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“The shadows played tricks on the girl in the dark”

I was discussing last night what perception is all about, what it means to form opinions on things, how much we’re affected by it. This must be philosophy. I always thought of philosophy as something interesting to read about, but not really participate in. Curious.

Anyway, imagine this, as was indeed my own scenario. I am about to buy a Belle & Sebastian record, for the first time. For my whole critical life, I’ve written them off as twee, light, fluffy and irrelevant, and am even now only buying the album on strong recommendations. As I go to listen to it for the first time, what am I thinking?

Consciously, I am aware that I have previously had no time for this band because as I understood it, it wasn’t my style of music, really – my tastes are more cerebral, more abstract, less conventional. To some extent, that’s true, although my own opinion of my tastes was probably not that accurate as to the truth. I am also thinking that lot’s of people have been saying they liked it – certain sources who I respect on the internet, but more telling, those I don’t: if Pitchfork like a record, I’m automatically skewed against it.

Unconsciously, I think I probably have still more going on. B&S were always that band that Steve Lamacq waffled on about but never really played (my memory of this turns out to be false), they were part of the ‘twee’ genre, they were named after a Japanese childrens’ cartoon. My mind is full of references that have been lumped together, for no immediately obvious reason, and they’re not just objective images or words, each one is loaded with subjectivity, with opinion – mine and others’ – and those with other, unrelated thoughts. So when I think of Belle & Sebastian, my initial reaction is that they’re skinny, wear fluffy but tatty woolen jumpers, probably have a girl in the band singing breathy harmonies, the music will be unchallenging and the words fey.

I actually still have no idea whether the projected image I had is correct or not – I’ve not really looked up Belle & Sebastian. I’m sure that the majority of this came from seeing their album covers: I imagine the girls to look like they do on the cover of Fold Your Hands Child…, and the boy to be like on The Boy With The Arab Strap. The imagining of the twee sound is, at best, only partially correct, while the perception of what the lyrics would be like was just plain wrong. But when I listen to the album for the first time, those are the thoughts that are unspoken assumptions, and that affect how much I enjoy the record – whether I like it or not.

According to the venerable Wikipedia, perception is one of the oldest and most key concepts of psychology, and I can understand why. Descartes’ concept of passive perception would have a linear trajectory: “surrounding → input (senses) → processing (brain) → output (re-action),” while Richard L Gregory takes the entirely less simplistic approach of: “‘description’ (in the brain) ↔ senses ↔ surrounding,” where everything bounces off everything else.

Using the Cartesian method, I hear the music from The Life Pursuit. I hear it through my ears, affected by the speakers, or the headphones or whatever. It processes through the baggage I’ve picked up over the last 26 years, taking on-board prejudices real and imagined, conscious and subconscious. What the music actually sounds like filters through what I expect it to sound like, what the band look like, my preconceived idea of the quality and relevance to myself of the lyrics, and finally it outputs itself in my critical opinion.

If I take Gregory’s approach, I find that the actual listening to the music is not the first or foremost thing (at least, as I understand this). Most important is the senses, which bounce off from everything else in the sum. So what I see from the album cover sparks memories of what I’ve seen of other B&S covers, and what is subconsciously buried regarding what I’ve seen and what I think I’ve seen of the band. I feel the nice digipack and see the quality and the wit in the cover and liner notes. I hear the actual music itself (surroundings) and I hear both what my brain is telling me to think, what other people have said, what I expected from my own preconceptions (description). 

When I listen to Belle & Sebastian then, I hear not just Belle & Sebastian but the opinions and reflections of a lifetimes’ worth of sensory perception, thousands of years’ worth of accumulated wisdom, opinion and fact, and of course, I hear Sukie In The Graveyard, which thoroughly messes with my cautious opinions in being just great. 

So, a happy ending, hurray!

Belle & Sebastian – Sukie In The Graveyard



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