Belle and Sebastian return with new music this week, and despite the very Belle-and-Sebastian-esque album name, Days of the Bagnold Summer, this album is a soundtrack companion to the film of the same name. The film, an adaptation of a graphic novel, is about a fairly angst-ridden teenage boy trying to endure a slow, tedious British summer with his librarian mother; and so it fits right in with the Belle and Sebastian voice.
Belle and Sebastian previously attempted crafting a soundtrack album in 2002 for Todd Solondz’s Storytelling. However, that collaboration did not entirely work out, leaving just a few minutes of their music in that film. This collaboration feels more thoughtful and aware of the band’s style, which is good because I don’t believe you could get Stuart Murdoch and Co. to force their sound into the mold of your film; rather, you have to make sure your film is a round hole that can fit their round peg. All that is to say that while Days of Bagnold Summer is subdued in a way that indicates this isn’t a traditional Belle and Sebastian studio album; it very much contains the essence of any Belle and Sebastian record and stands on its own without the listener requiring any knowledge of the film.
The biggest giveaway that this album is a companion to something is its sprinkling of instrumental tracks throughout the album. The album opens with a sweet, typically twee version of a later track “Sister Buddha,” shortly followed by “Jill Pole” and “The Colour’s Gonna Run.” The latter two tracks are fairly compelling interludes in the album, sprinkling in a little bit of wistful harmonica and electronica respectively, which adds a dash of flavor to an album that sometimes risks becoming bland. The final instrumental, “We Were Never Glorious,” comes last and is the only song to explicitly reference the film, with clips of dialogue appearing near the finale before some melancholically beautiful music ushers the album out.
In a way, the instrumental tracks may be the best part of the album with their simplicity and easy appeal, in addition to a small handful of songs, a couple of which are re-recordings of previously available tracks. “I Know Where the Summer Goes,” previously from the 1998 EP This is Just a Modern Rock Song, is a wistful and bittersweet track in the classic Belle and Sebastian mode. It sounds suitably perfect for a small film about big feelings in a small town, which is the context in which Belle and Sebastian always excel.
Another familiar tune, “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” from 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, feels slightly less interesting as an addition primarily because it is one of the more familiar tracks to Belle and Sebastian fans. It feels like it could have been an addition on any compilation soundtrack for any indie film, rather than the new experience Bagnold Summer is trying to curate.
A new addition “I’ll Keep It Inside” brings out that classic Belle and Sebastian small-town British ennui very well, while finding new shades of melancholy by incorporating more of Sarah Martin’s vocals into the mix. Somehow, Belle and Sebastian songs often shine a little brighter when sung through the female voice, and Martin’s vocal additions also help to boost “Did the Day Go Just Like You Wanted,” “Safety Valve” and “Another Day, Another Night” even though the latter track is one of the less substantial songs on the album.
The primary trap the band falls into on Bagnold Summer is leaning too much into the quiet, almost whispery side of their musical personality, which results in many tracks here languishing in a sort of background existence. That’s fine for use in a film, in which the scene at hand is more important than the music, but when listening to the songs altogether, the listening experience can start to feel blurry and static. The lead single of the album, “Sister Buddha” is quite good, however, although it is buried near the end of the album. The lyrics are classically sharp and empathetic (“step across the lonely threshold of your selfish mind”) and the song is given a propulsive rhythm that echoes the thrill of a third-act film sequence in which the protagonist gets their life together. Once that song is over though, the brief burst of energy that came with it deflates as we go into “This Letter,” which, while containing some 2019-fresh lyrics and some beautiful sentiments (“all I want for you is joy and peaceful love/who you get it from is not my main concern”), contains vaguely Bossa Nova instrumentation which brings it down to coffee shop level twee-ness, dampening any emotion.
Days of the Bagnold Summer is certainly a soundtrack album, but it is also a Belle and Sebastian album in maybe the purest sense. The presence of much older tracks from the band helps underline the general throwback nature of the album, which features more acoustic songs with simple production, over more complicated mixes or any pop/dance tracks. That quiet nature can sometimes make many of the record’s 13 tracks feel redundant, which detracts from the overall experience. However, there are a few bright spots that make a listen worthwhile for Belle and Sebastian fans. Otherwise, Days of the Bagnold Summer fades into the background like the sweet soundtrack it is.