Scott Plagenhoef takes on Belle & Sebastian as a whole, plus their assortment of cultural contexts and how music fandom changed from where it was circa Tigermilk and Sinister to now. It’s a broad approach rather than any forensic examination of the tracks or making-of, but it has the right album as its fulcrum.
The first section introduces Belle & Sebastian’s engagement with the public - ignoring and refusing press for years, obfuscation through press photos, and printing a fictional narrative readily mistaken for a bio on Tigermilk - and how this, in a sense, played to their fans’ desire for an atypical approach. Plagenhoef describes the Sinister List and the community that formed there (largely) in the absence of information or news about the band, with the freedom a text-based medium allows for a whole bunch of different people to establish shared musical and cultural touchstones. At the same time, Tigermilk is out of print in a way that things haven’t really managed to be since filesharing took off, so it’s that peculiar moment of being both very internet and pre-internet.
Plagenhoef moves easily between sources, reflecting on archive interview material and examining Belle & Sebastian’s music in relation to their influences. He describes them as “almost inherently anti-rockist” - eschewing solos and riffs and building up a following through gigging, instead releasing two albums in 1996 with eight gigs and no singles - and identifies “a sort of underground indie pop lineage” in the bands mentioned by Stuart Murdoch. Meanwhile, other bands are name-checking Murdoch as making “indie pop feel relevant and alive again” and putting a value on beauty in pop songs.
Indeed, Plagenhoef describes the US mainstream at the time of Sinister’s release (hip hop replacing rock as the chart staple, the early-2000s indie boom still years off) and the mid-80s in the UK (Melody Maker not sure what to do with hip hop, C86’s brief moment in the spotlight) when the NME poll had space for Run DMC, Shinehead and Prince above but alongside indie. Twee, meanwhile, becomes a steady term of derision from the UK press while US fans and bands adopt it as a rallying cry, and B&S get swept into that from the start: according to Chris Geddes, “the Sunday Times said it was great to find a band that don’t like football […] But we do.” Murdoch’s voice dominates for the most part, but the remainder of the second chapter - after identifying songs by Isobel Campbell and Stevie Jackson as the most twee early moments - describes Jackson’s frustration with the band’s constant unprofessionalism and noting how very young Campbell was when the band formed, with both her own identity and the band’s sound and operation developing after her departure.
The last chapter interrogates some of the recurring lyrics themes - youth, sex (often via female characters), misfit teens - and explores the success, criticisms and comparable cultural context (Bis hyper-cuteness, Kurt Cobain the indie pop feminist, Britpop’s surge towards - equally adolescent - laddism) as well as evaluating Murdoch’s songwriting on a broader scale. (There’s a bit about the Bowlie Weekender and holding on to childhood, too.) Then, a brief but deft journey through the album song by song.
The book reads like an extended essay, moving quickly across a wide terrain and demonstrating a clear understanding of what was happening in British music as a whole in the mid- to late 90s, as well as drawing on his experience as a fan and a Sinister List participant based in the US. Sinister is at the right point to support the story - earlier, and you’re mired in how Tigermilk was released, and later, you’re dealing with a band bigger than just its fanbase (thus losing one of the most interesting parts of the book), and later still, you’re wandering needlessly after Isobel Campbell and losing the pre/digital narrative that clearly resonates with Scott Plagenhoef. Here, right here, all those elements come together with a bunch of great songs at the core.