend me after reading one of my articles will know that all of these AAA books have been written while I have been suffering from M.E., like Stuart between 1987 and 1995 (otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome', but it's a minefield whether they're the same illness or two separate ones and what we call it, so we'll leave it there for now). I was a Belle and Sebastian fan long before I was poorly and adored their music on face value anyway (especially 'Tigermilk', part of my top ten albums by anyone anywhere from the beginning), but having been through something close to what Murdoch must have been through I'm astonished at what he was able to achieve. One of the things about this illness that's hard to explain to 'outsiders' is how isolated this illness makes you feel: you can't go out to see people, they can't often come round to see you without you cancelling at the last minute and because your body sleeps when (and most importantly if!) it wants to, you tend to life your life quite differently to other people (the bulk of this website has been written between 11pm and 6am when the world is peaceful and still and doesn't keep disturbing me for one reason and another). As a result, the music I write about often seems like my only link to the 'real' world which is partly why I write as much and as often as I do (escapism is a common thing I've found; the same is true for fellow sufferer Laura Hillenbrand, author of 'Seabiscuit', who wrote her book one painful hour per day while imagining the freedom of being on a horse she knew she'd never ride again while ill). The outside world just doesn't exist anymore, except through the titbits gifted to you by passing friends, family and my extended twitter family - and Stuart didn't even have the last of those back in 1995. And yet to my ears no other writer managed to observe and reflect on the outside world as well as Murdoch, a writer who couldn't even experience that world firsthand.

Dreams are, understandably given the circumstances, a key part of this album. In a practical sense, that's all Stuart can do (this illness involves lots and lots of sleeping) while in a philosophical sense it's all he has left. 'The State I Am In' is offered to us as an actual 'dream' ('which stayed with me all day in 1995'), a staggering collection of surreal images and modern-day pressures of the modern world. 'You're Just A Baby Girl' sounds like Stuart bidding goodbye to Isobel before going back to sleep, worrying about the pair's age gap (she's 19, he's 28 - although effectively Isobel is more or less the age he 'was' when he was when he first got ill - that's why so many of Murdoch's early characters are still at school or at college, because that's the last part of the world he 'remembers'). 'I Could Be Dreaming' is a rare outing that leaves Stuart wondering why he's bothering (chances are he's being 'forced' to go to one of those waste-of-time jobcentre appointments where you have to tell someone with no medical background that, no, your long-term condition that's statistically likely to get worse and kill you one day really hasn't changed for the better since you saw them a fortnight ago, honest), when he could be back home in bed resting. The song even has a chorus all about asking the question 'if you had such a dream, would you get up and do the things you've been dreaming?' (nothing lets you realise how much time you waste in life than an illness where time and energy are precious and you don't are risk a second of them). 'I Could Be Dreaming' features Isobel - for now in her only major appearance on the album - reading out an extract from 'Rip Van Winkle', the man who went to sleep for a hundred years and woke up to find the world completely changed (similar to how Murdoch must have felt when he was finally well enough to go back to University). Finally, 'Mary Jo' may well be Stuart himself, at the end of his illness, with the mixed feeling that he's survived it and got lucky and that 'it's someone else's turn to go through Hell' and that now he's the 'strong' friend there as a 'strong' shoulder-to-cry on for the old friends who were off leading their own lives but have now been made redundant/got divorced/left at the altar. Notably she 'doesn't want to sleep and who can blame her?' - presumably Stuart never wanted to sleep again after so many years confined to bed.

Now, not many people who have M.E. ever talk about it: the media treatment of sufferers is shameful (especially in Britain and the US, who are a good 50 years behind the rest of the world, mainly thanks to a few 'quack' psychiatrists put in 'charge' of it in Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's day when they 'feared' m.e. was something their policies had caused and might leave them liable to prosecution). Belle and Sebastian hardly ever talk full stop, although they do a lot more now than back in 1995 (another reason why the invention of the internet was good timing: it saves on endless interviews, although the band did have a big 'launch party'  - where most passing students used spare copies of the record as Frisbees!) So we'll never know for sure how much of this album and the ones beyond it were 'influenced' by the illness - and yet it undeniably has some sort of an impact on this album. As well as the 'clues' above there's at least one song that's definitely about the illness: the world-weary 'My Wandering Days Are Over'. This sounds like Stuart (famous, now, for his long walks and love of jogging and I see no reason to think that didn't start earlier) 'six months on' from catching his illness and finding that so many sections of his old life are 'over': his 'wandering' days, his 'bip-bopping' days, even his friendships (all his mates had gone back to uni to finish their courses) are over, replaced by literally 'the space between your bed and the wardrobe with the Louvre doors': no wonder Stuart describes himself as a 'circus boy' getting lonely and left behind in an alien environment when the circus leaves town, the only person left not at the grind of coursework or job work but suffering a fate where he'd gladly swap with either. There may also be a pun on 'wondering', as Stuart's days of lying in bed wondering what will happen to him are just beginning: unable for the most part to read, exercise, see friends or even watch TV without side effects and used to lying down in the dark for long periods of nothing, there isn't much left for your brain to do. The last, more helpful verse may have been written later, when Belle inspired him to become more than just a 'one man band' and the entire second half of the song sounds like the sun coming out after you thought you would never see it again.

