Belle and Sebastian
How to Solve Our Human Problems
For a while after 2006’s The Life Pursuit, it seemed our Scottish protagonists were going the route of the “Play the Favorite Album in Its Entirety” tour, along with so many indie acts of the ’90s who were sucked into wholesale (2010’s Write About Love was nobody’s favorite Belle and Sebastian album). A variety of compilations of singles and BBC sessions worked as reminders of their earlier songwriting strengths, hearkening back to a time when the band’s charming and polite indie pop united fans of The Smiths and Donovan and various awkward romantics who grew up on Sarah Records or followed labels like Slumberland.
Their work in the new century kicked into high gear with the Trevor Horn–helmed pop reinvention of Dear Catastrophe Waitress—a big-sounding album that worked because the songs were so concise. It was great to hear the band having so much fun and embracing all elements of being a twenty-first century pop group. A push and pull has been at the center of their music since, achieving a pleasant balance of glittering disco pop and winsome reflections on 2015’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.
How to Solve Our Human Problems is a set of three EPs released over the the past few months—not experimental works or landing places for tracks not fit for an album, but individual sets of fully-realized songs, a sort of nod to their inspirational three-EP run of the late-’90s that began with Dog on Wheels and was succeeded by 3..6..9 Seconds of Light and This Is Just a Modern Rock Song—an incredible run.
Twenty-some odd years later, it’s a bit disconcerting to hear a band make a concerted effort to be inspired by “the early stuff,” but luckily B&S aren’t really looking to recapture the sounds and textures of early material—just the focused energy. Whatever the inspiration, it seems to have worked, as many of these new songs feel bright and fully-formed; sleek in their disco ball–clad dressings but still filled with a conspiratorial whisper that makes their best songs feel like yours and yours alone.
“Sweet Dew Lee” and “We Were Beautiful” kick things off strong with killer amalgamations of guitar and dance floor finesse that they’ve worked on in recent live performances. That combo is what drives this collection—they are best now not at conjuring melancholy afternoons looking out the window, but at celebratory disco epics that get people dancing on the tables (OK, a certain type of person, anyway). “Show Me the Sun” throws elements of Sly Stone’s vocal chants into the mix, while “Poor Boy” is a slice of strutting funk whose connection to a song from the past like “The Fox in the Snow” is probably there, though hard to place. One thing is for sure: This is likely the best selection of songs they’ve had since Dear Catastrophe Waitress, so if breaking things down into bite-sized EP releases is what Belle and Sebastian need to do to keep the fires stoked, so be it.