Belle and Sebastian, “How To Solve Your Human Problems (Part 1)” (2017)

(CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: BRIEF DISCUSSION AND DESCRIPTION OF SUICIDE)

In Which I Go Full Rock Critic™ Now And Talk About A Band With The Kind Of Intimacy and Warmth That Should Be Reserved Only For Close Family Members and Significant Others

Belle and Sebastian were the band I lost my virginity to. I don’t mean that I played them while I lost my virginity (Merzbow, actually) but they were the band that opened my eyes to the wonders of music. The way I discovered them was worthy of a Belle and Sebastian song in and of itself. I still remember the dreary afternoon, where having recently picked up lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s autobiography in a charity shop (despite knowing nothing of the band), I asked my ethics teacher (cool guy, Welsh) if he’d heard of them. He stopped and asked if I was taking the piss, to which I said no and showed him the paperback. Turns out they were his favourite band, and I should listen to the Boy With The Arab Strap right away.

Off I went, and listened, and… You know that bit in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Bowman gets sucked into the Technicolor Dream Pit? Imagine a really shit, post-pubescent, “nervous yet cocky young man sitting in an ethics classroom on a rainy Wednesday procrastinating from an essay about Kant” version of that sequence. I was in love. I played their infectious but emotionally resonant songs over, and over, and over again throughout the ensuing weeks, getting to know their singles, the albums, EP’s, live cuts, their Peel Session, in the way you get to know that one person you’ve probably met who, after an hour or so in their company you feel like you’ve known them forever.

I can dispense with the ironic posturing here to proclaim, hand on heart, that they are the band that mean the most to me in terms of things I’ve been through with them. When I had my bout of teenage depression, If You’re Feeling Sinister (the album I am least uncomfortable calling my all-time favourite) pulled me through. When I was navigating the various complexities and deflations of my first year of university, their EP’s were some of the music I relied on for understanding and warmth. When a girl in my halls attempted suicide, the veins on her forearm open like fraying guitar strings, and I sought counselling for the trauma, I remember sitting outside the support office with my hardback copy of Paul Whitelaw’s history of the band tucked into my oversized winter coat.

So, yes, they are a part of me and I will always support them. However, like all people you lose your virginity to, the chances of you remaining with them grow slimmer over time. I have moved onto other loves, other dalliances, and whilst I revisit them and remember them, I also know to make time for my musical present as well as my musical past.

I can also un-deify the band to the point where I can see that after 2006’s excellent “The Life Pursuit”, the quality control has slipped. Since then, they’ve become a band equally capable of putting out immediate “turn-up-the-volume-and-get-yr-bloody-ears-on-this-now” bangers (“I Didn’t See It Coming”, “Nobody’s Empire”, “Enter Sylvia Plath”) and naff faff-y paff as disappointing as an unused condom, past its use-by-date, lying on top of a public bin in an abandoned shopping centre. I’ve never hated and loved a record in equal measure like I have their previous disc.

So I was hesitant and also excited for their latest release, a collection of three EP’s (harking back to arguably their strongest collection of work) released one a month from December through to February. Their first single, “We Were Beautiful”, had a certain charm, although I found it didn’t hold up to repeated listens, the Aphex-y drum beat not holding the melodies together like I thought it did the first couple of spins.

So I am truly sorry to report that this EP is… Disappointing. In places utterly awful (the fourth track, “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” is like a CBeebies jingle but worse), in other places utterly forgettable (closer “Everything Is Now” is the least memorable song they’ve ever composed). Mid-EP track “Fickle Season” is just about bearable, though it’s probably the least effective anti-war song I’ve ever heard (the flute really isn’t the instrument for that kind of thing).

The one track I thought had the potential to become a Belle and Sebastian Best Of candidate, opener “Sweet Dew Lee”, is a rehash of a standout on their previous album, “Perfect Couples”. Seriously, it’s got the same melodies, it’s sung by Stevie Jackson, and it’s got an identical lead-in to the chorus (maybe one note at the end is missing). It’s catchy, and fun, and it sees the band reckoning with their past in a way that’s refreshing and new, but to someone with more unwavering critical faculties than I, it’s indefensible.

But I still bought it on vinyl. I cried a little at Stuart’s liner notes (they are probably the best liner notes the band have done, and they’ve done some crackers), and I’ve put it on my little display shelf. Next week, I’m booking a meeting with a tattooist to have my first tattoo, the fox that appears on the disc of “Sinister”, just above my left wrist. A stray bit of chorus from one of their songs will pop into my head before then.

Sometimes what you know, and what you feel, can be very different, and that doesn’t matter. I know that they’re not the best band in the world. But because I feel so strongly for them, I also know that it doesn’t matter. Nothing, not even an underwhelming EP, can undo all that they’ve done for me, the times I’ve danced and cried (sometimes at the same time) to their music, the joy I’ve got from showing them to other people, the immediate affinity I feel with others who are also fans. For all the good the head does, it is still the heart that acts as the divining rod through life. It might cause trouble, disruption, grief and woe, but it also leads to the most beautiful and treasured moments of our life. It is an unstoppable force but the most invaluable. And it stretches far far beyond the realms of music.

 

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