“My top ten don’t ever really change. These things are eternal, they just keep going around in my mind: God, sickness, Buddhism, family life, public transport, consolation—just having a general moan about life—and everyday beauty!” That’s Stuart Murdoch, the gravitational center of Belle and Sebastian, telling NME how some things will always remain constant. His creative fount has stayed the same, so surely his songwriting has too? It’s a helpful way to contextualize the Scottish band’s career as they arrive at a milestone: album number ten.
Is today’s Belle and Sebastian the same band that produced Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister? Much of the original lineup remains intact. Recent album covers still feature shadowy, one-color photographs of people tentatively related to the group. The production of their new record, A Bit of Previous, took place back in their hometown of Glasgow for the first time since Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant in 2000.
Yet the opening track, “Young and Stupid”, refutes the assumption that this is a return-to-form album. “Now we’re old with creaking bones / Some with partners, some alone / Some with kids and some with dogs / Getting through the nightly slog,” sings Murdoch, acknowledging that things aren’t quite as thrilling (or simple) as they once were. Even the album title—the Buddhist frontman’s nod to reincarnation?—seems to admit that golden age Belle and Sebastian will have only a bit part in this new release.
Instead, A Bit of Previous explores a candid, though less thoughtful, space in which guitarist Stevie Jackson’s Neil Diamond pastiche (“Deathbed of My Dreams”) is happy to sit alongside a congregational ode to Ukraine (“If They’re Shooting at You”) and a Huey Lewis-esque synth bop (“Talk to Me Talk to Me”). But unlike other artists, such as Weezer, who also released their career-defining albums 20-plus years ago, Belle and Sebastian are not vestiges of their former glory. A Bit of Previous successfully excavates some new territory while retaining enough of what fans know and love—and expect.
“Do It For Your Country”, with its luminescent guitar arpeggios and John F. Kennedy references, has a generous dose of that literate Murdoch enigma. “I know you look at me, lobster in a pot / Songbird in a gilded nightmare / Nothing will hold you, not even when he begs / To wrap around your legs and hips.” “Come on Home” is easy listening for a beach bar summer evening with its lounge piano clusters and horn spurts.
Like a final sigh of relief, the novelistic closer “Working Boy in New York City” is the closest they come to The Boy With the Arab Strap, the most Belle and Sebastian moment. In case that wasn’t clear from the title, there are stirring lyrics such as, “Listen to the music of the traffic in the city / Singing to the hope inside you.” They’ve still got it—some of it.
There isn’t another “Like Dylan in the Movies” or “The State I Am In” to be found here. Still, once we appreciate Belle and Sebastian for who they are today—meditation gurus, parents, aging luminaries of hand-knitted folk-pop—it’s clear that this is a fun, unpretentious set of songs with varied dynamics and likable characters. A Bit of Previous bridges the literate twee of the Fold Your Hands mid-period and the band’s newfound dance proclivities (see their last record, 2015’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance).
As Murdoch admits in “Come on Home”, “Often time corrupts what you thought you knew.” Maybe If You’re Feeling Sinister wasn’t all that special? Or maybe it’s enough to release a collage of your life once every seven years, even if your wandering days are over.