“I Fought in a War” is the only clean cut from this waste of a great title of an album, so you should thank the band for putting it first so you can just put on most any other Belle and Sebastian release immediately after to get your cuddle high. Starting similarly to previous songs like “The State I Am In” and “The Stars of Track and Field,” “I Fought in a War” – dare I say it – achieves a more tangible climax (not necessarily better) by using Forever Change’s horns and strings as buttresses. Things to watch out for: the spaghetti Western-esque guitar line that comes in at the 2:52, harmonizing perfectly under Murdoch and taking off in a different direction right after, the quick drum rolls employed from that point onwards to continue pushing the song forwards (terrible move using the exact same ones for “Beyond the Sunrise”), and the subtle switch from “boy” to “man” in the first and second instances of the chorus to demonstrate the amount of time that had elapsed.
That being said, George Starostin criticizes the song as “pretentious,” elaborating that “Murdoch did not actually fight in no wars, so don’t pass this around to actual veterans unless they have a good ear for creative metaphor.” Yeah, even Murdoch admits as much, but because I can spin it to mean the war against love/life, I have use for it. That being said, I have considerably less use for “The Chalet Lines” – which doubles on the pretensions and halves the reward (more like quarters, really, but that’s more awkward to say). Over a bare-boned piano arrangement (later joined by cello, because duh doy! – you can’t spell ‘sadness’ without three of the letters in ‘strings’), Murdoch sings about how he – as a girl – was raped at the back of the chalet lines. There are some good lines, namely the realistic “I missed my time, I don’t think I could stand / To take the test, I’m feeling sick” and “My friend can’t see / She asks me why I don’t tell the law / Oh, what’s the fucking point at all,” but there’s a few others that absolutely fall apart in any close examination – “Although it’s last month, it’s like yesterday … Fuck this, I’ve felt like this for a week” and the sudden pronoun switch of “She caught the bus” in the last verse, though “she” had been used exclusively for the mate in London at that point. (Doesn’t help that said line reminds me of “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” and what a great fucking tune that was, huh?).
The rest of these songs? Ermmmm, “Women’s Realm” is catchier than the rest of these songs because it’s handclap-driven but it gets buried under a pretentious (that word again) arrangement forcing it through a “I Fought in a War”-like crescendo when it should have / could have been just a Motown throwback and “Family Tree” has one very relatable verse for anyone who’s ever been in school (so basically everyone) sandwiched between two choruses unfortunately lifted straight out of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” (“I’m here in a cage / With a bottle of rage”) – “They threw me out of school / Because I swore at all the teachers / Because they never teach us / A thing I want to know / We do chemistry, biology and maths / I want poetry and music and some laughs / And I don’t think it’s an awful lot to ask.”
But, the problem with all of these songs is simple: the melodies aren’t there. Hate to say it, but Stuart Murdoch has been on a steady decline since If You’re Feeling Sinister and having lesser entities write songs to replace him certainly isn’t the answer (just sticking to releasing EPs would’ve been the better choice). It doesn’t help their case that they’re trying something different instrumentally-speaking; I’ll defer to Starostin again, “Everything is laid on in very thin layers, though, usually with one dominant instrument playing some hyper-tender melody with a “nursery” or pastoral flair and the others gradually rallying behind the leader to add some wispy angelic atmosphere. In other words, everything so lovely you could almost puke.”