Gosh, but Britain’s got loud all of a sudden. You can hardly hear yourself think at the moment, amidst the sounds of crashing and banging and weeping and wailing and self-proclamation and accusation and electric guitars. The noise started on May 1st, when Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister: Blair’s landslide victory changed the national mood literally overnight. The raucous celebrations lasted well into the summer, and even Britain’s notoriously conservative national press — somewhat perversely, given how much work they had put in to preserve John Major’s exhausted, deeply unpopular and increasingly sleazy party — started tapping its toes discreetly in the corner, like moms and dads at the end of rock’n'roll films. Blair’s approval rating shot through the roof, and Britain suddenly discovered that, contrary to all our suspicions, we were a young country, brimful of talent and vision and energy. Those of us who had got used to the idea that we were an awful, senile country, full of reactionary old farts who hadn’t read a novel in 30 years and who still disapproved of the length of Ringo’s hair, couldn’t take the pace. By July, I felt like I wanted to stop partying and go and have a sit-down.
But there was no let-up. Our cricket and football teams began the summer by winning handsomely and unexpectedly, victories for which Tony Blair seemed obscurely responsible — something to do with young people being better than old people at sports, presumably. The Oasis album came out amidst a great deal of ear-splitting ballyhoo, and Noel Gallagher was one of the first to be invited to 10 Downing Street for one of Blair’s occasional artsy parties, another indication of fundamental change: The only rock ‘n’ roller that the previous administration had been able to invite to parties was Andew Lloyd Webber. (Lloyd Webber, incidentally, made vague threats about leaving the country in the event of a Labour victory, a threat that may well have been responsible for the size of Blair’s majority, but scandalously he never went anywhere, as far as we know.) And then, of course, there was the Diana thing, about which there is only one observation I wish to make here: Whatever else it was or wasn’t, it was certainly loud. Sometimes you get the impression that we have turned ourselves into one huge braying mob, bursting with nervous energy and Adrenalin, looking for an excuse to make even more noise than we are already making. Recently, as another Salon correspondent noted, it was poor Louise Woodward who got the treatment.
I’ve been listening to Belle and Sebastian, a ramshackle, cute and only occasionally fey folk-pop band who have spent the summer releasing four-track EPs with quirky names and classy sleeves: “Dog On Wheels,” “Lazy Line-Painter Jane,” “3, 6, 9 Seconds of Light.” Belle and Sebastian have not, as far as I am aware, described themselves as “the best fooking (sic) band in the world,” unlike the rest of their peers, and nor should they: A recent sold-out show I saw in London was a shambles, and to this member of the audience an irritating, as opposed to adorable, shambles. One of the support acts was a rambling and very drunk poet, and the boys and girls themselves took their own sweet time tuning up and messing about between each number. It took a good five minutes before they deigned to play anything at all.
But quirkiness is a much rarer commodity in this new, brash Britain than it was. We used to be rather good at it — generally, we took the view that if we couldn’t compete with the Yanks properly, then we’d refuse to play the game by acting daft. This new Brit feistiness, however, has meant that everyone wants a shot at the mainstream: Self-confidence is in, and self-deprecating charm is out — almost. Luckily, Belle and Sebastian have charm in glorious abundance, and “A Century of Elvis,” the last track on the new “Lazy Line-Painter Jane” EP, is surely the most charmed you’ll be all year.
“A Century of Elvis” is in effect a short story, spoken in broad Scottish over a gorgeous, aching, jingle-jangle guitar and a couple of tootling organ notes; the story is about a period in the narrator’s life when Elvis — the very famous one — visited him in his flat every evening. It’s one of those rare pieces of work that you love partly because you have no idea where it came from: I haven’t heard much recently that describes Elvis poking around a post office van, apparently contemplating whether to drive it away. It’s the accumulation of detail that makes the track — there’s actually some deceptively fine writing going on here, although the band probably wouldn’t thank me for pointing it out. In one passage the narrator wonders whether it was Elvis’ love for squirrels that attracted him to their particular leafy suburb; another concerns the great man’s impassive consumption of a video entitled the ‘The E-Files,” about unlikely Presley sightings. You end up smiling at the simple joy taken in picking up an idea and running with it — if you can make anything out in the mix, which is, needless to say, pretty crappy. Oh, and if you love the tune but get tired of the story, the jingle-jangle is recycled for “A Century of Fakers,” the song that kicks off “3, 6, 9 Seconds of Light.”
Maybe you have to be living here to appreciate just how welcome this kind of egoless homecooked whimsy is at the moment, but if you’ve heard the Oasis album, or seen the mass Disteria on TV, you can probably guess. Me, I’m going to sit the New Britain out with a couple of Belle and Sebastian EPs and a good book; it won’t be long before we turn back into ourselves again.