Belle And Sebastian released Tigermilk, their first album, 20 years ago today, but I didn’t hear it then. Neither did you. Neither did practically anyone. The band self-released the album, limiting it 1,000 copies. This wasn’t because they figured only 1,000 people would want to hear these songs. Even as modest as they may have been, Stuart Murdoch and his co-conspirators must’ve known they had something here. Tigermilk isn’t some basement four-track recording; it’s a set of lush, orchestrated, fully realized old-school pop songs, all recorded in full and lovely clarity. Rather, Tigermilk, at least on some level, was part of Murdoch’s grand plan. It could’ve been a happy accident — a bunch of Murdoch’s songs, recorded with a group of near-strangers, for a music-business class. But Murdoch liked how bands like the Smiths always had some mysterious unheard records haunting collectors’ shelves. He was into the idea that a band could have some vast shadow history lingering somewhere. So he went about manufacturing one for himself. That’s Tigermilk. Murdoch didn’t want anyone to hear the thing — at least, not immediately. He wanted it to be out there as some impossible-to-find curio, one that might exist only in fourth-generation dubs passed around fan communities. At this point, Murdoch was in the business of world-building. Tigermilk was background material.
As a strategy, there is something delightfully loopy about that. It reminds me of a story I once heard about Geoff Barrow, when he was working on Portishead’s self-titled sophomore album. Supposedly, Barrow couldn’t find the right sorts of spy-movie soundtracks that he wanted to sample, so he went about making his own spy-movie soundtracks — not for any actual movies, and not for the public’s consumption. He just made these things so that he’d have something to sample. I love that, and I love the idea that Belle And Sebastian plotted out their own mystique so completely that they basically just wrote off their first album as a throwaway. Funny thing about that: It worked. By the time most of us actually heard of the band, they were practically a myth. They never did interviews, never posed for photographs, never appeared in public. And they had all this older music out there that you simply could not hear. It was enough to drive some of us nuts. By the time the inevitable Tigermilk reissue came out a few years later, it was more of a relief than a revelation. Finally, we got to hear these songs we hadn’t been allowed to hear! We could stop obsessing over how they might sound!
But if you did happen to be one of those weird lucky randoms who got to hear Tigermilk before it turned into an object of cultish covetousness, you got to hear something special. Even from the beginning, Murdoch was as gifted at writing songs as he was at developing his own mystique, which is really saying something. This band was only a few months away from hitting on something like perfection and releasing the absolutely deathless If You’re Feeling Sinister. But they were already just about fully formed, capable of putting together these lush and layered songs on what I have to imagine was a shoestring budget. While scrappy immediacy was still basic indie rock currency, Murdoch and his friends were working with synths and trumpets and strings and expertly reverbed oldies-radio guitars. “The State I’m In” remains one of the band’s most perfect songs, and they must’ve known that, since they recycled it on the Dog On Wheels EP a year later. And plenty of other Tigermilk tracks belong on that list: “Expectations,” “I Don’t Love Anyone,” “My Wandering Days Are Over.”
There was some context for what Belle And Sebastian were doing on this album. The band’s native Glasgow, after all, was the site of a miserablist underground scene that was only just starting to take shape. And it was also home to twee pioneers like the Pastels and the Vaselines, both of whom, you’d have to imagine, were key influences. The Smiths clearly loomed large for Murdoch, as did the first couple of Nick Drake albums. But nobody else was putting these influences together in the same way that Belle And Sebastian were early on, and Tigermilk must’ve sounded absolutely alien to anyone who heard it cold. Here we had a classically gifted songwriter cranking out these hooky, bittersweet odes to misfits, all wispily sung and precisely worded and made to sound like they were recorded at Abbey Road, with a full orchestra on deck. How does a group of total unknowns record an album like this? And how do they put it out to only a thousand people in the world? Frankly, I’m still at a bit of a loss to figure it out.
The band hadn’t quite locked down their aesthetic on Tigermilk. There are a few moments that aren’t quite fully realized yet, like the watery synthpop of “Electronic Renaissance” or the ever-so-slight garage-rock bite of “You’re Just A Baby.” But this is still an example of something rare and mysterious: a band figuring out its craft and its sound in the shadows, and still coming close to perfection. They’d come even closer with Sinister, the album that ended up exploding skulls on both sides of the Atlantic. But taken on its own merits, Tigermilk remains a minor miracle, a piece of precise beauty that, if you hear it at the right time in your life, sounds like it was made completely for you personally.