“You see a funny shape in the clouds and you think: I’m so small! Nothing matters… so, whatever.” So declares a young woman’s spoken voice, trapped in amber on a hissing cassette, on the opening track of Belle and Sebastian’s A Bit of Previous, the band’s tenth studio album. Placed deliberately at the finale of the band’s self-reflective track “Young and Stupid,” the excerpted recording becomes a kind of present-day creative philosophy for the band, framing the new record’s open-minded and blissful outlook. Nearly three decades in, Belle and Sebastian have the artful touch and wisened perspective to make small moments like these—bits of long ago past, when nothing mattered—somehow mean everything.
“Now we’re old with creaking bones/some with partners, some alone/some with kids and some with dogs/getting through the nightly slog…makes us feel delight/we were young and stupid.” It’s taken Belle and Sebastian a long while to sing about themselves with such transparency. The band’s earliest ramshackle releases remain the stuff of indie-rock myth—filled with character studies, recorded slapdash in community-funded Glaswegian basement spaces. But Belle and Sebastian moved on long ago from being just bookish recluses. For at least the last two decades, the group’s prevailing mode has been as a far more brazen pop showband: particularly on stage, where the Scottish 7-piece are mainstay festival headliners and veritable indie-rock royalty.
Reconciling these two opposing versions of Belle and Sebastian—the self-proclaimed “Young and Stupid” layabouts vs. the pop elders they’ve become, donning fancy fedoras and preternaturally skilled in crowd work—can feel puzzling, like some kind of rip in the B&S timeline which the band themselves have somehow not yet fully managed to mend. But A Bit of Previous comes close to bridging the divide. The new record pulls together Belle and Sebastian’s disparate past selves into a properly coherent continuum, and Murdoch and the band are open-minded in the ways they thread it all together—presenting a collection of songs both delicate and bold, heady but not heavy, fresh but thrillingly recursive.
As its title suggests, the record really does have A Bit of Everything, both from within and beyond the B&S oeuvre: the pop maximalism of Dear Catastrophe Waitress; tender ballads with barbed lyrics, the kind that made The Boy with the Arab Strap feel like a notch up the ladder; battalions of arpeggiated synthesizers, evoking the zippy grooves of 2015’s Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance (and somewhat coyly, the Mod time-hopping adventures of Doctor Who); and even a studio gospel choir for good measure. The songs are as big on genre-hopping as they are on philosophizing. Yet for all of its density, A Bit of Previous is also B&S’s most fun and freeing release in a long while. When Murdoch cedes the mic to Sarah Martin for a pair of vocal features (“Reclaim the Night,” “A World Without You,”) the results are nearly ABBA-esque, dark and libertine. Elsewhere, the space-jazz shuffle of “Come On Home” finds the band in another sort of musical reverie — horns blasting, psychedelic Swingle Singers harmonies, jaunty Bacharach keys. And “Deathbed of My Dreams” takes the band somewhere else entirely, with Stevie Jackson offering the wily gravitas of a cosmic country crooner: Roger Miller, free-floating slowly toward the Great Beyond.
Lyrically, Murdoch mostly abandons the character studies for which he’s most well-known, instead turning inward toward his bandmates and to himself. “I’ve got a new perspective/the glass in my hand, it ain’t exactly full/the place in my table is an empty stool,” Murdoch declares on “Talk To Me Talk To Me.” Though he’s subtly incorporated thoughts on Christianity into past songs, it’s the more practical of Buddhism—mindfulness, humility, the acceptance of suffering—that overtly color his reflections on A Bit of Previous (and inspire its double-edged title, an allusion to both the album’s potpourri approach and its inherently Buddhist exploration of past selves). On the album’s best ballad “Do It For Your Country,” Murdoch is romantic, but pragmatic too: “Everything you see, feel, experience/happens in your sloppy soul, girl/the world is just a game, something made of clay/but you are the great creator.” And penultimate track “Sea of Sorrow” sets out Buddhist philosophy in even more plain, but still lovely, terms: “Every other day I’m frozen with worry/looking for a way to shed my own body/but I know it’s just like a jacket/a layer of skin/Though we wreck ourselves on the rocks that never even existed/We just keep on going… swimming in a sea of sorrow…”
Murdoch’s worldly vantage—his commitment to exploring concurrent modes of spiritual practice—didn’t just arise overnight. While many peer indie rockers presented at-home performances through the pandemic, Murdoch opted to lead weekly meditation sessions via livestream. (As of this review being published, he continues to do so, even in the thick of A Bit of Previous’ promo cycle.) His practice introduced legions of curious B&S fans and meditation novices—myself among them—to the holistic benefits of a clear mind. During the streams that coincided with the band’s recording time in 2021, Murdoch would casually allude to making new music with his bandmates again, with sessions taking place somewhere in Glasgow abstractly beyond the bounds of the Zoom broadcast window. But it often felt like his focus was as committed to the ritual of meditation as it was to producing Belle and Sebastian’s new record; for Murdoch, the experience and approach of making music and of clearing the mind now seem inextricable, equally as stimulating.
Indeed, accepting A Bit of Previous as its own kind of meditation experience—an arc that phases to a peak of complete collective focus, and back out again—effectively reveals the record’s most brilliant and surprising shades. A pair of tracks at A Bit of Previous’ dead center are the most vivid, making the band’s new enlightened state feel fully present and alive. “This is my life! This is my so-called life! This is my life! This is my only life!” the band declare at full tilt on “Unnecessary Drama,” reaching a kind of flow state of joy (with Stevie Jackson’s head-spinning harmonica properly sending it over the edge). “Prophets On Hold” pulls the focus to a similarly mortal, but no less cathartic, plane: “And I sometimes confuse/you/for God or angels/You’re/just/a person.” Even in this sort of moment of humble acceptance, Belle and Sebastian can still find just the right hook to match. This is Universalist power pop, perhaps the first of its kind—30 years in, Belle and Sebastian now possess the open minds to fully unlock its potential.
Ben Easton is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He's a member/producer of the rock quartet The Academy Blues Project, with whom he has made six records, and plays Live Piano Karaoke in-residence at Sid Gold's Request Room, New York City's flagship modern piano bar. Beyond Treble, Easton is a staff writer at Cover Me Songs, the web publication devoted to cover music of all genres.