Belle and Sebastian Sing from the Middle Ages
“Now we’re old with creaky bones,” Stuart Murdoch, frontman of Scottish band Belle and Sebastian, sings on “Young and Stupid,” the upbeat opener from his new album, “A Bit of Previous.” . The lyrics sound less like a resigned lament and more like a jubilant mission statement – a declaration that it is possible for a band widely associated with youthful languor to successfully mold its sensitivity to the indignities and enforced epiphanies of middle age. . The album is full of references to aging, parenthood and longing for youth, but also to a new direction in life, which takes its finitude a little more seriously. “It’s my life,” sings Murdoch in the chorus of “Unnecessary Drama.” He looks a little shocked. “It’s my only life.”
Like many (perhaps most) Belle and Sebastian fans, I fell in love with the band based on the trio of albums – ‘Tigermilk’, ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’, ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap” – which he released from 1996 to 1998. These albums felt like a pure sonic distillation of the gray area between protracted adolescence and early adulthood, when your days might be laced with romance and adventure. improvised, or just as easily boring and formless, saturated with vague desire in search of suitable objects. I first heard them when I was a teenager in central Pennsylvania. Previously, any emotional connection I’d found in contemporary music had been occasioned by men singing melodramatic, amorous lyrics laid over distorted, distorted electric guitar. (See, for example, Weezer: “I can’t believe how bad I am, it’s true / What could you see in my little old three-chord self?”) Beautiful and Sebastian were different: the lyrics sounded less like angst, self-pity journal entries and more like happy and sad short stories. The music was also different: softer and less typically masculine, with acoustic guitar and singing riffs on piano, strings and horns. Murdoch’s singing was androgynous, and his lyrics often suggested a casual sexual fluidity. (Despite being openly straight, I’ve met more than one gay man who refuses to believe it.) To this day, these three albums make me feel like I’m seventeen, trying to piece together a story about the world and my place. inside, imagining myself on a bus driving through Glasgow, the band’s hometown, looking out of a rain-streaked window.
Since “The Boy with the Arab Strap”, the band – minus a few original members, plus a few new ones – has released six proper studio albums, as well as various EPs, movie soundtracks and collaborations. Listening in chronological order, you hear the arrangements getting more ambitious, the production acquiring more layers of polish. More pop flavors appear, and touches of disco too. Where ’90s material sounds written to be played in local cafes and bars, later albums often feel shaped by the band’s awareness of a larger club or festival audience. The emotional needle moves away from happy-sad, ironic observation and towards happy-happy, open-arms celebration. I still remember how surprised I was the first time I heard the frank and direct speech of “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love”, an ecstatically upbeat number from 2003’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”:
Previously, when organized religion appeared in the songs of Belle and Sebastian, it was as if the institutions of the world pretended to have answers that they really did not have. Seven years earlier, in the title track of “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” Murdoch sang of a suicidally depressed woman who looks to a “vicar or whatever” for direction. Her words, their delivery imbued with the joy of defiantly speaking the truth, suggest she might have been better off staying home and masturbating. Now, however, he was advising the listener to “thank him” – as in him – “for every day you pass / You should thank him for saving your life.”
To my ear, the first three albums have always been perfect. All parts – the writing, the performance, the production – complement each other so perfectly, and in such perfect service of the emotional material, that it’s hard to imagine anything about them being different. I haven’t had the same feeling on any of their albums since (although 2006’s “The Life Pursuit” comes awfully close). But this verdict on the trajectory of the group has never affected my attachment to it. I listen to every new album as soon as it comes out, and I always have fun, the same way I like hanging out with friends from high school and college. I’m glad they’re still around, glad to have new proof that they’re still managing to make their way in the world, and glad we can still have fun together. It helps that every Belle and Sebastian album contains at least two or three songs that I love – and not, as a rule, for their resemblance to the “old” Belle and Sebastian. (No matter how much time passes, I suspect I’ll always call the first three albums “old” and everything since “new.”)
Either way, it’s the artist’s job to move forward. You can’t be an alienated semi-adult forever, and it’s silly to pretend you’re one when you’re not. In one of my favorite Belle and Sebastian songs of the past decade, “Nobody’s Empire,” from 2015’s “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance,” Murdoch describes what feels like a long illness. (In interviews, he has spoken of suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome.) Near the end of the song, Murdoch steps forward in time and describes that he ran into a woman from his past – possibly a friend from that time of illness, someone he met in a hospital, also suffering – in some kind of street protest, and wondering if he had done the right thing with her in these difficult times:
It felt like a glimpse of a Belle and Sebastian that dwelled less on the day-to-day dramas of life in their early twenties and more on midlife inventory.
On “A Bit of Previous”, this version of the band comes to the fore. There are lyrics about the stressful press of bond accumulation; to reach out to old flames, or to old almost-flames; wondering if you would do anything differently, if you had the chance; to feel overwhelmed by the suffering of the world and to try to carry on despite everything; about children and dogs and “overcoming night work”. I was struck to learn that this was the first time since 1999 that the band had made a proper studio album in Glasgow; recording plans in Los Angeles were scrapped by pandemic travel restrictions, and they converted their rehearsal space into a recording studio. Perhaps these conditions (a familiar space in a familiar town, with trips back and forth to home and family every night) helped give the songs, which are sonically unmistakable as “new” Belle and Sebastian, the exact quality that I like the most in the “old” Belle and Sébastien: the feeling of living being transcribed, in a way that is completely specific to a time and a place.
I was particularly moved – after my initial surprise – by the occasional explicit reference to politics in Belle and Sébastien’s songs. (I always wondered, listening to “Nobody’s Empire”, what exactly the street protest had been for.) On “Reclaim the Night,” band member Sarah Martin addresses the issue of women’s public safety from assault. And, in “Come on Home,” Murdoch seems to sing the praises of a strong government safety net. On a brass arrangement worthy of Tom Jones, he pushes up his register and his belts:
On Belle and Sebastian’s early albums, the British state sometimes felt (especially for an Anglophile American teenager) like a silent partner, the guarantor guaranteeing the ambient feeling of free time floating in the middle of the verses. It is no coincidence, I think, that “Tigermilk”, the band’s debut album, was not financed by a conventional record label, or by the band members’ own funds, but by a course of music business at Stow College, Glasgow. Belle and Sebastian had a chance and took it; now, all these years later, the band wonders what chances are left for future generations – and what difficulties too. At one point, Murdoch sings “Swimming in a sea of comfort / Heading for a sea of sorrow”. It’s a touching twist for these drifting 20-something bards, and a reminder that sometimes it’s old friends, the ones you think you know best, who end up surprising you the most.