Monday, November 26, 2007

“Seeing Other People” / Belle & Sebastian

Back in the 60s, pop songs raved about loving someone forever. Not any more. Alt rock is full of quizzical songs about infidelity, or the joyless pursuit of multiple sexual partners. It may not be progress, but you’ve got to admit, those are much more complex frames of mind to explore.

Exhibit A: Belle & Sebastian, that arty folk-tinged combo from Glasgow, and this nifty track I've been listening to from their 1998 album If You’re Feeling Sinister. On the surface it’s a bright, uptempo number about “friends with privileges,” but I hear something dark and disappointed woven in too. Stuart Murdoch’s breathy, slightly fey tenor clips heartlessly through the song’s word-crammed lyrics, melody swooping up and down, accents falling in odd places. That piano line ripples briskly along, all jazzy key shifts, uncertain and unreliable – I don’t know, but it feels like nobody’s happy here, not really.

We start with a fumbling love scene – “We lay on the bed there / Kissing just for practice / Could we please be objective? / Cause the other boys are queuing up behind us,” which reminds me of way too many junior-high parties. And for all its innocence – “Well if I remain passive and you just want to cuddle / Then we should be okay” – the main thing is to look like you’re having hot sex. Actual desire is beside the point.

Of course, as the shrinks warn us, detachment is often just a pose: “Cause we're seeing other people / At least that's what we say we are doing.” Awkwardly, he probes his partner’s state of mind: “How are you feeling? / I don't think you can be dealing / With the situation very well,” with a lack of connection that’s pathetic. For all the talk of lovers and dirty weekends, he winds up feeling sleazy, like some kind of gigolo, instead.

It’s a riddling song about self-absorption (“You're kissing your elbow / You're kissing your reflection”) and watching your back (twice he mentions the “other boys” who are crowding in). It’s also rife with sexual confusion (“You're going to have to change / Or you're going to have to go with girls / You might be better off / At least they know what they're doing.”) But let’s face it, the boys aren’t the only ones who don’t know what they’re doing. Everybody’s lost.

I’m reminded of a much older song, an 80s number by Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” that pulled off a similar trick, layering regret and melancholy under a funky, strutting disco pose. This song may profess to be celebrating casual sex, but it’s saturated with a crying need for plain old love. Hunh. Human nature hasn’t changed since the 60s -- we’re just telling ourselves different lies, that’s all.

Seeing Other People sample


Dave K. said...

Thanks Holly!
I've always loved that album. I'm caught between the thought that it's a twee pop guilty pleasure and just a little too precious or that it's an underrated pop (near) masterpiece. I'm leaning towards the latter. Every song on the album is a pleasure. It also stands up pretty well to repeated listenings.

--Dave K.

Nina said...

your blog is great (as is belle and sebastian!)

i recently started my own music blog and would love some feedback!