Belle and Sebastian, still giving twee a good name

Photo by Anna Crolla
Stuart Murdoch, far right, leads Belle and Sebastian.

NEW YORK – We are in Little Italy today – a neighborhood with a set-designed, confectionary feel, with a cute candy-bar name that looms hugely across all its neon lights shuttered off in the sun, its shop windows filled with headless tweed torsos, at the top of atlas-sized standing menus at the entryways of its suspiciously similar-looking restaurants, each of which are chaperoned by men that seem to be thrilled to announce variations of one loud suggestion (“You look like you need our LINGUINE for LUNCH!”).

We are, as the wife of Stuart Murdoch – lead singer of the band Belle and Sebastian – cooingly calls it, in “fairyland.” Murdoch sings the street names in his Glaswegian brogue (“Truck up Spring, get in Mott, careen down Prince!”) as he cheerily chews through a pack of watermelon gum, a new habit picked up from a friend at his record label named Gabe, which has now become a ritual so essential that there are now “great stacks of Gabe’s wonderful watermelon gum” onstage most nights of Belle and Sebastian’s then-ongoing (and now again impending) international tour.

On our hunt for a public park, we blow weak bubbles and gamely point out ginkgo and pagoda trees by leaf. We meaningfully observe the jackhammering that scatters birds along the lusher avenues south of Houston street. We enter a garden filled with tiny topiaries and concrete animals, dodge a child holding a birthday balloon, and a heavenly vanilla breeze moves out from a bakeshop and toward me like a small warhead. I am not kidding about any of this. Through fate, design, or lots of lucky accidents, the whole morning with Murdoch was durably twee.

For the uninitiated: tweeness – as a sort of spiritual essence, aesthetic lodestar, sonic thumbprint – has always been a mainstay of Belle and Sebastian’s, whether you (or he, or I) like it or not. When Murdoch formed Belle and Sebastian in 1996, Glasgow had recently seen a halcyon era of musical glory – a scene smaller in magnitude and far slower in BPM to Manchester’s marriage of rock and club culture in its contemporaneous Madchester era, but a scene with a far stronger tweak of indie vulnerability and fey melodicism that better suited kids who preferred Rilke to raving.

The genre lays claim to an elaborate dollhouse of sounds (most of them cherry-picked from a world-historical, 22-track mail-order cassette from 1986 conceived by NME, titled “C86”), but its aural soul lives in the disarmingly naïve jingle-jangle of bands like Orange Juice (Murdoch notably once called the group his “Jesus”), to the Pastels, to early Primal Scream. Belle and Sebastian’s first two albums, “Tigermilk” and “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” both released in 1996, congealed a certain starry-eyed preciousness with unrepentantly adorable shambolics, near-instantly making the band a metonym for tweedom writ large.

Today, the term has moved toward the awful realm of voguish buzzword on par with “camp” or “neoliberal,” with a near-incapacitating list of totems – Salinger, Wes Anderson, French New Wave, mumblecore, the whole of Zooey Deschanel’s early career – but Belle and Sebastian has remained stalwartly (as journalist Marc Spitz had called them) a “twee superband.” Now, before me – banking 11 albums, a hardcover book, one feature film and, now, a surprise new release, called “Late Developers” – sat the titan of the form, suckling a smoothie under the shade of a charming willow.

“Really,” Murdoch begins, still chewing zestfully, “the pinnacle of gum was already mapped out in the ’60s. Violet Beauregarde – you remember her, of course – when she turned into a giant blueberry and had to get sent off to get squeezed – ah, where else have you heard of a downfall as magnificent as that?” The present universe of children’s movies and children’s books – these modes are too watered-down, too defanged, he bemoans, for any contemporary child to feel the snag of reality’s genuine horrors. “They’re not meeting the sense of the grotesque anymore,” he says, shaking his head. “People are too shy about that.”

Small wonder that Dahl’s top of Murdoch’s mind. Like the author’s work, Belle and Sebastian isn’t designed or meant for any generational cohort, per se, but there is certainly something about the songs that appeal to the adolescent-to-teenage brain without underestimating its intelligence. Puffs of the music’s emotional plumage can stay lodged in your head for years. There’s a prominent pair of terry underwear in the prurient “Stars of Track and Field,” a vignette wherein a boy kicks his friend’s crutches in “The State I Am In,” a sexy “dose of thrush” gotten from “licking railings” in “Lazy Line Painter Jane.”

Otherwise, there are clumsy entanglements of the heart, indolent and intoxicating boys and girls, and a host of hormonal interactions with clergymen, horses, siblings, parents, et al. All these form an enormous playground where monumental things happen at inopportune times, each song a zoetrope world built for consoling and commiserating with the pains of being pubescent. Grotesquerie is front and center – as part of the body horrors of adolescence, of course – but also used like a shorthand for the grisly anxiety, limerence, innocence, sinisterism of being young.

