Perhaps the most most successful B&S since The Life Pursuit.
Belle and Sebastian have been indie pop favorites for more than two decades, but they’ve faltered somewhat in the second half of their career. Write About Love and Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance were lukewarm entries into the B&S oeuvre, but Stuart Murdoch and company devised a way to infuse energy into their retro pop again. Just as the band did in 1997 when they released three EPs between their albums If You’re Feeling Sinister And The Boy with the Arab Strap—two of the band’s undeniably best ever—they have released three five-song EPs under the title How to Solve Our Human Problems. The setup creates delayed gratification for lovers of eclectic pop and gives the Scottish band a much-needed impetus of positive energy.
While B&S have always offered up hook-laden retro pop, these EPs are perhaps the most concentrated, upbeat collections and most successful since The Life Pursuit. Opening with the relentlessly energetic “Sweet Dew Lee,” Stevie Jackson leads a glitzy disco track that veers into the psychedelic with blippy synth backing, as Jackson croons “I just send you my love/ From a parallel world.” The dreamy guitar line and Murdoch’s solemn vocals on the bridge build anticipation for a finale that erupts in euphoric organ and harmonizing vocals. It’s a hell of a way to open an EP, let alone such an ambitious project, and it soars. “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” carries on this upbeat disco trend, with its funky bass line and hi-hat-mimicking dance beat. Here, Murdoch is matched by Sarah Martin’s wispy vocals, creating a nostalgic sound even if the lyrics “They will make the country great again/ Just as long as it’s white and ugly” seem uncharacteristically political. In keeping with the joyous pop, though, the song leaves us with the instruction “You should dance till your heart is joyful” and reassurance that “love is our consolation.”
Part two of this EP trilogy busts out of the gates with an equally strong pop offering in the pop-rock “Show Me the Sun” but hits its stride with “I’ll Be Your Pilot” and “Cornflakes.” “Pilot,” though, aims for lullaby qualities in its sweet acoustic guitar and oboe solos, all in service to Murdoch’s protective message to his sleeping son. Jackson’s “Cornflakes,” however, is a frenetic bass-led track with a stuttering guitar line and chorus of backing vocals that builds into a psychedelic version of a dreamy ‘60s crooner, as Jackson chants “As I walked out into Glasgow city/ The autumn lights looked so pretty/ As we walked out into Glasgow city/ I scared myself, you looked so pretty.” Part three’s intro, “Poor Boy,” gives yet another glimpse of B&S dance pop, this time fueled by gated reverb dance beats, hand claps and Martin’s best synth-pop vocals in duet with Murdoch.
For all the joyous pop successes on this project, there are plenty of downbeat tracks to balance the B&S highs. The highlights largely feature Martin. Even the Murdoch-led “Everything Is Now” comes into its own when Martin and guest strings jump in on the chorus. The dream-pop-y “Fickle Season” is a pastoral take on separation and the hope that, Martin airily sings, “Time will bring you back to me/ Like the river runs to the sea.” The lush “The Same Star” is the flip side of post-breakup emotions, with Martin pumping herself up with prospects for future relationships (“If I can do it once, I can do it again/ In orbit round the same star til we fly apart”), while horns trumpet her newly restored outlook.
While there aren’t any true missteps on How to Solve Our Human Problems (“We Are Beautiful” maybe shouldn’t have gone so hard on the funky synth), one major change that might have sent off the project as solidly as it opened would’ve been to end the third EP on “There Is an Everlasting Song” rather than Martin’s sugary pop vocals on “Best Friend.” “There is an everlasting song on my lips/ I got up early so I don’t let that song slip/ And mighty is the voice I’m singing with/ It beats out all the dread, defeats the hours of darkness,” seemingly speaks directly to the band’s continued output in a folky acoustic number that essentially pledges to keep punching out bright indie pop.