Belle and Sebastian have always been pegged as a twee band for twee kids in their twee sweaters with their twee moleskines, conjuring the image of thousand pale waifs ready to pearl-clutch each time they’re made to feel an emotion. Belle and Sebastian fans are the caricature of a city liberal; Belle and Sebastian fans don’t know how to kiss. The cliche severely discredits their music, which despite its precious lyricism and wan melodies has usually come with some kind of momentum—at times even a groove—for people to move with, and have a good time. Songs like “I’m a Cuckoo” and “For the Price of a Cup of Tea” gave away their fascination with base pleasures long before they started making actual dance music. 2015’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance aimed almost entirely at exploring the sentiment of the title, though its merits were debatable—perversely, their melodies were less memorable than ever, which is not what you want when making dance music.
The band is still flirting with electronic textures on their new single “We Were Beautiful,” which sans lyrics might pass for a less antic Aphex Twin track. The percussion sounds like a programmed drum machine; the keyboards stay pressed, adding moody interiority. “We were beautiful before this went down / We were beautiful before the years came and turned it upside down” is a fantastically characteristic emotion for the band, probing familiar territory of faded innocence, a rot setting in underneath the picturesque framing. Stuart Murdoch has long been one of indie rock’s most literary, descriptive writers, but his words lost some heft when the band coated them in insistent dance rhythms, leaving no meditative room. The familiar uplifting horns come right in as the melody ascends on the chorus, but in the space between he spits about the hollowness of a social scene recognizable to anyone jaded: “Making plans inside their head / Making love to shallow friends.” His Scottish lilt doesn’t vary much on the chorus, but the dreary delivery seems appropriate for the feeling—a sensibility they’ve always been able to rely on. They don’t sound like they want you to dance, and bizarrely, that’s for the best.