As an aside, the confusing title - and even more confusing album cover - make more sense when you learn that a 'tiger milk energy bar' is what Stuart used to have imported from America by a friend as one of many aborted attempts to get well (considering how little is known about this illness, it's amazing how many millions of people al have their own ideas of a 'cure' - and how desperate you are in trying them, at first). He was asked this as a question  on the band website and admits that it was an idea in the back of his mind  which he'd 'forgotten', which makes you wonder what the 'main' source of the title was. Is it about growing healthier due to inner strength (as per the tiger?) Is it taking strength by feeding off someone with more to 'give' than you (as the narrator spends most of his time on this album offering 'comfort' to his characters). The title is taken literally on the cover, where one of Stuart's greatest friends during his illness Joanne appears with a tiger finger-puppet attached to her bosom. Stuart himself shot the photograph for an 'imaginary' album cover the pair discussed together and an outtake exists of Stuart himself topless and sitting in the bath taken by Joanne! (She also appears, younger, on the cover of the 'Dog In Wheels' EP).

However, it would be wrong to assume that most of this album is autobiographical: for now at least, it isn't and 'Tigermilk' is populated by all sorts of characters who are remarkably three-dimensional for such a 'new' writer. For Stuart Murdoch, never previously a writer, m.e. gave him the space and time to wonder what his friends were up to, ruminate endlessly on his own past (an easier thing to do when your present hurts and you feel like you have no future; that might be why Belle and Sebastian are named after a French children's series about a boy and his dog by Cecile Aubrey, often shown on British TV) and draw his own conclusions from the titbits he heard around him. While he was (remarkably, actually, after seven long years with m.e.) healthy for most other Belle and Sebastian albums, 'Tigermilk' was almost all written in his bed, full of eulogies for the friends working shit shifts for low wages, his memories of the school rebels thrown out for not fitting through the round holes of the school system and now struggling in the adult world and his own dashed dreams. There are lots of great lyrical ideas on this album: the grand town hall with so many steps that it seems distance to most working class Glaswegians and where walking up it feels like a journey even without m.e. and yet 'for every step there's a local boy who wants to be a hero'; there's the girl who 'wants to be remembered for her art' but finds herself in a low-paid Saturday job being 'felt up' but unable to complain to anybody; the kind soul who 'gets married in a rush to save a kid from being deported' only to find she's in love with someone else; the unspoken body language that says 'yes' when all of a girl's words say 'no' and leaves him feeling profoundly confused. All of these are remarkably spot-on observations and yet it took a twenty-something who was never well enough to get a 'proper' job to step back and see the bigger picture and put his finger on what is wrong with the hopelessness of the big, bad world. No wonder the song 'We Rule The School' ends with the gorgeous line 'you know the world was made for men - and not us'. 'Tigermilk' is a glorious album full of support and sympathy for anyone whose ever felt left behind by a world that didn't care.

Elsewhere there's a half-theme of quiet rebellion, heard on most future B and S albums but particularly here. The characters here stand up for their rights after years of being wronged and bullied and confined, but they do so without any great showcases or placard-waving and simply by proving the universe 'wrong'. This theme, too, clearly comes partly from the m.e. (given that it's such a misunderstood illness with so much of the public still misinformed about it, you lose a lot of friends and relationships the hard way while having more time on your hands to imagine what your life will be like post-illness gives you more chances for saying 'I'll show you jobcentre lady/fairweathered friend/guy in the street, just wait till I'm better I'll....') 'Expectations' grimly bites it's teeth in the face of ignorant teachers, classmates and headmasters who all they think they know best, but does it with a real determination to see things through. 'She's Losing It' starts and ends with a character withdrawing, not speaking to anyone till '4 o'clock' and drowning, but in between features rebellion in the form of a lesbian affair that brings too much hope to both partners for it to ever be 'wrong' the way they are told. 'I Could Be Dreaming' is a song of murder, even if it's only murder that takes place in the narrator's head,  as he becomes tired of being pushing around. 'We Rule The School' comes up with the ultimate act of quiet rebellion from people who are told they'll never amount to anything: 'Do something pretty while you can'. 'My Wandering Days Are Over' sighs as a 'sexy witch' comes to lure the narrator out of bed against his will: 'It's got to be fate that's doing it' he sighs as he prepares himself for yet another fight. 'I Don't Love Anyone' rejects everyone and everything (except the narrator's siblings), but doesn't actually tell anyone - mainly because 'you're not listening' but also because the narrator has made his mind up to ignore them all and do his own thing. 'Mary Jo' finally rebels by finding a sense of peace and a realisation that the narrator got through his problems and can payback by supporting his friends. 'The State I Am In' is the odd song out here: the realisation that those 'dreams' might not happen, when to you going out to Marks and Spencers turning books around and riding on a bus seems like a triumph but to everyone else it's 'sad'. But, seeing as it's at the start, even this song makes sense: this is a series of characters learning to go beyond their own small world full of insurmountable odds and somehow beating them; in context the fact that the narrator of the last songs rejects the book named 'The State I Am In' written in the first track ('it didn't help at all!') might be more about the narrator changing his state of mind: he's big enough to fight the world on his own terms now, even if he doesn't win, no longer afraid to be himself.

