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Album Review: Belle & Sebastian – Late Developers

Do we take Belle & Sebastian for granted?

For many devoted fans, there has never been a time without the band featuring in their life, while many others (including this writer) can only wince at how far back it was when they first bound onto the scene.

The passing of time and a permanent presence will naturally dilute feelings. Still, a string of health challenges in the past year or so (not to mention that whole pandemic thing), has possibly caused people to rethink their relationship with the group.

We’re certainly not going to speculate on how the band feels, but as early as the second track, you get the impression that B&S aren’t ready to roll over or give up without a fight. ‘Give A Little Time’ might not be as sprightly as in the golden days, but equally, it’s poppier and more celebratory than you would expect or even dare to receive. Even the slight familiarity to Snow Patrol’s ‘Spitting Games’ will put a smile on your face.

‘The Evening Star’ features Stuart at his best. With a combination of horns and Wurlitzer piano behind him, it’s a summery soul stroll, ideal for how Kelvingrove Park or the Botanics look and feel in your head, even if the reality is somewhat different.

Stevie Jackson still provides satisfaction in the frenzied reveries of ’So In The Moment’, but Sarah Martin steals so much of the spotlight in the record’s second half. ‘When You’re Not With Me’ is an almost disco stomper (almost but certainly not) that should form part of any good kitchen soundtrack for all the best parties and impromptu nights.

This track runs into the synth charm of ‘I Don’t Know What You See In Me’ and prowling ‘Do You Follow’, culminating in a feeling of perfect sequencing.

On ‘When The Cynics Stare Back From The Wall’, Murdoch and guest Tracyanne Campbell [Camera Obscura] split vocal duties; please feel free to meditate on whichever classic male and female singing combo you like. Sparks and playfulness ensure the songs leap at you.

One of the interesting things about this record, like many of the band’s albums, is there might well be a couple of tracks that don’t grab you. This might be on the first listen, or it might be forever. When you consider how many people have musical input, this isn’t a surprise; ultimately, it is not a problem. The songs this writer isn’t immediately fond of, say ‘Will I Tell You A Secret,’ will delight others, and who knows, over time, those positions might switch.

Overall, it’s a collection of good tunes with enough variety to ensure it remains exciting after repeated listens. It’s not quite an idyllic take on 60s pop radio, but this isn’t a record made for and by algorithms; it’s organic, mainly upbeat, and an excellent addition to an impressive body of work. Of course, despite the band’s protestations to the contraty, the truth may be that these songs are leftovers from the A Bit of Previous (2022) sessions, and in ‘When the Cynics Stare Back From the Wall’ one song at least was originally written in 1994, so the sprawling sounds and genres make sense. Not that this would diminish the collection: the songs stand up, which is all that matters.

You can roll out as many platitudes, like mature, comfortable and confident in themselves, as you like, and while it might seem lazy, it’s no less accurate. Modern-day B&S might cause a little sadness as you think of their highs (or your successes soundtracked by them) from days gone by, but what is nostalgia but a mixture of joy and sadness in remembering our previous triumphs? The band is very much in tune with their back pages on Late Developers. Still, with new songs, stories and melodies in abundance, there’s enough to suggest Belle & Sebastian matter as much in 2023 as at any other point in their glorious run.

Late Developers is out now via Matador Records.

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