Surprise! Belle and Sebastian Are Back – Rolling Stone

By Simon Vozick-Levinson
The last three years have been pretty rough for the world, but there’s no denying that it’s been a good time to be a Belle and Sebastian fan. In late 2020, with touring sidelined, they released an excellent live album to remind us what a dynamic concert act they’ve become; last spring, they re-emerged with A Bit of Previous, their first studio LP in seven years. Now, the Scottish indie-pop heroes are topping that with Late Developers — an all-new, even better album from the same sessions that they’re releasing as a winter surprise later this week on Jan. 13.
“We had a very productive session during lockdown and just afterward,” says Stuart Murdoch, 54. “There were a lot of song titles on the wall, as you can imagine, to the point where our day-to-day manager Fiona was saying, ‘This looks like a mess.’ And I proclaimed to the group, ‘Come on, let’s do two LPs!’”
Late Developers is full of classic Belle and Sebastian songs like “When We Were Very Young,” a melancholy musing on midlife regrets that Murdoch wrote on the daily walk from his Glasgow home to the flat where he worked during lockdown. “It’s not a cheerful song,” he notes wryly. “It’s a little bit of a cry for help.” Others tap into the band’s more upbeat and emphatic side, like the lead single “I Don’t Know What You See in Me” (recorded and written with Scottish pop artist Wuh Oh), or the album opener “Juliet Naked,” which Murdoch originally wrote for the 2018 rom-com of the same name. (When it didn’t make the soundtrack, he thought about changing the title: “Then I thought, ‘Well, it’s a good title.’ So I checked with Nick Hornby, and he didn’t seem to mind.”)

Some of the best songs on the new album go back even further. Murdoch first wrote “Will I Tell You a Secret” in 2002 or 2003, around the sessions for Dear Catastrophe Waitress. “I played it to the band, and they seemed to be a little bit underwhelmed, so I put it away,” he says. “But I kept hearing it.”

It’s easy to understand why he returned to the song after nearly 20 years — with Chris Geddes’ delicate harpsichord part and Sarah Martin’s backing vocals accenting Murdoch’s tender lines about a couple falling apart, it’s too good to be a B-side. “It’s about a relationship that broke up years ago,” Murdoch adds. “Sometimes the farther you move away, the feelings are magnified. I don’t know how much use it is, if it’s in the past, to be thinking about those feelings, but it felt real to me.”
The oldest song on the album is “When the Cynics Stare Back From the Wall” — an unwieldy title for one of Murdoch’s sweetest songs ever about being a young romantic in a cold world. He wrote it circa 1994, a year or two before forming Belle and Sebastian, in tribute to the woman he calls “my best friend Ciara.” Dedicated fans know her as Ciara MacLaverty, the cover star of 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister and the subject of the 2015 song “Nobody’s Empire.” She and Murdoch grew close in the early Nineties after both their lives were upended by myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. “We were both kind of invalids for years,” he says. “We’d have rich and deep discussions about our love lives, but those love lives were more imaginary, back in the days when we weren’t very sturdy.”
In the studio decades later, he revived the song with help from another old friend from Glasgow, Tracyanne Campbell of the band Camera Obscura. “As soon as I thought of it as a duet, it came back into my head,” he says. “It just feels like an old-school B&S song, a call-and-response.”

With highlights like these, Late Developers often feels like a summing-up statement for Belle and Sebastian’s 25-year-plus career. “I do feel that maybe we’re at the end of an arc or a chapter or an era or something,” Murdoch says. “I think, in a sense, putting these two LPs out might be the last thing we’ll do for a while.”
He’s quick to clarify that there’s nothing final about these words: “Belle and Sebastian will never break up,” he emphasizes. “We’re not that kind of people. We don’t look for drama. We trundle on. I just feel like in the life of the band, it’s time for a creative hiatus where maybe the group members can think about doing something else for a while.”

For instance, he’d like to finish the novel he started writing before lockdown — a work of fiction based on his memories of the years 1991 to 1993, when he and MacLaverty were grappling with chronic illness together. “That was also the time when I’d just started to write songs,” he says. “It’s almost like a fictionalized telling of our darkest days, but then there’s a lot of light and discovery in there as well. It wasn’t all bad. Our lives completely changed — OK, we’re given this challenge, what are we going to do with it? And a lot came from it. That was the time when my spirituality grew up at the same time as my music. So there’s a lot of pondering about God and the universe.”
He’s had time to write lately, because the band has been off the road for months: After a triumphant return to North American stages last summer, they had to postpone or cancel a string of planned shows in the U.K., Europe, and South America this fall and winter. Murdoch tweeted in November about “getting slowly back on my feet after being quite unwell,” and he confirms now that his ongoing health issues were the reason for the scrapped plans. “It’s not that I’m suddenly just taking time out to try and finish a book,” he says. “It’s ME, it’s chronic fatigue syndrome. Thirty years on and still dealing with the same old shit.”

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He recalls sending an “honest email” to his bandmates after they postponed the U.K. tour. “I admitted to them, ‘It’s a bit of a high-wire act every time I go on tour with you guys.’ There’s a lot of faith involved, because if I fail, if I can’t sing, then the gig is off. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get away with it this time. But we’re looking very hopefully toward the spring… Eventually, the plan is very much to get back out there. That would be lovely.”

If he sounds a little sad as he says this, no one is better at finding the bittersweet beauty in those moments than Belle and Sebastian. “I feel this may be a second book that maybe in my seventies I’ll write about this period,” Murdoch says. “The darkest times, when you make it through, they’re the times that make you… Well, I’m not sure if they make you stronger. But they’re certainly noteworthy.”
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