A Bit of Previous executes a fine balance of evolution and reminiscence, revisiting the sounds of their early career from an appealingly more aged perspective.
The day before Belle & Sebastian’s newest album was released, Stuart Murdoch tweeted an unusual, instructional disclaimer for longtime fans: “Understand it’s not Sinister, Tigermilk, or Arab Strap. Understand we can’t take you back to those days and the way you felt back then.” It’s certainly an obvious statement for music listeners, but indeed may be a necessary caveat for much of the fandom. Belle & Sebastian face an unusual problem in that their impressive back catalog boasts much-beloved ‘90s indie staples like If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy with the Arab Strap that soundtracked many a millennial’s coming of age. Although the band has released plenty of material in the twenty-odd years since, they’re still locked in battle with the (sometimes unforgiving) power of nostalgia. The question is one any enduring acts of a certain popularity must contend with: when your older work is so beloved, what is the proper way to move forward artistically? Luckily for listeners, Belle & Sebastian have pulled off a neat little trick with A Bit of Previous. Sonically, it acts as a cheeky little wink to older songs; lyrically, it tackles some of their usual topics but from the vantage of a different, more aged perspective. In looking both backward and forward, this latest record manages to sound fresh despite the threat of obvious retread.
Throughout, there are clear reference points to previous material. You can hear echoes of “Electric Renaissance” in the synths on “Talk to Me, Talk to Me,” while the sparse opening of “Do It For Your Country” recalls the simple guitar of “Piazza, New York Catcher.” At the same time, we’re treated to a more mature look on life. Opener “Young and Stupid” is vintage Belle & Sebastian, with a lovely melodic line carried through by violin, but the track overall feels like a more mature bookend to some of their youthful catalog: “Now we’re old with creaking bones / Some with partners, some alone / Some with kids and some with dogs / Getting through the nightly slog,” Murdoch muses, acknowledging time’s ever forward march. It’s a rather graceful look at aging from a band whose music is often associated — lyrically, sonically — with youth. But that’s not to say that Belle & Sebastian have lost all their energy — “Unnecessary Drama” features a spectacular riff working in tandem with a driving drumbeat and a wailing harmonica, as danceable as anything the group has produced.
A Bit of Previous is a lovely little jewel for a band with such an iconic career. It’s not strictly a recreation of their older work, but it does act as an homage to all the places Belle & Sebastian have been. It may not be the kind of work to win over new fans — if you’re not already a fan of Belle & Sebastian’s distinctly twee aesthetic, it’s unlikely this will ever be your cup of tea — but it feels like both a gift for longtime fans as well as an act of self-care, an act of meaningfully moving forward while lovingly acknowledging the past. Indeed, one of the great joys of music comes in hearing artists have fun with the material they’re producing, and this is by far the most fun Belle & Sebastian have had in the studio in over a decade. A full quarter-century into their career, as other acts think of hanging their hats and moving onto other life pursuits, Belle & Sebastian here prove they’re still capable of conjuring the magic that made them an early iTunes staple for a certain demographic. They may not be casting the same spell that won listeners over way back in 1996, but in tapping into that same animated spirit, A Bit of Previous is an impressive enough feat in its own right.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2022 | Part 3.