Where did it go so wrong for the ambient pop Belle and Sebastian are so closely associated? Late Developers start a worrying string of late-stage, middling projects that show a paint-by-numbers style. Audience expectations, the slow burn toward building from the hits and cementing a legacy that way. Belle and Sebastian could be headed for that form of trouble. Bitter? Maybe. Not as sweet as it used to be. But that is the point. Jagged around the edges, hard to get into, even harder to stomach listening to again. Late Developers is the angst of the early years paired with the knowledge they have had forced onto them.
Juliet Naked strikes through with fickle love and capricious and janky lyrics about visiting a Doctor of Love. That usual broadness and splatters of charm are removed for an exhausted-sounding opener. Right at the heart of that is this desire though. A cautious approach to the repetition of love that loses its way. Belle and Sebastian’s tonal indifference is a worrying display though. Forming this harsh and unremitting beginning with an upbeat guitar track immediately after sees caution and considered momentum thrown to the wind. Give Me a Little Time struggles greatly. As individual tracks they are solid but together it proves to be a messy concoction. Softness flows and the initial, depressive horrors of Juliet Naked are lost to the placid When We Were Very Young, an inevitably reflective and style-free track.
Empty twee work on Will I Tell You A Secret is, at least, brief. Those soft strokes of acoustic that come through the right headphone are sudden and just quiet enough to convince of it being from somewhere else. Not in the speaker. It connects well to the rest of the track but the rest of that track is shallow. Tonal inconsistencies come through not from switching singers, but from not having a consistent theme. So In The Moment may as well accept it ripped its guitar work and beat from a style The Beach Boys would be jaded by. Is it self-deprecation or is it just poor form? Belle and Sebastian have something in those early tracks that is lost and detached almost immediately. A messy break, a real desire and it all becomes a bit of a slop. Not even the saxophone of The Evening Star can help, although it is a slight, brief uptick in quality.
Belle and Sebastian believe they are late developers but show they are stuck recalling their past. Look back to move forward. Late Developers looks back but feels content to stay in that euphoria, the desire to be excited and exceeded by simple experiences. Inevitably that makes for a simple album. Broad, twee and desirable. Belle and Sebastian on autopilot are still better than some, just not all. Certainly not the contemporaries they fail to match themselves with after releasing a new indie pop styling. As uncertain as it can be in its style, there are pockets of what Belle and Sebastian used to be. When You’re Not With Me is a lovely bass appreciation that has softer, well-worked lyrics. Too little, too late. It is not worth the slog that precedes it, follows it, and defines Late Developers. If Belle and Sebastian wanted to be a twee and empty edition of S-Club 7 then they manage just that on I Don’t Know What You See in Me. What do they see in Late Developers? Filtered Fleetwood Mac if When The Cynics Stare Back from the Wall is anything to go by.