It was lazily easy to assume based on its title A Bit of Previous, that the latest album by Glasgow Scotland indie-pop heroes Belle and Sebastian would be a greatest hits album akin to their 2005 collection of B sides and EP titled Push Barman to Open Old Wounds. Fortunately for their dedicated fanbase, however, the ever-evolving (now seven-piece) is delivering its first new full-length non-soundtrack studio album in seven years with A Bit of Previous.
But it’s not to say they didn’t keep busy in those years as they hosted a cruise, released a set of EPs, compiled a live album, wrote an original soundtrack (Days of the Bagnold Summer), and soldiered through a worldwide pandemic, with the latter forcing the seven members of the band, fronted by the ageless Stuart Murdoch, into a place they had not been in 22 years of recording albums – home.
Recorded in Glasgow, A Bit of Previous marks the first time since 2000 that the band recorded in their hometown and is the first self-produced album of material they have had since that time. Pandemic restrictions forced the band to think outside the box, converting their practice space into a recording studio. This decision may be a contributing factor as to why A Bit of Previous feels so fresh yet so timeless.
The opening track, “Young and Stupid,” with a sense of bittersweet nostalgia, allows the listener to first reminisce about the folly and fun of youth, and then consider the possibilities and realities of today. The song adeptly sets the tone for the album, work that recollects the spirit of the band’s older material while also demonstrating their evolution over the years. It is at once a homecoming that celebrates what has been and promises the worth of what’s to come; it is quintessential Belle and Sebastian.
“If They’re Shooting At You” follows, released as a poignant de facto benefit song to raise money for the plight of Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. With its swirling, Leslie speaker-driven organ sounds and 70s choruses, the tune swells with beauty as Murdoch sings ”I’m so tired, I’m always on my knees”. This seems to recall his experience with chronic fatigue, which kept him locked into his room years ago before the band formed. It may be a stretch but whatever the sentiment, the song is as smooth as butter and bears repeated listenings.
The next two tracks on “A Bit of Previous”, “Talk to Me Talk To Me” along with “Reclaim the Night” are both upbeat bangers (in terms of the Belle and Sebastian sound that is) that will keep their dedicated fanbase on their feet during their upcoming 20 date US tour. Both tracks feature multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin’s excellent vocal prowess as she shares leads with Stuart on “Talk To Me Talk To Me” and takes center stage on “Reclaim the Night”. Honestly, Martin is the real star of this album and shines so clearly on this track. Her vocal contributions to this album leave me waiting for her to release solo material someday, and we can only hope to be that lucky if and when she does.
While ”Talk to Me Talk to Me” comes at the listener at a frenetic pace, complete with flute solos, “Reclaim The Night” features arpeggiated keyboards, pumping compressed beats and a vintage rhythm that reminds this listener of a top 40 dance hit. The album’s first released single “Unnecessary Drama,” and its accompanying music video, represent the band at their most loose and aloof. For example, Stevie Jackson rocks his harmonica hard throughout the entire tune with shades of “Me and The Major” and the music video hilariously confirms this as the group fumbles through many wild group therapy sessions.
“Come On Home” has a wintery late 1960s Burt Bacharach vibe that, once again, showcases Murdoch and Martin’s dueting prowess evoking big bands, big sounds, and big feelings. “Deathbed of My Dreams” featuring Jackson, evokes feelings of the old West with sweeping slide guitars and piano tickles. That said, this is one of the album’s weaker efforts. Every Belle and Sebastian album has a Jackson feature song and this writer always anticipates it, but this wispy ballad did not resonate.
“Sea of Sorrow,” with its compressed piano and slightly tinny vocals, feels all at once sad, morose, and strangely uplifting. The outro lyrics, “swimming in a sea of sorrow, heading to a world of comfort” express to the listener that the worst is over and better things are yet to come.
Belle and Sebastian have crafted a pop record very much in line with their earliest work together. While previous albums in this phase of their career like Write About Love (2010) and Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (2015) contained brilliant moments within them; A Bit of Previous stands alongside the earlier works as a cohesive full-band effort. This latest effort surely should be counted alongside B&S beloved classics If You’re Feeling Sinister and Tigermilk. It feels good to go home again.