'Tigermilk' is a near-perfect debut album. It has lots of new things to say, lots of new ways to say them and says them with a winning mix of confident and spirited performances that are both impressively tight for such a new band with such a new sound and winningly ramshackle, the perfect 'real' accompaniment to songs about 'real' sounding people. Frankly, I'm astonished that a record this could can exist with so much going against it: few people without knowing would listen to this record and think it was recorded by an inexperienced songwriter with a band thrown together quickly for a label designed solely as a showcase for a University in a canteen across five days. 'Tigermilk' is too universal, too rounded, too mature, too clever, too...perfect for that. Which makes this album, one of the most special and loved records in my collection, the closest I can come to believing in miracles, magic or the almighty. Other fans rate other albums higher: follow-up 'If You’re Feeling Sinister' regularly appears on top 100 album best-ofs even if the public in general have never even heard of it and later Belle and Sebastian albums such as 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress and 2006’s The Life Pursuit were so successful they even went top ten briefly - but it’s this low-key album, with its first great flowering of talent and possibilities, which wins the Belle and Sebastian crown hands down for me. Debut albums seem to score highly on our site anyway, records full of that wonderful feeling of knowing what you want to say and finally getting the chance, often after years in the wilderness, to say it—a case truer for this album, which in songwriting terms was years in the making, than most. Even by this site's standards 'Tigermilk' is a special album that realistically speaking should never have turned out a millionth as well as it does. Perhaps, ultimately, that's because 'Tigermilk' was recorded not for the money or the fame or the screaming girls; it was written as something to do and to keep a connection to  a world when there wasn't one and recorded simply for fun, to stick on the shelf to dust occasionally and reminisce over and to get a few marks in a college project. It wasn’t intended as a ‘proper’ release at all, but the fact that 'Tigermilk' already sounds so professional and sets out so many of the benchmarks of B and S’ low-key but energetic material is nothing short of staggering, the sound of a group who already everything they need for a career in music in place without knowing it yet. There are many great albums out there - we'll be talking about a lot of them later on - but 'Tigermilk' is special, the moment when a lifetime of bad luck, illness and hopelessness gets turned on its head into art, music and magic fairy dust. The kind of album that happens only once a generation or so, 'Tigermilk' is still under-rated today (the general public never did get to hear it until as late as 1999) and can never be recommended highly enough. One of the ten greatest AAA albums of all time without any question.

The Songs:

As early as track one, it becomes clear that Murdoch is that rare thing of the 1990s: a new important voice with something original to say. His lonely, frail falsetto sings [2b] 'The State I Am In’s opening couplet more or less a capella before the band gradually kick in one by one. Any album that starts with the line ‘I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975’ shows right away that it doesn’t take its own overwhelming seriousness too, err, seriously. And yet this is a song of real sadness and loneliness, a narrator pushed so far over the edge in a confused world that all of the usual touchstones other people believe in are topsy-turvy. He got married not for love but to save a friend from 'being deported' whose since fallen in love with somebody else. He hides his sexuality from his family, scared of their re-action rather than finding them nurturing. He finds himself kicking away the crutches his friends lean on. He turns to religion and finds God doesn't want him either. He turns everywhere and nowhere, running round and round in circles trying to find solace in something but all he can do is sigh, wearily, over 'the state that I am in'. The traditional cornerstones of traditional life seem to be blown wide apart on this track’s lyric: marriage, religion, sexuality, unemployment: everything that used to seem secure in the old world is changing but only the narrator seems to be noticing or particularly caring about any of this. By the end of the song things are no better - the narrator has escaped  out of his own trapped head but only onto a bus that also goes round and round in circles, with no destination in mind, while he sits on it feeling 'dangerous' ('sinister' is Murdoch's later word for the same meaning). There's a moment of mourning near the beginning of the song when the narrator realises just how alone he really is, when he's joined by the most aching longing guitar lick in history that makes you put your arms around the speakers to comfort the narrator that it's all going to be ok.

