By Alannah Balfour
This past summer, I watched Belle & Sebastian perform at the Travelers’ Rest Festival in Missoula, Montana. The aging band bounced around each other, inviting the dancing crowd on stage until the space was entirely filled. It was impossible to stop smiling as they glided through old favorites like “Piazza, New York Catcher” and “Sukie in the Graveyard.” This positive energy translates directly into their latest release. The music contradicts with an infectious joy, even when the lyrics touch upon difficult subjects.
The cult-revered Scottish musical collective Belle & Sebastian released the final installment of its three-part EP on Feb. 16, after debuting each part of the divided “How to Solve Our Human Problems” monthly since December. Each EP showcases five songs, ranging from ’60s-inspired rock to soft ballads alternating the male and female vocals of primary singers Steve Murdoch and Sarah Martin. These songs would fit perfectly in your father’s dusty vinyl record collection. The group, whose seven members have been together since university 20 years ago, are throwing their sound back to their first few albums. The members explore narrative lyrics with guitar and percussion accompanied by revolving classical instruments like flutes, cellos and trumpets.
In the first EP’s standout song “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” smooth harmonies complement Murdoch’s fast-paced lyricism. The song toys with keyboard sounds and rhythmic percussion, ending with a political call: “They’ll make the country great again, just as long as it’s white and ugly / Fear the immigrant workforce! Fear the kids raised on the internet! / They are scared if they can’t control you.” Belle & Sebastian have always supported underdogs and outcasts with their music, and it is no surprise that they included a protest song (especially one sung over an upbeat tempo).
The second EP’s “I’ll Be Your Pilot” is a relaxing ode to Murdoch’s young son, where he promises to guide him and warns, “It’s tough to become a grown up, put it off while you can / I tell you that when you land in the real word, it’s like quicksand.” The background oboe and soft vocals lean towards creating a saccharine melody, but he contradicts childhood innocence and parental guidance with the harsh reality of adulthood. It is a classic example of what makes Belle & Sebastian so successful: they use lyricism to tell us a story. It’s music that will guide a daydream.
The most recent release is arguably the most memorable. In the first song, Murdoch sings “Poor boy, I’ll never live up to your expectations … / Talk to me, don’t venerate me now,” as Murdoch responds, “The trouble always starts in someone’s head,” over ’70s style disco. Listeners will dance to the dangers of putting others up on well-known undeserved pedestal. The final song wraps up the EP collection with a knockout collaboration between Murdoch and upcoming singer-songwriter Carla Easton on “Best Friend.” Easton serenades an uplifting love song over comfortable guitar chords, but this track is no exception to Murdoch’s lyrical existentialism: “It’s only human to not want to be alone.”
Despite multiple strong songs, there are several indistinguishable tracks. The three-part release feels contrived and unnecessary. It is too easy to zone out to bland duet “Too Many Tears,” as Martin’s high-pitched chorus disrupts the energetic verses. “Cornflakes” brings the nostalgic sound of the ’50s, but clashing percussion blurs its lyrics. It could have been simplified to a powerful 10-track album, and the separation into five song intervals allowed disappointing songs to seep through. This process, however, did allow the band to release music on its own time rather than push for an album deadline. It gave them more room for experimentation in the stretched release, and while Belle & Sebastian’s creative comfort-zone has value, they did not stray far from it. The sentimental music is a safe choice for aimless listening coupled with a few new favorites — think a family road-trip needing a noncontroversial playlist. Your mom is going to love it.