Music

The Quietus | Reviews | Belle and Sebastian

The Quietus | Reviews | Belle and Sebastian

In 1997, Stuart David, a novelist and then member of Belle and Sebastian (he left in 2000 to form the band Looper), published Ink Polaroidsa collection of short stories capturing scenes from the band’s life. Described by the author as “pen portraits”, these prose vignettes alluded to that in-the-moment quality of an instant polaroid photo.

Though David left the band in 2000, photography remained an essential element of Belle and Sebastian’s creative output. The concept of the new album speaks directly to that awe for the art form hinted at by the covers of their previous releases. The front image of Late Developers depicts a striped-tie wearing Jessops employee holding up a fresh print in a monochrome dark room. It ostensibly sums up the magic of visual aesthetics to finesse ideas, whether abstract or concrete. In that sense the album resonates with David’s book. Each song is a short story, titles imply narratives rather than simply snapshots of mood. But, like David’s Ink Polaroidsthe tales are spun from specific images, drawing inspiration from childhood memories, current-day problems and spirituality.

‘So In The Moment’ amplifies the concept and cover of Late Developersthis twelfth album by the Scottish septet. Although it celebrates the present, there is a trademark sense of nostalgia, an untimeliness. “I wanna jump in like Paul McCartney and Wings,” sings Stevie Jackson. The song’s fluctuating harmonies bring to mind The Beach Boys and even Macca himself. With a title that seemingly nods at the Fab Four’s 1963 mellifluous hit ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret’, ‘Will I Tell You a Secret’ sounds all the more wistful. Featuring harpsichord, soft percussion and acoustic guitar, it combines the folk sensibility of Cat Stevens’s ‘The Wind’ with a slightly flamboyant baroque pop texture.

In line with the title, the album contains unused material from the session that fed into the group’s previous record, A Bit of Previous. The two share an upbeat mood and lyrical content suggesting a survival manual tone. Yet, the new work has a more distinct pop appeal.

Belle and Sebastian exercise their songwriting powers by crossing the boundary between sophisticated indie-pop and straightforward happy-clappy numbers with mainstream radio hit potential (‘I Don’t Know What You See in Me’). There are unconscious references to older chart-toppers. ‘When the Cynics Stare Back From the Wall’ suggests Mike Oldfield’s ‘Moonlight Shadow’. ‘When We Were Very Young’ evokes the latest album by fellow Glaswegians Simple Minds.

At the same time, melodically, they explore different dimensions of folk music. While most songs inevitably evoke the Western revival of mid-century, the chorus of ‘Juliet Naked’ evokes the melancholia of Slavic traditional songs, perhaps either Ukrainian or Russian. Eastern European folk might well have been an influence. Earlier, the band released a single ‘If They’re Shooting At You’, addressing the current war. The accompanying video shows a sequence of photographs taken by citizen journalists in different parts of occupied Ukraine.

Despite being lighter musically, Late Developers maintains the trajectory set by earlier albums. Similarly to ‘A Bit of Previous’ and its predecessors, it comes from thoughtful observation. The Hakuna-Matata vibe of the title track is counterbalanced by lyrics that echo ‘Life Is Complicated’ by The Kinks. Listing a series of routine tasks performed by an unnamed protagonist, Stuart Murdoch reminds us that life is always more than we what see – a fact that can be both frightening and exciting.

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