In a world where people consume music through pre-determined streaming service playlists with grim titles such as “Cinematic Chillout”, “Music for Concentration” and “Songs for Sleeping”, how does a band that is already nine albums into a career spanning over twenty years grab the attention of the zombified masses?
Masses moreover, who willingly listen to playlists entitled “Songs for Sleeping” (Spotify: 300,000 subscribers), “Indie Sleeping Pill” (Tidal) or “Music For When You Are Tired” (Tidal again) which are presumably full of bland, beige sub-Claydermanesque waltzes – or perhaps Razorlight ballads – and for which half the music industry is writing songs for in order earn their way on to that particular money-train.
What next? “Music to listen to while you stare into the void of your unhappy and ultimately meaningless existence”? How long before we see “Songs Written By A Faceless Corporation’s Algorithm You Are 80% Likely To Quite Like”?
It’s all very depressing.
Under such provocation, how does a band which is presumably not in existence merely to help people “chill” or “sleep” prompt people to actually listen to their latest record?
After all, it’s Belle & Sebastian. It’s bound to be good, right? On the other hand, if you were feeling… lazy, you could just reach for “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, or “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”…
I’ll tell you how. It’s simple. They just need to produce something that’s up there with the best they have ever released. Something that can connect to other humans in a way a playlist of drone-music will never do. After a career of more than twenty years, that would be seriously impressive.
Did I say career? It’s an unlikely outcome for Belle & Sebastian. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch was diagnosed with chronic fatigue when he was twenty years old. He spent seven years not knowing whether he would get better, writing songs. And when he did get better, he found a band to play with and released two classic albums of those bottled-up songs, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister, in the space of less than a year.
Still not fully recovered, Murdoch didn’t tour for several years, but eventually pulled a supportive crew and band around him and found a way to get the band to play live.
An unlikely career as an indie pop star indeed…
And nine albums! Not everyone needs more than nine albums by any single band. Some, like the Sex Pistols, say everything they have to say and need to say in one magnificent statement of an album. Others, like The Fall or The Cure, release vast numbers of albums to an appreciative fan base, allowing the more casual fan to dip in and out.
Belle and Sebastian have come up with a different tactic.
They are, for now, eschewing the LP format, instead releasing three EPs, one month after the other. It harks back to their early days, when albums were supplemented with additional, non-album tracks that only appeared on EPs.
“It’s almost like we made these bite-sized records because we know people’s attention span is not so good these days,” Murdoch told Billboard magazine. “It’s a bit like trying to feed a child a meal and they’re just not into it. But if you break it up into little bits, and maybe do the airplane with the spoon, then maybe they’ll swallow it.”
Think of these EPs as Murdoch holding a spoon to your face, smiling and saying “open wide!”
Are we really so prone to distraction that..hey look, there’s a squirrel.
Um, where was I?
Perhaps there’s another reason to try something different. Murdoch told Stereogum…“I think these days when an LP comes out, it’s kind of disappointing. Nothing seems to happen, and I thought, “we’ve got to do something different.” I hate just to tread water.”
So having three different release dates allows three different opportunities to make a splash, probably not a bad idea when the leader of the free world can distract everyone daily with a stray tweet, thus sabotaging even the best planned PR campaign.
All this is fine, but what really counts is whether the music is any good.
And this is where Belle and Sebastian have succeeded.
The second EP was released last week and is indeed one of the best things they have ever done. Five songs, all brilliant. “Show Me The Sun” will be a great live track, “The Same Star” has a brilliant Stax-style feel to it, all sharp percussive guitar and a Summer Breeze-style fuzzy guitar solo, followed up with a rich brass section. “I’ll Be Your Pilot” is lovely chamber pop and final song “A Plague On Other Boys” is incredible: a gorgeous, shifting, minor key melody, accentuated by melancholy orchestration. Stunning.
How To Solve Our Human Problems Part 2 is available on streaming services, hopefully on playlists with the title “Brilliant Indie Songs To Hear And Dance To” and parts 1, 2 and 3 will all be collected on CD when the third EP is released next month, and there’s a vinyl set with a box to collect them in.