BELLE & SEBASTIAN: News / Fred Thomas:

The long stretches between albums that had become standard for indie pop heroes Belle and Sebastian made their 11th studio LP, Late Developers, even more of a surprise, as it was released without much lead-up just eight months after 2022's A Bit of Previous. Recorded during the same self-produced sessions, Late Developers feels like a companion piece to its predecessor, reaching just as inspired heights and continuing the band's inspection of aging and existential dread that always comes wrapped in soft, reassuring melodies. These songs also flit playfully between styles and delivery, turning in more of the band's Motown-fixated sunshine soul on tracks like the swaying "The Evening Star" or "Give a Little Time," which finds them sneaking in another of their long-term musical fascinations with some very subtle Thin Lizzy-style lead guitar harmonies. There are also moments of towering, drumless folk-rock on album opener "Juliet Naked," spirited power pop with hints of country lap-steel guitar and fiddle on the Stevie Jackson-penned romper "So in the Moment," and multiple articulations of synth pop on a solid percentage of the album. The synth pop tunes take the form of the cold funk of "When We Were Very Young," the slick and danceable "When You're Not with Me," and no-holds-bared synthesizer-driven pop hooks throughout "I Don't Know What You See in Me," the first Belle and Sebastian song co-written with help from someone outside of the band, Wuh Oh's Pete Ferguson. Much like the meeting of vulnerable feelings and unfettered songwriting experimenting made A Bit of Previous feel like the band were still in the process of evolving, moments like "I Don't Know What You See in Me" (which almost sounds like a tune Carly Rae Jepsen could do a great cover of) suggest Belle and Sebastian are still interested in expanding their creative range. All this growth will undoubtedly be a little bit too much evolving for fans secretly wishing the group would return to the state that they were in during their Tigermilk or If You're Feeling Sinister days. The inclusion of the sadly pristine "When the Cynics Stare Back from the Wall" will scratch that particular itch. The song was written by Stuart Murdoch in 1994 just before the band began, and this 2020s version includes beautiful guest vocals from Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell. Late Developers is a sturdy collection on its own, but it takes on new depth when paired with A Bit of Previous. Absorbed as pieces of a connected statement, the two albums show Belle and Sebastian deep into their career but still in a state of artistic flourishing. Even the inclusion of an older tune somehow doesn't feel like they're content to stay cycling through past ideas. If anything it serves as a stark example of just how far they've come since those timid, mawkish early days, and the rest of the songs give a glimpse of how far they might yet go.

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