And yet this is not an altogether sad song. Murdoch is laughing at himself here, mocking his blues by having a priest write down his life story and reading it back to a congregation as a sign of what not to do and his own driftless life turning books round in Marks and Spencers because he has nothing better to do ('they don't seem to mind'). Trapped in tragedy, all Murdoch can do for escape is turn this song into a comedy. As early as this first track on the first album, Belle and Sebastian have already put into place their career-long and pretty much unique method of passing off their comedy lyrics with tunes and delivery full of such pathos and solemnity that you can’t do anything but treat the song as serious prose. 'The State I Am In’s  breathtaking journey, rattled off in long expressive verses in a seemingly offhand way, positively weep with unfulfilled longing, with the narrator trying to do the best thing by all the people he knows—but finding that this outlook too is being swept aside by the new guard and his support for others (such as his marriage to beat the deportation board) just gets him into more trouble with others suspicious of his motives. This feeling of utter confusion is then doubled when matched against a typically wide-reaching melody that bounces from major to minor keys, echoing its protagonists journey from saint to sinner and his confusion as to which actions make him which. Murdochs’ detached vocal rises above it all with a sleepy contempt, but  even this makes it clear that he’s an angel – or at least it would if the rough edges were taken out of the song but that is kind of the point I suppose, the narrator tries hard to be seen as an angel but there’s always something uncomfortable about how other people views his moral code and his beliefs in how to live his life. Either way, Murdoch’s charismatic if uncertain leads make many of these early songs special, with their gorgeous quiet timbre that nicely echoes his often uncertain characters, and all of this goes double for this track which features one of his best vocals of all. In short, everything about 'The State I Am In' works well and the result is a terrifically constructed album opener that slowly sucks you in and layer by layer grabs your attention despite its low key status. Murdoch could have written just this one song and I'd still have him down as the single best interpreter of 1990s society.

[5] 'Expectations' turns the screws up even more, with its down and out character made to choose between a miserable academic future filled with rules and bullies or a miserable future working without any qualifications in a low paid job at a supermarket chain (with ‘Doris as your supervisor’, we’re told off hand, implying these jobs are all the same). The nameless character’s obsession with underground music like The Velvet Underground and art gives her a reputation for being an outsider, something she is very proud of, but everyone else around her seems to despair over the fact or take advantage of her friendless state to manipulate her. The very people she appeals to when picked on then abuse her by looking up her skirt suggesting that she has a lifetime of these problems to come and it won't end when she leaves school Its missing from the lyric sheet (quite a few key B and S lyrics are), but the closing lines ‘think of me as a friend, not just a boy who plays guitar’ shows where Murdoch’s sentiments lie as a songwriter, though Murdoch's vocal for this one is actually quite scary, matter-of-fact, a shoulder shrug of contempt urging her to get on with things. Talking of changed lyrics, the original line for the opening couplet - often sung live - is even more damning and full of poignant helplessness: 'Monday morning wake up knowing that you've got to go to school, mum says she had little choice when she was young, so why should you?' So that's alright then: the whole point of this song is to not have any expectations because everyone else has lowered their sights a long time ago. A brilliant mournful mariachi trumpet cry from Mick Cooke seems to be the girl's only companion, a warm human sound against the icy cold blasts of the strings picking away at her. The song builds up to a frenetic pace, as obstacle upon obstacle is placed on the girl’s shoulders, gradually allowing things to spiral out of control with a typical period Belle and Sebastian sound of, well, 'losing it' bit by bit. The narrator’s urgent refrain that soon this time will pass and the girl will grow up to be the proudest and possibly the sanest of her gang of peers gives the song an uplifting edge that takes it away from the bleeding melancholia epic it could have been though, blending with the triumphant horn riff that finally knocks the legs out from under those whining strings. Maybe she was right to have 'expectations' after all.

