I love Belle and Sebastian dearly; let’s get this out of the way right now. I discovered them five years ago by pure chance, a sequence of events that was a perfect storm involving accidentally buying Stuart Murdoch’s autobiography, a poke around the back ends of YouTube, and some fatherly advice from an old ethics teacher. They’re a part of my life, and I will always check in with them. They’re family.
So, it pains me to say that their last few releases have been… Iffy. Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, their 2015 album, was a mixed bag, and that’s me being generous. It was laced with bangers, but also some truly wonky moments and decisions, and some of the finer moments were left off the album and relegated to dusty b-sides (like Piggy in the Middle, or a Politician’s Silence). Murdoch’s stated aim of the album sounding like Eurovision was admirable but misguided. For every “Enter Sylvia Plath”, there was a “Today (This Army’s For Peace)”. The band were working with reserves of energy, but not enough to see them over the course of an hour, a punishing runtime for an album like this. And sadly still, even on the best tracks there was an element of emotional detachment. Even on their most “produced” albums, like Life Pursuit or Waitress, there was still an engagement with feelings, an empathy for people, a desire to tell stories. None of that here; piercing psychological insights were replaced with blanket statements that don’t really tell us much about anything.
Then they released “6AM, Olympic Village”, a song of such overwhelming badness and blandness that I wouldn’t believe it was them if they hadn’t announced it on their Facebook page. Belle and Sebastian had always worn their Christianity on their sleeve, but this was the first time they’d sounded like the kind of filler music you’d get for a really low budget DVD played to keep fidgety kids quiet at the back of church.
Sonic. War. Crime.
So I was hesitant when their new single, “We Were Beautiful” dropped on my Spotify feed this morning. I wondered if the band had run out of steam, and exhausted their musical ideas. Then I pressed play. Phew.
This is a wonderful track that signals something Belle and Sebastian have been lacking in for a while- evolution. There are musical ideas here, and numerous problems I had with the band have been addressed. Murdoch’s vocals, flagging in previous years, have been put to good use, putting on a wispy air, and actually bolstered by instrumental backing. The percussion is tight, and urgent; the song moves forward with a sense of purpose. There are instruments each playing a part- strings, harmonica, electronics, just like the old Belle and Sebastian. They’ve always been a band that makes the listener feel involved through listening to them, and they reclaim that collaborative spirit here.
And yet the song is a rumination, not an impression of years gone by. As the title of the song suggests, Belle and Sebastian are (for better or for worse) a band of the past. They staked their career on songs for the (outsider) kids; tales of school, first crushes, that adolescent sense of discovery, are plentiful in their first three albums. Here, for the first time, they turn that introspection backwards.
Lyrically, this is their strongest song in years. There’s a weary sense of oldness to this thing; it’s obviously about a separated couple looking back on their glory years, but the song also seems to signal a statement from the band itself acknowledging the fact that they’re not young anymore. This is a good thing; it gives the song a sense of focus, a mournful air, and, conversely, a sense of vitality they’d long lost. They have something to sing about again, instead of presenting songs about the same old topics.
It’s great. For the first time in a long time Belle and Sebastian don’t sound like a band simply cashing in on a sound they mastered over twenty years ago. It’s still not a patch on the songs of their past, but it is catchy and interesting and not one-note. In acknowledging their age and looking backwards, Belle and Sebastian manage to sound like a band worth listening to again. And thank fuck for that.
(Words: Declan Cochran)