The people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs and their sad, tragic lives.

The people of Belle and Sebastian's songs and their sad, tragic lives.

The people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs might seem like a smorgasbord for psychological studies. If one looks throughout the Belle and Sebastian catalog, you’ll find the people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs feel a lot of sadness and experience a great deal of tragedy. Still – the people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs give us something to relate to. The people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs make us aware of those that need help in our lives. Finally, the people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs make us feel empathy and compassion. Even for the most wretched and tragic figures.

If You’re Feeling Sinister

If you’re Feeling Sinister is a song about feeling wrong in a world that insists we be “right.” We have the stories of Hillary and Anthony, and their lives before they committed suicide. Anthony doesn’t quite know who he is yet – he just knows his life is boring so he jumps off a cliff.

Hillary’s story while equally tragic, is a lot more depressing. She’s got the feelings all young people get, while the church keeps telling her those feelings are wrong and she needs to just stop. She goes to confession, Bible studies, and jumps through every hoop to try to keep herself from the flames of carnal lust. In the end – she gives up. She just wanted answers – she just wanted to feel “right.”

The State I’m In

In The State I’m In, we have a guy just going through life, trying not to mess up too much – but oh, he messes up big time. He marries too early, he gets minors drunk, he even kicks the crutches from underneath a “crippled friend.” On the surface, the speaker of “The State I’m In” sounds absolutely horrid.

Don’t get me wrong – the speaker is a horrid person, but they sure don’t get any help from outside. His parents pressure him to get married early. His priest constantly uses his confessions against him. And while I might argue the speaker of The State I am In might just be a psychopath, they need professional help and no one around them seems to want to encourage this help. The speaker of the The State I’m In is truly tragic.

Seeing Other People

We start off Seeing Other People with a nice little piano interlude, ala the early 80s. It makes us feel good, and even a bit nostalgic for a more innocent time. Then the lyrics start and we realize this is not an innocent song: “We lay on the bed there, kissing just for practice, could you please be objective cause the other boys are cueing up behind us.” OK – we’re thirty seconds into the song and we’re already looking at physical affection as a scientific study. Wow!

In truth – that’s kind of the point of the song – physical affection is not something to study with a cold, scientific approach. Physical affection leaves tangles and tears. One should always be mindful of their own heart when being physical affectionate with another person.

Going back to the innocent piano, it actually juxtaposes nicely against the lyrics. Sure – there’s the nostalgic and innocent quality to the piano part, but while we get deeper into the song. we realize the piano part is not so innocent – but rather the piano part symbolizes denial. “Seeing other people, at least that’s what we say we’re doing.”

The Boy With the Arab Strap

The Boy With the Arab Strap sounds like a happy little tune. One can even move your feet to the groovy little melody. One should not, however dance to this song. Like many other Belle and Sebastian songs, The Boy with the Arab Strap is not really a happy song.

Ultimately, The Boy With the Arab Strap is about a guy whose girlfriend sleeps with a member of another band. The tone of voice is telling the girlfriend’s story from the point of view of the boyfriend. At times he’s mad, at times he’s actually somewhat understanding. Regardless – Boy With the Arab Strap makes us feel. We feel the tragedy of love lost, and the tragedy of infidelity.

Dear Catastrophe Waitress

Dear Catastrophe Waitress might be happier than the rest of the songs on this list – but not by much. I will say the song is encouraging – as it’s essentially a letter to the “Catastrophe Waitress.” The song encourages the “Waitress” to chase her dreams – despite her current situation. Yes – the kids throw Coke cans at her head, and yes the rest of the world can’t see the beauty in her works….yet. But they will. They will soon. Dear Catastrophe Waitress reminds us that even the worse times will eventually end. Considering some of the other songs on this list, that’s a very welcome take away.

Dog On Wheels

Dog on Wheels is a metaphor for growing up, yet not knowing how to “adult.” The speaker of the song just wants to go back to his childhood, when things were simple and he could find comfort in his favorite toy – a literal dog on wheels.

The song works especially well as so many of us had this very toy. I did! Most of my friends did as well. It gives us a visual that we can relate to – as the lyrics describe a situation most of us know more than we care to admit. Seriously – I’m 44 and I still don’t know how to “adult.” Sometimes I just want to go back to my childhood dog on wheels and the innocence thereof.

