When Belle & Sebastian were just starting out, they released three EPs, Dog on Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light, over a six-month period that earned them much critical and popular acclaim. These EPs cemented the group’s reputation as the premier twee indie band. The music was charming: effusively soft, self-reflective and fun. The lyrics celebrated innocence lost and found and lost again combined with chamber pop instrumentation that suggested the inherent value of formal feelings. The songs resembled extended sighs during a crass commercial era of Spice Girls, R Kelly, and boy band manufactured naïveté.
Twenty years later Belle & Sebastian are at it again. This month they’ve released the first of three new EPs under the collective title How to Solve Our Human Problems. After a series of musical detours, individual projects, changes in group members and such, Stuart Murdoch and company have returned to the original sound that made them famous. The first five songs could be mistaken for unreleased tracks from an earlier era, but they are a bit more knowing. Or as Murdoch sings on the first track, “Swee Dew Lee”: “I didn’t think after 20 years / I’d be right back in the self-same places.” There may be a bit more self-awareness, but the songs’ personae are no wiser than the prescient narrators were before.
So when Murdoch recollects the past on “We Were Beautiful”, he understands that he was always clueless. That left him and his friends open to new experiences before time turned everything upside down. Yes, they have changed, but he reminds us that they are not too old to change again. He delivers the message in a whispery voice over an insistent percussive beat and a recurrent brass fanfare. One is forever young no matter how old one gets.
This theme is reiterated on the other tracks, albeit in different clothes. “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” concerns the ever-present myth that there is one perfect person for each of us. Murdoch mocks the sentiment even as he yearns to believe it. People and their feelings can change so easily. Life passes by. Today’s headlines suggest problems one never predicted. Yet, one can still find love in a supermarket. Even compared with the growth of the internet and the status of immigrant refugees, love continues to stand out as a true miracle.
Violinist Sarah Martin takes over the lead vocals on “Fickle Season” and quietly evokes the same sentiment. Birds know when to fly south, and lovers understand when to move on. The rhythms of life seem so natural. It’s always the time of the season for love, as the Zombies used to sing. Seasons may change, but they circle back again. Love may be capricious, but desire is a constant.
The EP’s mostly instrumental last song, “Everything is Now” begins and ends with the title phrase. It’s followed by the phrase, “Everything is different, now”. The lead organ gives the music a churchy feel. It’s a sermon on acceptance. Near the very end of the song, they sneak in the line “Everything is indifferent, now” suggesting age has worn them down. But Belle & Sebastian still worship at the altar of love. Belle & Sebastian may be 20 years older, but the band still feels young. That’s the problem of being human. There’s not a person over 40 that doesn’t feel 20. There’s no getting over age. The only solution is to be aware of the changes and celebrate.