Belle & Sebastian - The Boy With the Arab Strap

BY RIGHTS, OF COURSE, THEY SHOULD BE failures. Sometimes it seems they'd be happier that way. Check the fuzzy and obscured 'candid' band shots on the cover, or the winsome sleevenotes, or the pervading air of indie sanctimony that ensures they can no longer be even interviewed, or that precious, precious tone of voice.

Belle & Sebastian are, in essence, a peculiar musical accident: a band who aspire to be underachieving cutie elitists; but who - by virtue of their wise, uncommonly lovely music - find themselves just about the biggest 'unknown' band in Britain. There is a care and craftsmanship at work on 'The Boy With The Arab Strap', their third album, that leaves almost all their contemporaries for dead. Music which locates an emotional chord largely neglected by the British mainstream since the demise of The Smiths, but is presented with an air of aloofness and/or shyness more suitable to a tiny side project of The Pastels.

Such eccentricities can be frustrating, especially when there's a suspicion that B&S's contrived anti-image repels as many potential fans as it attracts and obscures the excellence of pure musical endeavour. For there's a vivid and confident swing to much of 'The Boy With The Arab Strap', as the eight band members lock into intricately layered arrangements or build to graceful and moving crescendos - check the bagpipe-dappled 'Sleep The Clock Around' - with the kind of intuition that recalls prime Tindersticks. It's an album that feels like a true band effort: there's a density of ideas in each song, as if every member felt obliged to add their own cello, or trumpet, or Hammond signature; and, for the first time, Stuart Murdoch cedes songwriting responsibilities on four of the 12 tracks here.

Isobel Campbell contributes the lush folk of 'Is It Wicked Not To Care?', and Stuart David expands on his Looper side project with 'A Space Boy Dream', a deadpan narrative on childish astronaut fantasies in the style (if not subject matter) of Arab Strap. Stevie Jackson, meanwhile, opts for lonesome indieboy soul on the brilliant groovin'-on-a-sunny-afternoon-style 'Seymour Stein', a meditation on the trappings of success that habitually blight third albums. Here, again, there's the feeling of a band who'd rather be far less popular, that they're guilty of not failing.

At least Stuart Murdoch, still the key to Belle & Sebastian's genius, seems relatively unmoved by such worldly affairs. His lyrical aim remains focused on the tiny triumphs and tragedies of his constituency of misfits, expressed this time with greater poetic resonance and, pleasingly, reduced tweeness. So there is less preoccupation with the trials of adolescence, even if 'A Summer Wasting' - an instant classic that recalls a much spruced-up early Orange Juice - does concern itself with doing nothing in the school holidays. Occasionally, he touches on the grubbier aspects of post-puberty: "Why is this happening to you, you're not a child?" he ponders in 'Dirty Dream Number Two', his protagonist half-asleep and stuck to the sheets after dreaming of "a whole lot of fun with a comedian". 'It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career' opens the album with the story of 20-something stroke victims and a sense of awful pathos that transcends natural accusations of heavy-handedness or sentimentality.

It's the title track, however, which is the most intriguing, using '70s pop swagger to score a richly detailed tale of the drunk and fashionable in second-hand suits. The character "constantly updating your hit parade of your ten biggest wanks", seems unambiguously to be sometime collaborator and "boy from the Arab strap", Aidan Moffat. What kind of Glaswegian alternative schism is opening up here? Is it a joke? Is the joke on us?

For now, it's impossible to say. There's something noble and perversely heartening about the way Belle & Sebastian have become cultishly successful without playing the media game, in much the same way as the Levellers and Pearl Jam's old isolationism had a kind of stubbornly righteous allure. But there's also something fundamentally petty and cowardly about, say, writing a song that appears to trash the singer of another band, then refusing to discuss it openly. 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' is, unarguably, one of the best albums of 1998: it'd be nice to know how it got that way.


John Mulvey