Both horns and strings are working overtime again on [6] 'She’s Losing It', the first appearance of one of Murdoch’s favourite characters Lisa and varies between talking about her misery or that of her friend Chelsea. They're the sort of kids who were bullied at school for being different but are remembered as 'cool' once those kids become adults in retrospect - when it's too late to do any good. The song is unusual for Murdoch in that the melody sounds at times as if he's laughing at them: it has that brisk quick-stepping melody line that usually comes accompanied by a 'hahaha'. Some of the lyrics too are more akin to a comedy: Chelsea 'loses it' from the moment she wakes up and her day gets worse, while even her cup of coffee to get her going fails and tastes like 'washing up'. More serious are later lines that are still laugh-sung in the same way: she's always looking 'for a fight' and she can't bear to talk to anybody till 4pm because her day is so horrible. Once again a Mick Cooke trumpet part offers support, perhaps Lisa's words of comfort to her friend - and potential lover (both of them leave for 'another school - where the boys go with boys and the girls with girls'. Which could just be an all-gender school. unusual as they were by 1995, but a later line laughs 'who needs boys when there's Lisa round?) Somehow, though, despite the very silly nature of much of this song there's still a weight and sympathy there as Murdoch doesn't just join in with the laughter of the outside world at their 'unusual' relationship but instinctively understands it too and the solace of being with the one person who truly understands your misery. The song rounds off with mocking cries of 'she's losing it', but somehow that last twirl sounds more triumphant somehow, as if the outside world might still not 'get' this couple but having found each other they don't really care. 

 [7] 'You’re Just A Baby' is more simplistic than the other tracks on the album but just as brilliant, the proof already that Belle and Sebastian are more than just twee indie balladeers (sorry, I said I promised I wouldn't use that word...) This is nothing short of one of the best garage rockers out there, based around a simplistic riff that takes in everything from The Beatles' 'Paperback Writer' to Nirvana and most unusual for Murdoch especially in this period: fiery, tough and macho. 'You're just a baby girl' he slurs in his best pick-up line voice as Stevie's reverb-filled guitar flies for the first time. However even here this song is deeper than at first appears. On release this sounded like a boy watching his younger partner leave for 'school', dreaming of a time when they can be together while knowing in his heart that it will never be - that she will surely meet someone her own age and 'be married in the morning'. Now that we know about Stuart's m.e. and his growing relationship with Isobel in this period it seems more likely that he was writing one of his first songs about their relationship - perhaps even intending this song to come out sounding like her beloved Buffalo Springfield (I can see this tune starting as 'Rock and Roll Woman') and that he was actually 'waving her off' to college, not school while he went back to bed for rest (although the song is ambiguous enough for her to be collecting her kids from school the way it's written). In a sense, then, this is Murdoch's first semi-autobiographical song (assuming for now that he didn't really have a [1] ‘Dog On Wheels' though that one seems 'real' too) and may have started life as a jokey, jovial song akin to 'She's Losing It' - as if he was playing up to the part of someone whose just pulled a hot chick eight years his junior when, actually, the reality was he was ill and heading back to bed. Things change for the middle eight though, which somehow finds the pulsating, lustful riff put back firmly back in it's box. This is a meeting of soulmates and isn't something to laugh at: 'there must be some reason' sighs Murdoch, for the looks they gave, the things he's never said to anyone else and he appears to ask fate what it's planning: surely this love is meant to be? As if to signal that the Heavens organised it all, this is followed by a pulsating gospelly church organ which chimes in with the guitars, Murdoch's bodily urges now reflected by higher, spiritual ones. Even then, though, it feels like there are danger signs at play: both partners at different times 'lose their head', unsure if the relationship is really for them but apparently hiding it from the other, thinking they can't see. After all, agreeing to be with a partner who doesn't appear to have much of a future and is too weak to share many of the life tasks with you is a daunting prospect for anyone, especially someone still in their teens. For all this song's joy and exuberance at having finally found the person they think they're looking for, there's a lot of worry hiding in the fringes of this song also. More mainstream than most early numbers in the B and S canon, it's a shame they never really returned to this form of frenzied 1960s pop ([60] 'Legal Man' comes closest) as they certainly have a 'feel' for it.

