Coming from a family whose music taste differs wildly makes for various confounding, often peculiar, childhood memories. It is scarily easy to get your wires crossed when you were raised on an eclectic mix of The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, 2Pac, and Gregorian monk chants (shout-out to my mother). Bar the latter (sorry mum!), I love them all. Yet, these artists don’t necessarily evoke specific, vivid memories. I first encountered Belle & Sebastian circa 2003, three years after Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’s release. Waiting for the Moon to Rise, the fourth track, rung out as I constructed a hefty Lego pirate ship on the living room floor.
Belle & Sebastian have come a long way since then. Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant garnered favourable critical acclaim in its own right, but the Scottish band’s trajectory has only increased exponentially over the course of their subsequent five studio albums. The sixth, and their tenth overall, takes on a format that is not unorthodox to the band. 1997 saw Belle & Sebastian release three EPs in five months, just as 2018 has seen the band release three EPs in three months. This time, though, the releases have found themselves mustered into one final article – How to Solve Our Human Problems.
Not only is the album a fantastic marketing scheme to ensure the veteran band linger on our newsfeeds, but older fans might be somewhat relieved to discover that How to Solve Our Human Problems is very much a hark back to the band’s bedsit-indie beginnings. A Plague on Other Boys, for instance, evokes the band’s earlier records as Murdoch lends his vocals to a lovesick student’s narrative plight. In similar fashion, I’ll Be Your Pilot’s acoustic and heartfelt rhythm makes for some nostalgic easy-listening. The sentimentally quaint composition as an open letter to Murdoch’s son masks the harsh reality driven home through the lyrics: ‘’I’ll tell you that when you land in the real world / it’s like quicksand.”
This melancholic cynicism prevails throughout the album, and is customary throughout the band’s discography. We Were Beautiful pairs inadequate feelings and depressive digressions with Murdoch’s jittery vocals to create a tense ambiance. It does not look out of place in our current musical climate, and could easily have fit into their previous (and most commercially successful) album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. The track preceding this one, Sweet Dew Lee, strikes a perfect balance between modern Belle & Sebastian and vintage Belle & Sebastian. Pitting melancholy against jauntiness, it is an unusual vocal tug-of-war between Murdoch and Jackson. A synth-infused, disco-orientated track, it is one of the several progressive efforts the album has to offer. It, along with Poor Boy, is probably the most successful of these efforts. The least successful? Cornflakes easily takes the biscuit. One could appraise it as experimental, but it is an incredibly messy track in which there is so much going on that it, counterintuitively, is rendered forgettable.
That is the defining issue with the album. Several tracks, such as The Same Star and Too Many Tears, are perfectly charming but could ultimately be deemed throwaways. Everything Is Now, split into two meandering and directionless parts, is similarly easy-listening. It is, however, not much more than that and would prosper as a B-side jam session as opposed to a lazy album placeholder. Outside of the album’s sphere, the aforementioned tracks would have trouble standing alone.
I would like to place an emphasis on two tracks in particular, though. The Girl Doesn’t Get It serves as a sincerely fresh sound from the band, and beautifully complements Martin’s mellow Fickle Season that precedes it. Martin and Murdoch’s vocal fusion is layered over intergalactic keyboards and – like Best Friend – is a genuinely upbeat track, which is refreshing to find in a Belle & Sebastian album. Secondly, Show Me The Sun, though more kooky than commercial, resounds as another successful progressive experiment. The track alternates between playground chants and bass interludes, powerful Murdoch vocals, and discordant psychedelic guitar riffs.
It is commendable that the band revisit their rustic roots in tracks such as There Is an Everlasting Song, albeit sporadically. It is equally commendable that the band seem willing to explore and acclimatise themselves amidst the perpetually evolving musical landscape. In all, How to Solve Our Human Problems is a diverse and mixed collection. The experimentation is often hit-and-miss, and perhaps the album would be more palatable condensed into ten tracks rather than fifteen. Far from their best work, How to Solve Our Human Problems serves as a pleasant culmination; it is Belle & Sebastian’s show-reel as they clumsily battle between tradition and progression to varying degrees of success.