Matador OLE-1123-2 LC 11552
The 15 tracks of Belle and Sebastian’s latest release were originally issued on three five-song EPs titled How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pts. 1-3. Does that make this latest edition a coherent album or a compilation? After the first listen, I found that the music made sense either way, though on repeated hearing I found myself pausing after each quintet of songs. At 70 minutes, How to Solve Our Human Problems is a lot to absorb; listening to these songs in three groups of five each gives this listener more space and time in which to digest them, and has let some tracks that at first sounded like filler come into their own.
The first song, “Sweet Dew Lee,” begins with bright, open, major-seventh guitar chords and an echoing synth line that lead to vocalist and guitarist Stevie Jackson singing about idealized romantic love. The song switches to minor key as Stuart Murdoch sings a verse that’s more down-to-earth and realistic -- not cynical, but showing the wisdom of age. The 6:29-long track abounds in ear-grabbing musical ideas: guitar trills, swirling synth lines, shimmering strummed guitars, and a rhythmically elastic bass line. Despite the strong disco influence, it all sounds current and fresh.
Dave McGowan’s pedal steel adds an unusual and slightly ethereal quality to “We Were Beautiful,” with its skittering electronic drum beat and world-weary words sung to a sunny melody (“We were beautiful before the years came”). Sarah Martin’s soft-toned vocal on “Fickle Season” gives the ballad a fragile quality that’s underlined by Jackson’s reverb-filled arpeggios.
Pt. 2 begins with “Show Me the Sun,” the band wordlessly singing a happy tune that leads into a bass-thumping re-creation of 1960s pop soul alive with fuzz-tone guitars and a sudden, skillfully handled time change. The oboe that introduces “I’ll Be Your Pilot” evokes the spirit of the ’60s baroque pop of the Left Banke; otherwise, the song has the enjoyable accessibility of ’70s soft rock.
The funky bass line of “Poor Boy” brings us into Pt. 3. An infectious dance groove and airy synths propel the medium tempo of this bittersweet soul ballad sung by Murdoch and Martin. “Too Many Tears” has an engaging Motown feel, set off by a bouncy bass line from Bob Kildea and harmony vocals by guests Celia Garcia, Therese Martin, and Anna Miles. The folky “There Is an Everlasting Song” carries a hint of influence from fellow Glaswegian Donovan, and “Best Friend” brings the collection to a close with a tribute to Phil Spector and his girl groups that features a terrifically fun vocal from songwriter Carla Easton.
Even with all its variety and influences, How to Solve Our Human Problems ends up sounding like no one but Belle and Sebastian. The group’s sound became more layered beginning with Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003), and by Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015), synths, disco, and ’60s soul had begun to assert themselves, as they continue to do throughout Human Problems. Stuart Murdoch, the group’s leader, seems to have absorbed every pop-music style of the last 50 years, and Belle and Sebastian play them all skillfully and make them their own. In “Sweet Dew Lee,” to choose just one example, Burt Bacharach and ’70s disco sit comfortably side by side.
The songs of How to Solve Our Human Problems deal with such themes as the disappointments of romance and the responsibilities of middle age, and derive some tension from the setting of emotionally complex lyrics to sometimes frothy-sounding music. But more is going on in the music itself than might at first be apparent, and it’s played with tremendous skill. It’s also beautifully recorded, and the slight tape hiss heard at the beginning of the first track is the pleasing sound of analog -- appropriate for a record that feels both old and new.
. . . Joseph Taylor