[8] 'Electric Renaissance' is by contrast such a peculiar hard-to-love lump of a song that it sounds woefully out of place here, especially coming at the halfway stage of the album as the last track on side one. So out of kilter with the rest of B and S’ output is this song that it’s hard to believe it’s by them at all: a noisy fully fledged 1980s disco experiment, it sounds more Neanderthal than renaissance period and just goes to show how even the most talented people seem to lose all sense of judgement when they are let loose with a synthesiser (to fellow Beatles anoraks: does this track remind you of ‘Two Virgins’ or ‘Electronic Sounds’ at all?!) The song makes more sense when you learn it's the earliest Murdoch recording we have, made pretty much solo during his time at the 'Beatbox' jobcentre course, painstaking day after painstaking day, as before he had his own band he tried to build up his own through multiple overdubs on a computer synth he's still learning how to play. For anyone who never did get to try one in the 1990s (they were expensive and only classrooms really had them) they were impossible things to play: you couldn't do jazz or rock, as every note you played in had to be precise right down to the quarter-notes or nothing would synchronise properly - you weren't allowed a sense of 'swing' unless you were a musical genius who could be a fraction out every time you added an overdub. On a ballad that's hard enough, but on a track this fast it's near impossible to get right. Murdoch then does enough to achieve the impossible but both as a song and a recording this isn't up to the other tracks on the album and suffers from a wishy-washy sound (which was deliberate: this track was Murdoch's first ever to be played on the radio as part of a local radio show named 'Beat Patrol' demonstrating 'young talent' and he was so thrilled he taped the show onto cassette and carried it around with him, substituting the clarity of his original recording with the second-generation copy he taped off air).  As for the website mandatory over-view of the song’s lyrics, this track seems to ape club culture (something that won't return to Murdoch's songwriting till 2015) in a typically half-sympathetic half-mocking way, although the only observation up to Murdoch’s usual wit is the line about the character being told by half his friends to stop dancing and get back to work – while the other half tell him to stop working and take up dancing for a living. Given his years of being stock-still and hemmed in, you can forgive him this moment of exuberance as he tries to become 'human' again after feeling like a robot, stiff and unable to dance. Personally, like all things linked to the ‘clubbing culture’, this song seems shallow, false, lifeless, over-long, boring, miserable, confusing, pointless and ultimately a complete waste of time, money and effort. Which might be one reason why I don’t get invited out very often anymore.

[9] 'I Could Be Dreaming' gets things back on track with another terrific guitar riff – this time a duel between two in the far left and right speakers and some weird electronic bleeps that seem to have walked in off a Dr Who set. This latest character is again being brow-beaten by society, with the song reflecting on the lost opportunities of those in the narrator’s class of ‘ordinary people’ (I use the term ironically as in the song – as is made clear, there is no such thing as ordinary people – and if there are these small minority people are extraordinary and therefore the whole statement is a paradox capable of disrupting the time continuum. Or something like that, I forget) and all the things the narrator himself could have become, imagining himself as a spy or a killer. A sort of update of Paul Simon’s 'My Little Town' this song is just as bleak and nasty and downright hopeless as in the S and G original, but the B and S version is less ‘film noiry’ and more realistic and layered. Indeed, this song could rightfully be declared ‘technicolour’, with lots of things whizzing past your ear to grab your attention, perhaps pointing to the lost potential and creativity being lost to class wars in the song and the lack of showcases for the creatively minded. However the shimmering guitar which overlaps between the left and right speakers feels like a parallel universe breaking through, a vision of what life could be as the narrator tries to will it into materialising – this may also be Stuart, sick in bed, trying to ‘will’ his life into being, as so many people wrongly think you can with chronic illnesses. This song is also, clearly, about Murdoch struggling to get his life back together and embrace his life again after years of being bed-bound. But what is there to embrace? The outside world he's been dreaming about seeing for so long is awful: families 'pointed like a loaded gun' about to go off, feeling 'hunted' by the people around him, watching a victim of domestic abuse and wishing he could kill their attacker and sensing all the distress and unfulfilled longing in the outside world.  He feels like a spy, too, observing things afresh about human nature other people are too blasé to notice. At least when Stuart was back in bed he could 'dream' that life would be better than this and the reality is a shock. No wonder the backing track is one of the most claustrophobic of all of Belle and Sebastian's recordings, with a Murdoch and Jackson guitar duel where they set out to out-grunge and out-bully each other (more shades of Buffalo Springfield here!), glorious inspired drumming from Richard Colburn who does everything he can to pummel joy into this song, alternating drum by drum as he moves his way round the kit and Geddes keyboards that chirp along trying to keep up. Considering that Belle and Sebastian as a band are just weeks old (if months old as an idea), their performance here is extraordinary. This song is desperate and hurting, the shimmering guitars the sound of a dream that's about to disappear altogether if the narrator can't find some hope in the world and catch hold of them for dear life. Suddenly at the end it all comes right: Murdoch’s sudden rise in passion on the excited line of inspiration ‘when your head is filled’ literally spills over into the song as he realises the answers he was waiting for 'outside' for so long really come from 'inside' and that now inspiration is overflowing. Suddenly we hit a cascading fountain of la-la-las as all the violence and aggression of the song gives way, finally, to hope, this time moved from a minor key to a major one. Isobel then makes her only appearance on this debut album reciting lines picked at random from the folk tale 'Rip Van Winkle' (a very apt choice, given that he slept for a hundred years and woke from his slumber to find the world changed!) The song ends with one of the band’s best rock-out moments, with clashing ringing guitar solos which fight and struggle and try to rise to the surface to breathe, pulling the rest of the tightly compacted track along with them. This kicks off perhaps the greatest individual purely musical segment of any B and S record, with a stunning guitar battle which sounds like Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits duetting with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, ending with a full two-minute burst of this instrumental which unlike most ‘break out’ instrumentals never outstays it’s welcome. Our heads are filled along with Stuart's and it's a beautiful sound where life isn't the drab weary playground of abandoned hopes he sees with his eyes but the joyous sea of chances he sees in his mind's eye. Superb.

