Belle & Sebastian – How To Solve Our Human Problems

In the latest chapter of a musical story that has been going for 22 years, Belle & Sebastian return to bring a little bit of joy and a whole lot of sunshine into the world once more. How To Solve Our Human Problems sees them continuing to play by their own rules, just as they have always done since their 1996 debut Tigermilk. They quickly followed up on that with a trilogy of EPs, recorded and released at a rapid rate in case, as frontman Stuart Murdoch described it, “Someone took the keys to the studio away”. Thankfully that never happened, and this latest trilogy is now brought together as a compilation album and box set. It is absolutely the work of a band who no longer feel the need to do anything other than exactly what they want to do, even including how they release their music. Fans of their sunny disposition are in for a treat.

Part One begins with ‘Sweet Dew Lee’, the opening line stating that: “I want to lend you my ear, and diligently be on hand”. It is apparent straight away that the band have not lost their ability to craft a beautiful turn of phrase. Throwing in a Greek mythology reference, this tale of a former love and how their lives have moved in a different direction (“Fate is destined and we grew apart, now I’m cleaning up at your latest party”) is classic Belle & Sebastian. ‘We Were Beautiful’ carries the same wistful acknowledgement of the years passing by, a theme that runs through much of the album. It is only on ‘The Girl Doesn’t Get It’ that the band start to quicken the pulse a little, tackling our current Brexit-dominated situation. Describing a group of people for whom: “The eyes are looking back in time, gazing out on a fading empire”, those who want to: “Make the country great again, just as long as it’s white and ugly/fear the immigrant workforce, fear the kids raised on the internet”, it is the best track on Part One by far. The first EP plays it a little too safe, so it is interesting to hear them bare their teeth a little.

Part Two immediately moves away from their standard template, and is all the better for it. ‘Show Me The Sun’ arrives like a burst of 60s power pop-rock, an Italian Job-style chant leading into a dash of fuzzy guitar before a back-and-forth duet adds an energy missing from Part One. ‘The Same Star’ jumps forward in time, skirting the edges of AOR in its production as Martin sings of seeing a former lover in a new light (“I used to love those funny ways, I thought I understood the real him…It took another me to perceive him”. Whereas Part One kept largely to the same style, the second part flits and hops – ‘I’ll Be Your Pilot’ is a sweet love song that could have appeared on any of their former albums. Though it also acts as an update to the sentiments of their youth, as the band who once sang about being the younger generation in ‘Me And The Major’ now warn that: “It’s tough to become a grown-up”. The galloping ‘Cornflakes’ nudges into rockier territory, with its soaring reference to their hometown of Glasgow.

Following on from the strongest part of the trilogy, the funky opening to ‘Poor Boy’ sets Part Three off with a bounce in its step. In many ways, however, the final EP then drifts into a more melancholy sound than what has come before. The poetic ‘Everything Is Now (Part Two)’ deals with feelings of regret at chances not taken (“What never happens haunts us always”), while the rueful ‘Too Many Tears’ works through the aftermath of a failed relationship (“Where did all the people go, cos when you break that’s when you know/who’s on your side and who’s with him”). Suitably for a band whose original fanbase will now likely be fully grown up with adult children of their own, these songs accurately reflect the passing of time. Finally, after the gorgeous ‘There Is An Everlasting Song’, Belle & Sebastian can’t help but bring it back to sunnier climes with the cute ‘Best Friend’.

Of course at 15 songs, there is some filler within How To Solve Our Human Problems. Whereas an EP can be a tasty bite-sized chunk, compiling them all into one album makes it perhaps too big a meal for some. Their hardcore fanbase will devour it all with joy, while others will want to pick and choose. There is more than enough here to continue the Belle & Sebastian journey, and there is a genuine joy in seeing a band creating music in the way that they want rather than just churning out the hits at festivals every summer. They may not quite have all the answers, but they don’t half make those human problems all the more bearable.

Jamie MacMillan

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