One thing about the sound – we get a distinctive 1970s surf rock style with this song. As those of us who had the dog on wheels were born in the late 60s and 70s, this really completes the nostalgia package as the surf rock gives us a splash of the times when we were innocent and young. A time when we didn’t have responsibilities and problems and bills. Our hair was not falling out, and none of it was grey. Our bodies did whatever we wanted them to do – within reason.

This song might not be as tragic as the others – still, we all die a little inside when we think about how much innocence we’ve lost over the years. There’s a reason why the people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs are so tragic and sad – none of them know how to adjust to life.

Lazy Line Painter Jane

Lazy Line Painter Jane tells us a story about a girl who just wants to get out of her hometown. She’ll do anything, or anyone she can in order to achieve this goal. Yet everything she does just leads her down the same path. She’s still stuck in her dead end job and stuck in her hometown.

The last verse describes Jane debating about telling her parents the truth about her life. She’s got an infection on her lips from one of her partners – and she’s scared. Still – she’s debating the implications of using a lotion or a potion to cover it up. Ultimately, she lives two lives. To her parents, she’s the innocent little daughter – to the rest of society, she’s far from innocent. It makes me wonder – are her parents in denial? Are they just not supportive? If she came clean about her lifestyle, would they accept her the way she is, or would they shun her?

I’m Waking Up to Us

I swear, I’ve dated the girl in I’m Waking Up to Us. The song describes a conceited bitch who pretty much just wants someone to buy her expensive clothes, and put her on a pedestal. She’s really not invested in the relationship – just about what the relationship can do for her. The singer, however, is utterly heartbroken when the inevitable happens.

My advice for the singer – run. Forget about her. Find someone else. You don’t deserve this bitch.

Dress Up in You

Dress Up In You is yet another bad break up. Perhaps this is the same couple we just heard about from “I’m Waking Up to This,” as the girl seems to have treated the singer in the same way in both songs. The girl in this song wants to move on to bigger and better things. She’s modeling, she’s even attempting to act. She thinks she’s too good for the singer so she gets rid of him. Dumps him like yesterday’s trash.

Two things that really make Dress Up in You stand out. The line
“You couldn’t act your way out of a paper bag” really shows us the anger the singer has. This is one the snarkiest lines in any Belle and Sebastian song.

The second thing – the trumpet solo. The song is melancholy as it is, but the trumpet solo in the middle of the song wraps the sadness up with a nice little bow on top. The trumpet playing pours salt into an open wound..

I Want The World to Stop

With I Want the World to Stop we could probably find all the people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs. Ultimately the song gives the people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs a voice – and a cry: I want the world to stop.

I want the World to Stop is a song about change. Changes in life, changes in scenery, changes in friendships. Your friends will move away, fashion will change, and people will follow blindly the trends of the day.

The brilliance of I Want the World to Stop – most people can relate to this song. Most people have been there, and done that. Again – every single person mentioned in these songs can be found in I Want the World to Stop. Because of this – because of this shared feeling, all of a sudden we’re able to relate to the characters in the other songs. All of a sudden, the psychopath in the State That I am In, or the Gigolo in “Seeing Other People” seem a little more human.

Enter Sylvia Plath


It’s not too hard to imagine most of the people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs reading Sylvia Plath as they contemplate their lives, or even their own suicides. Hillary, from “If you’re Feeling Sinister” could have easily wrote Enter Sylvia Plath right before her own death.

Ultimately – that’s what’s disturbing of Enter Sylvia Plath. We see all these characters as fictional beings – but this song ties them into the real world – into the life, or rather death, of a real person. This is why I’ve chosen to end this article with “Enter Sylvia Plath.” Belle and Sebastian have dozens more sad and tragic songs. However – this song provides a capstone to all these stories and centers them in reality. We realize these nice little stories are more tragic and more sad than we first imagine. These are not just fun little songs – but warning signs to look for. In our own lives, for sure – but also the lives of others. The people of Belle and Sebastian’s songs are our friends and neighbors. They need our help. They need our comfort and even our love.

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