Okay, all you latter-day hipsters. Time to crawl out of those garrets and make haste to your local record shops. The new Belle & Sebastian album has arrived. Titled Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, this is their fourth full-length album and follows closely on the heels of the recently released EP Legal Man.
And if Legal Man was an uncharacteristic blast of summery cheer, then this new release sees a return to the downbeat Belle & Sebastian we (or at least some of us) all know and love. No sunshine anthems here, just a healthy dose of melancholy-tinged blinds-drawn ditties.
So, how to categorize Belle & Sebastian? That’s a tricky one. Merchants of bedsit adolescent angst, or super-savvy purveyors of pop pastiche? Well, take your pick really because there’s a lot of each in what they do. And plenty more besides.
The songs on this album, not unlike the rest of their work to date, are tragicomic narratives on the unfairness and wanton coldness of the world. Or, more specifically, this unfairness and coldness as seen through the eyes of the sensitive, heroic inhabitants of the Belle & Sebastian world.
The vocals are delicate and wavering, imbued with a forlorn sweetness. But this apparent flimsiness disguises the savagery of the lyrics. Take “Family Tree,” which comes across like a demented nursery rhyme, all sweet vocals and haunting innocence, but smoking with lyrical anger. Or the wounded resignation of “The Chalet Lines” with lyrics like, “Fuck this, I’ve felt like this for a week / I’d put a knife right into his eyes.” It’s songs like this that dispel any notion that Belle & Sebastian are just a bunch of smart-aleky college students messing around with themes of teenage angst.
While the tone throughout the album is resolutely low-key, the tempo is upped to foot-tapping level on a couple of the tracks with “Women’s Realm” even going so far as to boast a hand-clapping accompaniment. But even these numbers stick firmly in minor keys, retaining that touch of sweet sadness that lingers amongst the songs, a mood which is further marked by the understated instrumentals.
Depending on your perspective, Belle & Sebastian are either a blessed acoustic relief in these elecronica-saturated times, or an anachronistic throwback to those dark pre-electronic days. Either way, they seem resolute in the determination to stick to the old-fashioned musical artillery. Violins, acoustic guitars, horns, flutes — all add to that distinct (but not necessarily unpleasant) behind the times feel of this collection.
With this album, they are not exactly breaking any new ground. They are just getting better at doing what they do. And maybe maturing slightly too. The adolescent sensitivity of their earlier work is making way for a more knowing, but still idealistic, adulthood. Still dreaming of love and innocence but with a few extra bruises picked up along the way.