Continuing with the theme of things not being what they seem, [10] 'We Rule The School' juxtaposes one of Murdoch’s most uplifting lyrics with a tune so mournful I swear my CD player has learnt how to cry. The narrator is back comforting lost souls in a more direct way than never before, recounting his own lost love from years before with the initials 'NC' and offering crumbs of advice from his sickbed. 'Do something pretty while you can' he sighs, telling her that her hobbies of pirouetting on ice and reading the gospels are both 'cool' and 'fine'. Passing by his old haunts for the first time in years on a passing bus (Stuart was always fond of busses) he sees an old message of graffiti they once left together, that 'we rule the school', even though it's clear they don't: they were too different, too strange, too unusual to 'rule' anything. Murdoch laughs when his old friend calls him a 'prophet', saying she can if she wants but her problems aren't really a 'secret' and should be obvious: ‘the world is made for men and not us’. This is a terrific line, dripping with longing and misery and injustice, a rallying cry for every outsider out there and in context reflects the lives of people who were 'big' at school but hopeless in the adult world. They should put it on the band’s gravestone if and when they finally call it a day.

The gentle rocker [11] 'My Wandering Days Are Over' features the first vocal appearance of Isobel Campbell on a B and S track, whose gentle breathy voice comes into its own on later records. That's fitting because it's another song about Stuart's rehabilitation, remembering how far he's coming from his bed-bound days when his whole world was 'the space between the bed and wardrobe with the Louvre doors'. He can no longer wander and people-watch like he used to (replaced by 'wondering' days instead) or 'bip-bop' on a dance floor the way he once could - and yet the song switches about dates a lot, so that soon Stuart has no time to wander because he has too many places to go and things to do, 'fixing things for Michael and the rest of them' (no I don't know who this is either). As he sings here six months on and the winter's gone, but it still feels cold - all his old friends he knew before he was poorly have left and the only person left is a 'spooky witch in a sexy dress who keeps bugging me', which might well be Isobel forcing him out of his by-now sacred bedroom, intoxicating him with ideas for a band, for 'Sebastian and Belle the singer, yeah!' No longer forced into performing as the 'one man band' he always felt uncomfortable with, the narrator thinks he's found a way out of his entrapment, but it all goes wrong in the final verse when he imagines his new beloved so strapped for cash she's stripped for cash, as it were, prostituting herself for 'businessmen' on the piano that should have signalled her escape. Stuart's narrator, having only just escaped his own prison, is shocked to find that even his saviour's life is a 'living hell' and pauses on those lines as the song plunges into darkness, a stabbing Stevie Jackson guitar part and a Stuart David bass roll pushing the song into a black hole. Suddenly the narrator is back on his own feeling hopeless, a circus performer left behind when the circus has all left town and he falls apart in stereo, two voices chasing each other as the voices go round and round in his head about how desperate and frustrated he feels, his dreams dashed again. He's feeling 'melancholy...kinda lonely...pretty stupid...pretty funny...pretty lazy...pretty lonely...pretty lazy...melancholy' over and over, as the narrator admits defeat. Even a typically gorgeous trumpet part from Mick and an early use of sweeping strings can't shift the fog of helplessness as the narrator falls apart. It's a stunning moment on a stunning album and Murdoch sings this song with just the right mixture of hope and uncertainty.

[12] 'I Don’t Love Anyone' is another fed-up why-can’t-I-be-happy? song, married to one of the most infectious melodies this side of ‘Agadoo’ (the good side, thankfully). I can’t imagine anyone making up an inane dance routine to this song, however – it’s really a tale of child cruelty and loneliness which would sound pretty horrific in a less talented writer’s hands. The narrator, so long oppressed by people who only love him on their terms, rejects them all - and even then they're not listening to him as he does so. A short and funky rocker with Geddes' keyboard washes to the fore, the backing is as undemanding to listen to as its narrator is demanding, ticking off the unseen others for not listening. But then they're not expecting him to answer back: he's spent a child alone, his only lesson of any use 'how to take a hiding' and 'how to be alone'. He even rejects Christmas, the peak period of family get-togethers, 'especially' but retracts his feelings when he remembers his innocent kid brother and kid sister. He, though, is no longer innocent and no longer ready to be silenced and accept what everyone dishes out - on a rare trip outside he passes by children playing the way he used to but realises 'I'm not a kid, no!' which sets off another rush of sorrowful pouting.  The melody is sad and sorry for itself, going round in circles and full of big wide open spaces that are the perfect fit for the chorus lines of 'you're...not...listening!' By the end As an aside, I’ve always been puzzled by the song’s last verse, where a man tells the narrator ‘something pretty strange’: that ‘the world is as soft as lace’ until I discovered that Murdoch nicked it from a line in 'Splendour Of Fear', an album by one of his favourite groups Felt. Now all I need to know is why they wrote such an odd line...Not the deepest or greatest of early Belle and Sebastian songs, yet another tight band performance makes up for it with Murdoch perfect as the whiny teenager with a lot to get off his chest.

