Some albums change your life; "Nevermind The Bollocks", "Appetite For Destruction" and "Maxinequaye" are some of those that have touched me deeply and made me a different person. "The Boy With The Arab Strap" did it for me, in a quite remarkable and totally unique way. I'd actually bought it by mistake (like I imagine quite a lot of people did, meaning to buy an album by Arab Strap), but listened to it and was impressed by the lush literacy of the lyrics, and of the delicate orchestration and musicianship. Although my favourite band was the Beatles, I'd generally considered myself a rocker (from punk through to prog), so this was a major turnaround, but that's what a great band can do you to.
It'd seemed like B&S had come out of nowhere, but this was by now their third album, and the one where they reached critical mass, both in terms of popularity (incredibly winning the "Best Newcomer" in the 1997 Brits) and in quality (this is a far richer album musically than "If You're Feeling Sinister", and probably their best).
Their territory is poetic short-stories, about losers coming good, or about people out of their depth, with beautifully-written, waspish vingnettes. Although the vocals sound very delicate, the lyrics can sting. The contrast between soaring, uplifting music and biting words can be highly effective, and undercuts the emptional effect.
The first song, "It Could Have Been A Brillian Career" sets the tone. It opens, the sound down very low, with fey vocals, with guitar and electric piano joining in. A song about losers of various types ("He had a stroke at the age of 24 / It could have been a brilliant career"), it's enriched by fanastic harmonies and further instrumentation, ending musically upbeat even as it laments another life ending sadly ("And you can tell by the way she looks / he is sorry and resigned / As he wets himself for the final time").
This is quickly followed by one of their greatest moments, "Sleep The Clock Around", a song about losers and nobodies who could, just maybe could, be somebodies. Opening slowly, the vocals low and murmuring, it gradually builds in colour, charge, potency and musical richness, to a bridge, saying "Then you go to the place where you've finally found /
You can look at yourself sleep the clock around". It ends of an incedible feeling of hope, defiance, yearning, wishing and desire, articulated (and what's incredible is that it's not embarrassing) by a bagpipe's wail. Incredible, a song of the most highest order, articulate to the highest degree, worthy of The Beatles or the Velvet Underground.
Asides from the songs by Stuart Murdoch (most of them) and Steve Jackson (the rest), there are a few sung by Isobel Campbell, as is the third song, "Is IT Wicked Not To Care?". It's gorgeously delicate, shimmering like the lightest cobwebs in a winter sun.
Other highlighs of the album include "Dirty Dream #2", where the waspish lyrics are again undercut by the remarkable music, which ends on an extended coda, the soaring strings shimmering in beautiful tremelo, evoking delight and purest joy. Incredible. Then there's a few wonderful little vignettes, such as "Seymour Stein", a no-thank-you to the record exec, with lines as brilliantly parochial as "Has he ever seen Dundee?" Then there's a failure-with-women ode, "Chickfactor", with rejection written off as well as "Met the cigarette girl- took a note of her charms / But no cigar" and "Met the Indie-Cool Queen / Took me out of the bar and showed me the scene".
Belle and Sebastian have some of the greatest gifts of any band I've ever heard - finer lyricists than Morrissey, greater musically than Nick Drake, as poetic as Larkin (both transform the everday into something numinous), as acute an eye as Roger Waters, as imaginative as John Lennon. This is to me the finest album of the 1990s and will echo down the generations, a shimmering, exhalted gift to the poets and dreamers.