‘A confident expertise that immediately scoops you into safe hands’ – Review: Belle and Sebastian – ‘A Bit of Previous’
Mention Glasgow Indie Pop band Belle and Sebastian to anyone and you’re quickly faced with two outcomes. Either they’ll start gabbing with enthusiasm or you’ll discover they are unfamiliar with a band that, despite undeniable international success, has managed to retain its cult status almost 40 decades after its inception. Whichever group you belong to, their new album ‘A Bit of Previous’ is decisively worth a listen (or multiple).
‘A Bit of Previous’ is the first album the band has released in seven years, and the first to be written in their hometown of Glasgow in 20. It’s also triggered an international tour this year (including a stopover at the Brighton Dome this November). It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that for Belle and Sebastian fans there was a lot on the line with this album. Luckily for them, seven years’ worth of talent seems to have culminated in twelve tracks that are undeniably Belle and Sebastian and somehow also notably new.
The artfulness wrought from a decades long career is immediately clear in ‘A Bit of Previous’. Thematically sleek, the album announces itself with an equally nostalgic name and album cover, a sepia toned photograph whose youthful inhabitants blur like ill-remembered childhood memories. There’s a confident expertise to Belle and Sebastian’s consistency that immediately scoops listeners up into safe hands.
While nostalgia is certainly a consistent motif within the tracks, it is never depressingly so. Instead, Stuart Murdoch’s ephemeral voice whisks listeners back to the sprightly adventures of days gone by and restores them to the present. As energetic choruses, bouncing synths and agile lyrics appear in track after track, Belle and Sebastian revisit juvenescent by embodying it.
The violin-led first track ‘Young and Stupid’ instantly drops listeners in upbeat reminiscence. Lyrics recall the delights of being, surprise-surprise, ‘young and stupid’ while the expert harmonies and buoyant chord progression recall that classic Belle and Sebastian sound that the band first developed in the nineties. Alessandra Lupo ends the track via spoken-word outro, her soft Glasgow accent claiming that ‘nothing matters, so, whatever’. What could be nihilistic instead comes across as the care-free attitude of someone with their whole life ahead of them.
‘Come on home’ and ‘Unnecessary drama’ are tracks which also manifests youthful exuberance. ‘Come on Home’ delivers a swinging tempo and brass-filled chorus so cheerful it might’ve played while credits rolled in a nineties family comedy. ‘Unnecessary drama’, meanwhile, is a dizzying noisy anthem, with screaming harmonica reminiscent of the electric guitar that blares at the end of The Smiths’ ‘How Soon is Now’. While sonically pretty different, both tracks are categorically energetic.
‘Talk to me, Talk to me’ as another crashing track. Its music video sees a teenager spying on, chasing after and being generally obsessed by her crush. As she, along with the rest of the music video’s cast, lip-sync to Murdoch’s cries for his lover to ‘talk to me, talk to me’, Belle and Sebastian pass their lyrics onto the next generation. A song literally embodied by teenagers, the video is representative of the entire album’s ability to recreate past intensities.
The synth-soaked electro-pop that Belle and Sebastian have toyed with since their 1996 debut Tiger Milk intercepts the album’s high-spirited guitar and piano tracks, with ‘Prophets on High’ and ‘Reclaim the Night’ offering thumping basslines and biting synths. The latter, led by Sarah Martin, utilises the album’s pre-established energy to discharge an anthem that forcefully pronounces we must ‘reclaim the night, don’t lose another’.
Martin’s political statement is far from the only track that communicates a message directly to the listener. ‘If they’re shooting at you’ and ‘Working Boy in New York’ offer up wistful descriptions of young people unsure of their place in the world. Foregrounded with the wisdom of hindsight, the track feels like a loving delivery of advice to the next generations, by adults who know they probably won’t take it.
Ultimately, ‘A Bit of Previous’ is just that. It’s an album that a Belle and Sebastian fan will recognise as the culmination of the band’s past, and that a newcomer will doubtlessly find represents their own.
Where the album really shines, however, is not in its ability to recount the past, but rather to reinvent it.
Words by Kate Bowie