'Tigermilk' ends with [13] 'Mary Jo', a sweet ballad about yet another lost and lonely character who finds respite from the cruel hard world only in her dreams. The narrator must be up for hero of the year award, because he’s at it again; urging Mary Jo not to give up by pointing out that he once thought life was hopeless and he's now strong enough to be the one helping, not the one needing the help. Mary Jo herself is one of Murdoch's best characters, not living merely existing, as he falls back into bed exhausted, keen for 'night to follow day and back again'. She doesn't want to sleep, she wants to get up and do things but Murdoch asks, after all she's been through, 'who can blame her if she's sleeping?' His advice ('you're young, you know it will happen soon') sounds like advice once given to Stuart and which he never believed at the time but does now and wants Mary Jo and all the Mary Jos in the audience to realise it too. Seemingly Mary Jo is not Stuart himself as so many think but probably one of the friends he met through his support group or at the hospital ward for local patients (wish we'd had one!) - certainly her longing for a 'cigarette and a thespian with a caravanette in Hull' don't fit our other view of Murdoch! In a twist, though, Murdoch offers her the book his narrator wrote in the album's opening track 'The State I Am In' and she rejects it, saying 'it doesn't help at all!' (Maybe because that was written at the 'start' of his suffering, not the 'end'; note how the album bookends the album with these songs, the points of most despair and greatest happiness). Musically, this piece is most notable for the airy flutes at the opening (indeed, this could be a Moody Blues track this time, given the strong acoustic guitar-with-booming-bass vibe and the quietly uplifting lyrics) and even when replaced with B and S’ more normal instruments the result is hypnotic, a slightly surreal dreamscape where nothing is quite what it seems. Pleasingly, it sounds like the laidback band have just woken up, sleepwalking their way through the song in contrast to their excited energy on most of this set, but this style is apt given this song’s sentiments. It's not the best song on the album, but it's one last warm hug on an album that needs it and belongs her at the end, a reminder that 'life is never dull in your dreams'.

Don’t be fooled by the 'rejection' of that book: actually the songs in Tigermilk are born for helping you through troubled times, with a writer who actually understands our failings, desires and dead-ends. There is no other musician I know of that can sum up that feeling of dread and hopelessness that comes from feeling trapped so well - or who offers so many solutions and hope without them seeming clumsy. That this would come from an established singer-songwriter or a band that had been together decades would be impressive enough - the fact that it comes from someone who'd never written a song until a couple of years before, while fronting a band despite no experience who'd only got together to make this record is nothing short of ridiculous. The Belle and Sebastian backstory is so incredible - the jobcentre courses that assumed they'd never find talent, the signing to a University label when the lead writer wasn't even on the music course but trying to find a 'real' job - that an album that was anything less than magic would have been a disappointment. Instead 'Tigermilk' is one of those precious few AAA albums - especially those precious few debut AAA albums - that's virtually perfect, a record that speaks to you and provides answers as well as a shoulder to cry on and it's simply incredible that the band 'voice' came so fully formed in one go from such inexperienced musicians. 'Tigermilk will be your friend when there are none to be found, your guiding light when all hope seems to be extinguished and your conscience when you find yourself falling from your path, a record that offers hope, faith and love but in a gutsy, realistic sense. Though other Belle and Sebastian records will be more loved, sell more copies and will be more ‘finished’ sounding, this sound of a man with a lot to say whose been unable to say it for years resulting in a cathartic scream makes for one of the best records in my collection. This is an extraordinary achievement and one that - despite higher record sales and fan favourites to come - the band will struggle to match throughout the rest of their time in this book.  
A Now Complete Link Of Belle and Sebastian Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:
‘Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’ (2001)
'Storytelling' (2002)

'Push Barman To Open Old Wounds' (EP compilation 2003)

'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' (2004)
'The Life Pursuit' (2006)

'Write About Love' (2010)
'God Help The Girl' (Stuart Murdoch Film) (2014)
Girls In Peace Time Just Want To Dance (2015)

Belle and Sebastian: Existing TV Clips
Belle and Sebastian: 12 Unreleased Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Non-Album Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums
Essay: B and S Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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