Belle and Sebastian Sing of Middle Age

“Now we’re old with creaking bones,” Stuart Murdoch, the front man of the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian, sings on “Young and Stupid,” the jaunty opening track of its new album, “A Bit of Previous.” The lyric feels less like a resigned lament than a jubilant mission statement—a declaration that it’s possible for a band widely associated with youthful languor to successfully train its sensibilities on the indignities and forced epiphanies of middle age. The album is full of references to aging, parenting, and nostalgia for youth, but also to some new orientation to life, one that takes its finitude a touch more seriously. “This is my life,” Murdoch sings in the chorus of “Unnecessary Drama.” He sounds a little shocked. “This is my only life.”

Like many (maybe most) Belle and Sebastian fans, I fell in love with the band on the basis of the trio of albums—“Tigermilk,” “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” “The Boy with the Arab Strap”—that it released from 1996 to 1998. These albums felt like a pure sonic distillation of the hazy zone between extended adolescence and early adulthood, when your days might be laced with romance and improvised adventure, or just as easily boring and shapeless, saturated with vague longing in search of suitable objects. I first heard them as a teen-ager in central Pennsylvania. Previously, any emotional connection I’d found in contemporary music had been occasioned by men singing melodramatic, lovesick lyrics plopped atop hard-driving, distorted electric guitar. (See, for example, Weezer: “I can’t believe how bad I suck, it’s true / What could you possibly see in little ol’ three-chord me?”) Belle and Sebastian was different: the lyrics felt less like angsty, self-pitying diary entries and more like arch, happy-sad short stories. The music was different, too: softer and less archetypally masculine, with acoustic guitar and lilting riffs on piano, strings, and horns. Murdoch’s singing skewed androgynous, and his lyrics often suggested a casual sexual fluidity. (Though he’s 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 in it, imagining myself on a bus driving through Glasgow, the band’s home city, looking out a window streaked with rain.

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, alongside various EPs, film soundtracks, and collaborations. Listening in chronological order, you hear the arrangements growing more ambitious, the production acquiring more layers of polish. More pop flavors show up, and dashes of disco, too. Where the nineties material sounds written to be played in local coffee shops and bars, the later albums often feel shaped by the band’s awareness of a bigger club or festival audience. The emotional needle tips away from happy-sad, wry observation and toward happy-happy, open-armed celebration. I still remember how surprised I was the first time I heard the frank direct address of “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love,” an ecstatically upbeat number from 2003’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”:

If you find yourself caught in love
Say a prayer to the man above
Thank him for everything you know
You should thank him for every breath you blow

Previously, when organized religion appeared in Belle and Sebastian songs, it felt like worldly institutions pretending to have answers they really didn’t. Seven years earlier, in the title track of “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” Murdoch had sung of a suicidally depressed woman who turns to a “vicar or whatever” for direction. His lyrics, their delivery infused with the joy of defiant truth-telling, suggest that she would have been better off staying at home and masturbating. Now, though, he was counselling the listener to “thank him”—as in Him—“for every day you pass / You should thank him for saving your sorry ass.”

To my ear, the first three albums have always been the perfect ones. All the parts—the writing, the performances, the production—complement one another so perfectly, and in such perfect service of the emotional material, that it’s difficult to imagine anything about them being different. I haven’t had the same feeling about any of their albums since (although 2006’s “The Life Pursuit” comes awfully close). But this verdict on the band’s trajectory has never dented my attachment to it. I listen to every new album as soon as it comes out, and I always enjoy myself, in much the same way I enjoy getting together with friends from high school and college. I’m happy they’re still around, happy for new proof that they’re still managing to make their way in the world, and happy we can still have fun together. It helps that each Belle and Sebastian album contains at least two or three songs I adore—and not, as a rule, for their resemblance to “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.”)

Anyway, it’s the artist’s job to move on. You can’t be an alienated semi-adult forever, and it’s silly to pretend that 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 sounds like a protracted bout of illness. (In interviews, he has spoken about suffering from chronic-fatigue syndrome.) Toward the end of the song, Murdoch zooms forward in time and describes stumbling upon a woman from his past—maybe a friend from that era of sickness, someone he met in a hospital, also suffering—at some sort of street protest, and wondering whether he did right by her in their time of hardship:

Now I look at you, you’re a mother of two
You’re a quiet revolution
Marching with the crowd, singing dirty and loud
For the people’s emancipation

Did I do O.K., did I pave the way?
Was I strong when you were wanting?

It felt like a preview of a Belle and Sebastian that dwelt less in the daily dramas of early-twenties life and more in the stock-taking of midlife.

On “A Bit of Previous,” this version of the band comes to the forefront. There are lyrics about the stressful press of accumulating obligation; about reaching out to old flames, or old almost-flames; about wondering whether you’d do it all differently, given the chance; about feeling overwhelmed by the suffering of the world and trying to keep going anyway; about kids and dogs and “getting through the nightly slog.” I was struck to learn that this was the first time since 1999 that the band had made a proper studio album in Glasgow; plans to record in Los Angeles got scrapped by pandemic travel restrictions, and they converted their rehearsal space into a recording studio. Maybe these conditions (a familiar space in a familiar city, with return trips to home and family each evening) helped give the songs, which are sonically unmistakable as “new” Belle and Sebastian, the exact quality I love most in “old” Belle and Sebastian: the feeling of life being transcribed, in a way completely specific to a time and place.

I was especially moved—after my initial surprise—by the occasional explicit reference to politics in Belle and Sebastian songs. (I’d always wondered, listening to “Nobody’s Empire,” what exactly the street protest had been for.) On “Reclaim the Night,” the band member Sarah Martin takes up the question of women’s public safety from assault. And, in “Come on Home,” Murdoch seems to sing the praises of a robust government safety net. Over a horn arrangement worthy of Tom Jones, he pushes to the top of his range and belts:

Give a chance to the old
Set the record straight for the welfare state
Give a chance to the young
Everyone deserves a life in the sun

On the early Belle and Sebastian albums, the British state sometimes felt (especially to an Anglophilic American teen-ager) like a silent partner, the guarantor underwriting the ambient sense of loose time floating amid the verses. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that “Tigermilk,” the group’s first album, was funded not by a conventional record company, or by the band members’ own funds, but by a music-business course at Glasgow’s Stow College. Belle and Sebastian got a chance and took it; now, all these years later, the band’s wondering what chances are being bequeathed to future generations—and what hardships, too. At one point, Murdoch sings of “Swimming in a sea of comfort / Heading for a sea of sorrow.” It’s a moving twist for these one-time bards of twentysomething drift, and a reminder that it’s sometimes old friends, the ones you think you know the best, who end up surprising you the most.

Source link