Monday, November 9, 2009

#48. 'We're a disaster'

Belle and Sebastian "I'm Waking Up to Us"

I’ve talked a bit about breakup songs before, but there’s one thing that I don’t think I got into in any sort of detail, and that’s the reason why a lot of break-up songs do nothing for me. In short it’s that the feelings are dealt with some sort of distance, the songs are written like letters to a long departed lover or at worst entries from a teenager’s diary detailing how much he really misses his first girlfriend and all that shit. It’s not that this approach can’t lead to some great results, I mean I’d be the first to mention something like Blur’s “No Distance Left to Run” as one of the most affecting relationship post-mortems ever recorded and it’s got the sort of distance that bothers me in most cases, but there’s a certain aura to songs where the dissolution of a relationship is actually occurring in the here and now with both parties standing mere feet from each other as one or both of them go through the act of breaking up or something like it before your eyes. Really, most of my favorite break up songs have some element of this, but the way that Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell go about it on “I’m Waking up to Us” is a different sort of thing altogether.

In general, the sort of breakup songs that have the most in common with “I’m Waking Up to Us” have either a streak of malevolence (Prolapse’s visceral “Tina, This Is Matthew Stone”) or genuine sadness (any song from Seam’s The Problem With Me) at their cores, but given that this is Belle and Sebastian we’re talking about the sadness inherent to the lyrics is pretty well disguised. Not only did Murdoch adopt his jauntiest voice for the occasion, the sound of the song itself, rendered by legendary producer Mike Hurst (producer of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” among others), owes more to something like Love’s “You Set the Scene” than any of its more somber and melancholy brethren. Although the collaboration between the band and Hurst apparently didn’t work out as well as they’d hoped – Murdoch admits to the project needing a significant amount of polishing to get to where it wound up – but the results make for one of the most distinct entries in the B&S catalog, a borderline psychedelic pastiche whose lush, nature belies the turmoil at its core.

When I talk about the feeling of having a breakup go down in song form right before your eyes, it’s the tension of the situation that gives that type of song its weight. Just look at the video above: you’ve got Murdoch and Campbell not 10 feet away from each other airing out their relationship’s failings for all to see, and there’s a lot more weight to it in that context than if it were two random people singing it. Without context it’s still a bit of a devastating relationship deathblow, especially Campbell’s spoken interlude, but there’s an unmistakable tension beneath all the lushness that could only come from some sort of proximity to the actual event. It’s not like Murdoch and Campbell broke up while recording this song or anything, but the subject matter clearly hits close to home and that comes across in the final product.

There’s also the fact that this is the only time in the course of the 00s where B&S didn’t lower the bar for themselves. Their albums showed a downward trend starting with 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant , but “I’m Waking Up to Us” sounded like the sort of shot in the arm that the band needed to get back on its game. Unfortunately instead of embracing what they had attempted to do with Hurst on this EP, they sort of fell apart in my eyes. I know their recent output has its share of fans, but I’m less than enthused about the twee-er direction that Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit headed in. Still, even if it was just a small diversion for the band, the resulting singles stands alongside the likes of “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song” and “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” as one of the band’s most well rounded and near perfect songs. I’d have loved for them to have made more like this, but in the end this one is more than enough.

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