Over the past few years, Belle and Sebastian have truly stretched past their comfort zone, flirting with electronica beats and even abandoning their notoriously secluded ways to ride the festival circuit. Although their sound has always had both feet planted squarely in another time, recent albums – namely 2015’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance – have found the gang trying on the moxy of contemporary pop music, to varying degrees of success. With How to Solve Our Human Problems, a project serialized into a trio of EPs, the band aims for a middle ground, returning to their roots while simultaneously holding onto the present.
Each chapter in this saga is structured around a single. The first EP uses “We Were Beautiful” as its foundation, a song whose prancy dancebeat of a spine aims to highlight the somber implications of its lyrics, as Stuart Murdoch probes his own melancholy musings: “I was black as I could be.” Like several of the tracks it shares a package with, the song feels like a rough draft, flowery and repetitive without much in the way of actual charm. Part 1 is at its most enchanting when it slows down the tempo and allows the band to become vulnerable, on tracks like “Sweet Dew Lee” and “Fickle Season,” a swaying ballad that finds Sarah Martin’s lilting voice whisper a bluesy serenade into the cosmos.
Part 2 changes gears entirely, opening with the late-90s fuzzy rocker “Show Me the Sun,” which begins with strange, half-hearted chanting. It is a fitting marker for what’s to come, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink exercise in nostalgia that doesn’t discriminate on the grounds of genre. Fans of the If You’re Feeling Sinister days will latch onto “I’ll Be Your Pilot,” in which Murdoch mulls over the cyclical nature of life as he gazes upon his young son amidst oboe swells: “It’s tough to become a grown-up / Put it off while you can.” However, the wistful rumination clears as the hazy, psychedelic “Cornflakes” bursts forth and dares you to have the gall to peel apart its dissonant layers, even with its oversimplified lyrics.
The third chapter in our story is the most thoughtful, and also the most enjoyable, expanding the sound to include a chorus line, flute arrangements, and lively brass fanfare. It’s refreshing that Belle and Sebastian still have the confidence and creative energy to come out of their shell and experiment (like on the funky, rhythmic “Poor Boy”), but they certainly shine brightest when they stick to what they know best, as they do on “There is an Everlasting Song,” an obvious nod to their folksy roots. To close things off, the sound is reined in with the cheery “Best Friend,” as guest vocalist Carla Easton is invited to grace the track with her soulful 1960s girl group swagger.
While the project is meant to be a throwback to their string of influential EPs in 1997 (the height of the band’s creative prowess as well as their cultural urgency), How to Solve Our Human Problems comes off as a placeholder. Dog on Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, and 3..6.. 9 Seconds of Light are as potent as they are because they formed an interlocking tapestry, borrowing thematic and musical cues from one another. The new trilogy feels as though it is only an afterthought, a random collection of scattered B-sides that weren’t harmonious enough to make for a cohesive album. While there are prime moments of classic Belle & Sebastian on display here, there’s also a lot of filler. Perhaps this anthology should have been boiled down into a single tightened EP. It’s mostly pleasant enough, which has gradually – and unfortunately – become par for the course for the band.