Four Memories of Belle and Sebastian

A sort of review of The Third Eye Centre.

Belle and Sebastian’s new b-sides and rarities compilation, The Third Eye Centre, reminded me of four things:

I. “I’m a Cuckoo” (The Avalanches Remix)

I’ve been through three bad breakups in my life. It’s some sort of coping mechanism, but each one gets strongly associated with a song. My first serious girlfriend dumped me during freshman year of college because she went to school in New York and I went to school on the other side of the country and she was the first one of us to realize that this was a really stupid idea. I was eighteen and I was devastated and I spent the rest of the semester listening to “I’m a Cuckoo” on repeat more or less.

I also had a really close friend named Elena who lived in the same dorm as me. She didn’t listen to a lot of pop music, and she was curious about the song that was always playing when she passed by my room. I made her a mix CD with my favorite Belle and Sebastian songs, and a few months later, we went to see them in concert—her first concert ever.

After the show, we had dessert at the Cheesecake Factory because it was across the street from the venue and also we were in college so we didn’t really know any better. As I was deciding which type of pumpkin cheesecake to order, Elena asked me if I was feeling okay during the concert. Apparently I looked very sad when they played “I’m a Cuckoo.” I don’t remember if Elena and I were on a date or not, or even if I wanted it to be a date or not, but whatever it was, that moment definitely closed the door on it.

Though it seemed like forever, I eventually got over my first girlfriend. I also stopped listening to “I’m a Cuckoo” for a long while (my roommate commented on it, because it turns out he hated that song and I was driving him crazy with it). The first time I heard the Avalanches Remix of “I’m a Cuckoo” was about a year later. It remix is a true deconstruction of the song, replacing its classic rock-styled dueling guitar riffs with an airy assortment of flutes and tribal drums—an aesthetic shift from a Thin Lizzy-esque sound to something more akin to Graceland.

Listening to The Third Eye Centre, I thought about Elena for the first time in years. We didn’t really keep in touch after college. I wonder how she’s doing. I wonder if she still listens to Belle and Sebastian. I hope she does.

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All photos courtesy of NRK P3

II. “Your Cover’s Blown” (Miaoux Miaoux Remix)

In July, Belle and Sebastian played a show at Prospect Park in Brooklyn near where I live. I’m fairly new to the city, and apparently it’s a well-known fact that shows in the park can be heard just as well seated outside the venue on a picnic blanket. Nobody told me, so I shelled out $50 for a ticket.

I didn’t regret it (plus the show sold out, so I wasn’t the only idiot). It was on a Thursday evening after a long day of work, and feeling sapped, we sat in the grass toward the back of the bandshell, where our view was partially obscured by a tree and a sound booth. It was sort of perfect.

I was there with my friend Elizabeth, who is even more of a Belle and Sebastian die hard than me, and her husband Tom. When they played “Your Cover’s Blown”—the band’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress-era disco epic—” we agreed it might be one of the best songs they’ve ever written. (Granted, this superlative came up during a handful of songs they played.)

Belle and Sebastian played “Your Cover’s Blown” the first time I saw them with Elena in Seattle. We were standing as close as we could to the stage. This time, I was sitting in the grass, enjoying it just as much, and perhaps I would have enjoyed it all the same if I was outside the venue, further removed from the crowd and the concert. We get older, I suppose.

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III. “I Didn’t See It Coming” (Richard X Mix)

Belle and Sebastian was touring for their most recent full album, Write About Love, almost three years ago, when I took my sister to see them in Chicago. She’s eight years younger than me, but she listens to all the same music I did when I was her age. I’d like to take credit for her musical education, but she’s come to these bands on her own (in addition to Belle and Sebastian, she really likes the Shins).

I listened to the remix of “I Didn’t See It Coming” (by Richard X, whoever that is) more than a handful of times on a traffic-delayed bus ride from New York. It feels less like Write About Love’s opener has been reworked so much as that it’s been tinkered with, adding the sparest hints of an electronic beat to elevate the song into something familiar but different. The Pitchfork review puts it very nicely: “[it translates] the song’s yearning chorus line — “make me dance/ I want to surrender” — into wish fulfillment.”

Over Labor Day weekend, I visited Boston to help my sister move into her college dorm. Unlike me, she was smart enough to dump her high school boyfriend before entering her freshman year of college, avoiding the long-distance relationship that plagued my first semester and a half. (It’s nice to know that bad relationship-related decision-making doesn’t run in the family.) Things were apparently amicable (they still talk/Snapchat), and I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming amount of pride in my sister for demonstrating so much more maturity than I could at her age.

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IV. “The Life Pursuit”

Songs of praise all very well
Their voices swell
They tug at sadness
Like love tugging at your sleeve
Is it worth the pain
To walk into the void again?

I thought about all of these things as I listened through The Third Eye Centre, which spans the past decade and three records. A lot of it I’d heard before, and though some tracks were new to me, they felt immediately familiar. Singer Stuart Murdoch is best known for babbling about experiences that are oddly specific with a universal sentimentality; Belle and Sebastian is both at once nostalgic yet timeless.

How does one judge the quality of a collection of b-sides and remixes? Even in concept, it’s an admission that it’s not really an album, but a bunch of tracks that were never supposed to be together. In this way, though, it anthologizes what Belle and Sebastian does best without actually being their best work. Third Eye Centre is a reflection of the band’s contexts—the same way disparate moments and memories, together, add up to something meaningful.

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Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.