A fascinating place to move forward from, seeing as “Late Developers,” his second album in seven years, is not primarily concerned with the myriad melodramas inherent in growing older, exactly, but with the sheer act of having grown old. Like “A Bit of Previous,” last summers’ release, there is a growing presence of a more adult-aged character all throughout, taking precedence over the usual first-person journeys in juvenilia. A wizened, omniscient vantage can sing things like “you don’t have the time to waste time,” (the chorus from “Give a Little Time”) and declare satisfiedly that “these are the best of days.” Or, even better: “Who said that I had the wisdom, had the answers?” he asks in the eponymous track, “Late Developers.” “Wasn’t me!”

I wonder whether some liberties are lost now that we seem to be sliding away from our usual slant points-of-view. Part of the thrill of early Belle and Sebastian was Murdoch’s ability to dream thousands of worries that felt like they came from nymphets and faunlets who fumbled their way through time and among one another. “Maybe it’s not my place to do that anymore,” he wonders aloud, “but I feel that when I use characters that aren’t quite me, these songs are sort of like conversations I’m having with myself.”

In an email later, he highlights the governing principle of his work from an article I send him on a much-discussed genre called autofiction, clipping out a sentence that reads “a blending of the real and the invented.” On its face, this is an obvious, even redundant statement – to varying degrees, this the way that all writers operate unless they’re creating something patently nonfictional. But there is a supernatural quality at play in all the sounds and sighs of Belle and Sebastian’s music, and there is a permanent fictive ingredient in the real-life Murdoch that seems to lend him the ability to access impossible avenues into woe and love and confusion.

“​​I see these characters every night when I go to sleep,” he says. “I love them, I’m singing to them, and I love revisiting them. But that’s just what it is – each song is a visitation.”

Last summer, Murdoch and Co. performed an outdoor stage in a bucolic bit of Central Park. The show was an admixture of past hits and that year’s debuts; the beer was pricey, liquor was unsmuggleable and the audience was over-indexed with toddler bjorns and upmarket strollers. But this sort of audience was to be expected: ’90s nostalgia is extremely nigh, especially for a cohort who were teenage during the decade and are now ready to revisit bygone comforts alongside their children, who might one day learn from Murdoch’s fabulist pop just as they did.

“Late Developers” meets these fans in lockstep. Adamantly not an album made of castoffs from “A Bit of Previous” (though it is, to be fair, an album made up of tracks written during the very same sessions), the work stares at the gulch between adolescence and middle-aged, and tenderly sandwiches the palms of those who’ve now reached a point where they can sigh graciously at what’s lost and what’s come. He no longer regards the passage of innocence with the possibility of maturity as disturbing, but with a peaceable acceptance. It is a rearrangement of Belle and Sebastian’s grand trick of freezing time and space: now, it seems, Murdoch finds himself concerned with fondly rewinding the temporal tape. “I am a great believer in circles, you know,” he tells me, back on the park bench. “Cycles, rebirth, that sort of thing.”

This particular strain of thought is part of his brand of mysticism – he calls himself “kind of a Buddhism tourist” – a genuinely sunny, remarkably pleasant, if unselfconsciously quaint state of being. He often reminds me of an uncle who got spiritual after some giant mishap, which is actually not too far from the mark. His childhood was beleaguered and bedridden with chronic pain syndrome, and that pain emerges sometimes in his art in spades. (The 2003 album, “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” is pretty comprehensive on the subject.) He has spoken eloquently about this since the band began giving interviews some 20 years ago, but never quite so starkly as I hear him articulate it now. “​​Listen,” he says, clearing his throat. “I had been ill for seven years. I was a physically weak person. Mentally, I was a naïve person, sure. I was stuck in bed, and hospitals, ten years behind everybody else my own age, so I didn’t care. Call it regressive, but it was where my mind was. I lived happy, in the best way I could.”

Intentionally or otherwise, that last sentence is miraculously part of the final verse of a track dead center on the new album, called “The Evening Star.” It’s a saddish rearview mirror song, one that imagines what it’s like to review a version of yourself that constitutes a life – which goes on for a long time – and to reckon with how that time was spent, what had happened to it, and what possibilities might’ve been foreclosed by simply moving through it. It makes one believe that Murdoch’s tweeness is a handy attitude. It reveals how, in the bewildering dramas of growing older, the small miracles that come out of the process of making sense of it all, is – one supposes – all there is.

At this point, the berry smoothie has stained Murdoch’s mouth a vivid guava. I suggest to him – misquoting the biblical line – that the naïve will inherit the earth. He shrugged and looked at me, and I at him, and we both stared out onto the park, watching the remote-work tyros titter on their tin chairs, a butterfly woozily examine an abandoned coffee and a boy, who looked to be 10 or 12 at best, definitely about to defeat his adult partner in chess.