The best looking girls are staying inside
Belle & Sebastian - 'Judy and the Dream of Horses' (If You're Feeling Sinister - 1996)
Belle & Sebastianare one of the last British guitar bands of the 20th Century. They had a story, an ethos, something to pour over, and artwork to gawp at. A band whose debut LP was on vinyl, not on CD, despite being 1996, and only had a press of a thousand copies. It is hard to imagine the band keeping that enigmatic allure and mysterious charm if the members were just a few years younger. Word-of-mouth, music weeklies and John Peel were the main routes to alternative discovery pre and post-Britpop in the UK. Within a decade of their first two records, bands showcased their demos on MySpace, including the previous entry from The XX.
Belle & Sebastian’s second album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, was released by a bigger yet still reasonably small indie record label, Jeepster. Despite their continuing career and further eight/nine studio albums,most people can’t look past it as THE Belle & Sebastian record. It has been lionised on both sides of the Atlantic, possibly more so in the US, where Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and Spin were all happy to include it in best of the nineties polls at the time and later on.
We’ve looked at an alarming number of closing tracks at The Run Out Grooves now; in fact, you can find our index with over 120 of them here, many of which fall into a small number of categories. You have the “Goodbye” like The Beatles’ ‘Good Night’ and the farewell like ‘The End’ by the same group. You have a “see you later” when a band points in the direction of their next record or even a whole genre like Prince’s ‘Adore’
There’s the big closing epic like ‘The End’ by The Doors, the big closing ballad like ‘Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands’ and the massive closing epic like Spiritualized’s ‘Cop Shoot Cop’. You also have the little ballad, like Neil Young’s ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’ and the big torch song - Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’, for example.
But as we’ve seen from the data analysis, we tend towards something acoustic, quiet and reflective. This downbeat ending is the type of song we have at the end of … Sinister in ‘Judy and The Dream of Horses’. There aren’t many finer examples of it either.
The song, a fan favourite as indicated by its rank as their 3rd most played live song - behind only ‘The Boys With The Arab Strap’ and ‘I’m a Cuckoo’, is so quiet and acoustic you can hear the sound of fingers running up and down a guitar’s fretboard at the start and throughout. It also features a melodica which ties into the aesthetic of a band who could easily have recorded their first two albums in downtime during a fictitious weekend morning children’s TV programme.
The lyrics have always brought to my mind the classic “if only you would talk to each other” melodrama of The Smiths’ ‘Girl Afraid’, which explains why Match.com, Tinder and all the rest of them will always make money. That’s because there seems to be a mismatch between what is thought and what is said, but at least this time, our protagonist knows this.
Judy starts writing a sad song that she shows to a boy at school, a dichotomy that even the loneliest songwriter will fall on the side of wanting to share the product of that loneliness with another human who could make it go away. In the second verse, we have Judy sampling the joy of reading by torchlight under the covers. By the time of the chorus through, there’s a strong hint that there will be more going on under those covers in a few years.
Despite being obsessed with Judy, our besotted narrator is marching his troops halfway up the hill before retreating (“You will fall asleep with ants in your pants”. This indecision leads to Judy’s frustration finding an outlet in the double entendre of riding a horse and then writing a song about that.
We leave with our narrator reminding Judy that she shouldn’t rely on others for her happiness; if you create that for yourself, you will be in a more harmonious place. Good advice, but who would want to live in a world where the sound of a Scottish singer going “ba da ba dam” in the outro of a song about your dream of horses couldn’t make you smile?
The song's gently ramshackle beauty is as endearing as ever, with Stuart Murdoch's hushed, keening vocals providing the perfect counterpoint to the track's wonky charm.
I know what the cover art a few inches above says, but to me, they are Belle & Sebastian, not Belle and Sebastian.
as well as others from Laura Marling and Fleet Foxes that we have previously covered.
Let’s not fight over the exact nature of Storytelling.
Love a number of their albums, but yes, this is THE Belle & Sebastian record.
I ordered this album it from the BMG club without hearing a note based on the buzz over Tigermilk, which was impossible to find. I still remember my trajectory upon first listen, a quick pivot from "why does this person think he can sing, much less make a record," to calling my sister and screaming "YOU MUST GET THIS RECORD!" Still my favorite of theirs, but the discography up through The Life Pursuit is one of the best of recent decades. Unfortunately, they jumped the shark when Nora Jones guested on Write About Love - and Stuart Murdoch seems to have become an unpleasant person.