Album Review: Belle and Sebastian, ‘Late Developers’

When Belle and Sebastian returned in May 2022 with A Bit of Previous, their first studio album in seven years, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking they never really went away. The Scottish group stayed active with a stream of EPs, soundtracks, and a live album that took stock of their decades-long legacy, but their endurance has perhaps less to do with whatever material they put out in between records than the way their music, with its juxtaposition of sprightly melodies and existential lyrics, insists on keeping you company over prolonged periods of time. Yet so effortlessly did A Bit of Previous showcase their knack for delivering thoughtful musings in a candid spirit of communion that it might have been easy to take it somewhat for granted after a while. At the very least, Late Developers, recorded in the same sessions and announced just days before it came out, provides an opportunity to revisit its predecessor. But more than a reminder of what makes Belle and Sebastian’s music so consistently inviting, the new album is also the more memorable of the two, and a little more carefree in its attempt to breeze through different sounds.

Unsurprisingly, A Bit of Previous and Late Developers circle around similarly familiar themes of spirituality, love, and the growing dread that comes with aging, but they’re most compelling for the way they touch on, and grapple with, the allure of nostalgia. It’s tempting to do a side-by-side comparison of ‘Young and Stupid’ from A Bit of Previous and Late Developers‘ more wistful ‘When We Were Young’, but the latter communicates an altogether different kind of longing: as if immediately taking the advice co-lead singer Sarah Martin offers on ‘Give a Little Time’ to “let the past be silent,” the narrator tries but struggles to find joy in the day-to-day of adult life. The more he reminisces on the naivety of the past, however, the more the song betrays not so much a lack of contentment but an inability to get over certain adolescent tendencies: “I wish I could walk away/ From the ‘no one gets me’/ From my sense of envy/ To the benign,” bandleader Stuart Murdoch sings in a variation of the chorus that appears just once, as if the switch-up is a little too revealing.

The characters on Late Developers are, as the sunshiny ‘Evening Star’ puts it, “stuck still in the depth of the mud” yet make an effort to set themselves on the right spiritual path. How far they get is another question, but it pushes the group to revitalize their sound in thrilling and often surprising ways: ‘Juliet Naked’ opens the record with mesmerizing vocal melodies, electric guitar, and no drums, mirroring the singer’s youthful conviction in all its flawed urgency. ‘So in the Moment’, a highlight led by Stevie Jackson, is an invigorating jolt of energy that lives up to its title, which turns out to be less earnest than we’re initially led to believe, a promise made while “wrestling with our love’s demise.”

Even at their most immediate, Belle and Sebastian flesh out the complicated dynamics of a song by employing such subtle twists. But while the irresistibly bouncy ‘When You’re Not With Me’ stands out as one of the album’s best examples of that strategy, the following ‘I Don’t Know What You See In Me’ clearly doesn’t allow itself the same kind of nuance, and not because it’s a radio-friendly (and admittedly catchy) single that marks the first time they’ve worked with an outside co-writer, Peter Ferguson (aka Wuh Oh). But whether or not its surface-level approach is part of the point, you have to give it to the group for placing it so close to ‘When the Cynics Stare Back From the Wall’, a previously unearthed song predating Belle and Sebastian that gives roots to their disdain for cynicism. “I know it’s time to change,” Murdoch admits, “I was so confused by the promises/ And the hardest thing/ Is to walk towards the things you need/ When the things you want/ Are like vision for the blind.” As its characters chase the things they so achingly desire, Late Developers runs alongside them, but knows they can only find rapture by leaving behind their old obsession with the self.

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