How Soon Is Then

Scottish pop sensation Belle and Sebastian rewrites history one missed opportunity at a time

Which brings us back to the ink Polaroids. The idea is literary only in the most sophomoric sense; it's an example of the perpetual adolescent fantasy of having a fresh new thought that no one's ever had before, of creating a sui generis "art" without discipline or even the proper equipment. Yet, when it comes to the music itself, Belle and Sebastian have plenty of discipline and plenty of equipment. In a way, they rejuvenate the DIY aesthetic by running it in reverse: their ideas aren't sweeping, but their execution is. A song like the new album's "Sleep the Clock Around," with only one hackneyed four-chord structure and a nursery-rhyme melody, lifts off into buoyant ecstasy thanks to deft use of electronics, trumpet, and bagpipe.

In ornate but tasteful settings, even the most uncomplicated of Belle and Sebastian's lyrics spark off reflections like small, highly polished gemstones. In "Is It Wicked Not to Care," Isobel Campbell coyly asks, "If there was a sequel/Would you love me like an equal/Would you love me 'til I'm dead?" Her slight but neat twist on "Love me 'til I die" tweaks the cliché just enough to highlight the possibility that such love is actually more likely to cause fatal injury than to last into comfortable old age. Or take "Chick Factor," a monologue in which a pop singer (not to say the song's singer, Murdoch) realizes that he's fallen for a fanzine writer who recently interviewed him. When Murdoch muses, "She's five hours behind," he's referring to the time difference between London and New York, but he also manages to evoke the impossibility of two lovers sharing the same romantic moment in the same way.

Pretty Young Things: Scotland's Belle and Sebastian makes bookish, beautiful retro-pop
Pretty Young Things: Scotland's Belle and Sebastian makes bookish, beautiful retro-pop

Or the impossibility of two listeners sharing the same historical moment in the same way. If there's "too much history between" the narrator of "Me and the Major" and the Major, history doesn't happen between them as a shared experience; it comes between them as a barrier. Arab Strap, like previous Belle and Sebastian recordings, magically levels that barrier by making retro-pop forms feel just like those elusive, fresh new thoughts that no one's ever had before. If the group's "ink Polaroids" have a moral, it's that it doesn't matter whether we've missed the bus, because there will always be another one.

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