Two major things to start:
1. Cute isn’t a big enough word to describe this album.
2. People who criticize this album as cardigan music don’t understand that the cardigan is the lovechild of a sweater and a suit, with both the comfort of the former and the finesse of the latter.
Stuart Murdoch sings sad songs befit for the 90s, but unlike the songs of his contemporaries, his songs actively want to get better. For example, most artists would’ve opted to end the album with “The Boy Done Wrong Again” which carries the album’s most poignant lyric (“All that I wanted was to sing the saddest song / And if you would sing along I will be happy now”), but he chooses instead to end it with “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” which has the most uplifting chorus on the album.
Instrumentally speaking, this is nothing new. You can practically hear Stuart Murdoch’s entire record collection while this is playing. His copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico has a scratch such that it doesn’t play anything after “Sunday Morning,” but Murdoch either doesn’t mind or doesn’t know (see: the outro of “Like Dylan in the Movies”). He also has a copy of Love’s Forever Changes (see: “Judy and the Dream of Horses”), Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (see: “Seeing Other People”), owns the Another Side of Bob Dylan instead of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan because he prefers Bob Dylan’s romance to Bob Dylan’s protests (see: “Me and the Major”) and Nick Drake’s entire discography (see: “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”). From multiple plays of “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” he understands better than most people that the power of the Smiths cannot be confined to Morrissey’s melodrama or Marr’s jangle, but a combination of both (see: “If You’re Feeling Sinister”).
One of the reasons why If You’re Feeling Sinister is held in such high regard is in its lyrics, because Stuart Murdoch understands that they’re not mere placeholders, a delivery vehicle for vocal melodies. He understands that words have a certain power that music doesn’t, so he exploits that. For example, in “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” it’s not the oft-talked line “She was into S&M and bible studies” that matters, but rather, the lines that follow, “Not everyone’s cup of tea, she would admit to me / Her cup of tea, she would admit to no one / Her cup of tea, she would admit to me.” In a song that details the suicides of two people onset by boredom, depression and crippling social anxiety, and the uselessness of religion against such matters (“[The vicar or whatever]’ll try in vain to take away / The pain of being a hopeless unbeliever”), he manages to squeeze in a line about how he himself is no one. That’s without even mentioning the song’s parting lines, “Chances are you’ll probably feel better / If you stayed and played with yourself.”
Broadly speaking, all of these songs are extremely relatable. Both Judy and the narrator of “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” dive into books as an escape (I find it very poignant that as soon as the character in the book he reads succeeds, he starts crying, but plays it off, “I always cry at endings”). Elsewhere, he engages in a loveable self-depreciation, “You could either be successful or be us / With our winning smiles, and us / With our catchy tunes, oh us / Now we’re photogenic / You know, we don’t stand a chance,” or later, how he runs through “Thought there was love in everything and everyone” and immediately chastises his own stupidity, “You’re so naive!” Meanwhile, amidst the sexual confusion of “Seeing Other People,” where the narrator suggests that his girlfriend switch sides (“You’re going to have to go with girls / You might be better off / At least they know what they’re doing”) and cute rhymes on rhymes (“Well, if I remain passive and you just want to cuddle / Then we should be ok, and we won’t get in a muddle”), there’s the beautifully stated jealousy within “You can’t understand why all the other boys / Are going for the new, tall, elegant rich kids / You can bet it is a bitch, kid” (Notice, especially, the biting hard sounds and the monosyllabic quality of that last line).
That isn’t to say that the music is bad, however. Actually, the music is pretty much a perfect setting for the lyrics. It’s the way that “The Stars of Track and Field” subtly climaxes as if it were an actual athlete, with Murdoch throwing warm intonations for the final verse (“She never needed anyone to get her round the track”) and the rest of the band layering in more instruments until the quiet-soft dynamics of the verses and choruses blur together; it’s the little bit of meta in “Like Dylan in the Movies” when the bouncing bass line comes to a halt with the line “When the music stops;” it’s the way the instruments in “A Fox in the Snow” are careful never to overpower Murdoch’s vocals, which strain under the emotion of the words at every turn, “The word out on the street is you are starving” or “To tell someone all the truth before it kills you;” it’s the way the opening sample of a children’s playground in “If You’re Feeling Sinister” completely belies what the actual track is about; it’s the way things get stripped apart for the chorus of “If You’re Feeling Sinister” or the last lines of each verse in “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” and it’s the way the chords in “Judy and the Dream of Horses” switch halfway through to major chords, fitting for when the song picks up both instrumentally and lyrically.
The best album of 1996; their best album.