The joy of pop can be as brief as its three-letter onomatopoeia, the giddy thrill of its first kisses paling with familiarity. Passions dim as those we once loved go through the motions of recording and touring, as though their mortgages – and not their lives – depended on it.
More than two decades on from the pentecostal inspiration that breathed the flame of life into the bookish epiphanies of Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister, the present incarnation of Belle & Sebastian, still led by the guiding spirit of Stuart Murdoch, find themselves imperilled by the undimmed brilliance of their debut recordings. The gauche urgency of those first precocious effusions threatens to outshine the collected EPs which constitute this year’s How to Solve Our Human Problems, rendering their poetry prosaic.
For all that, there is a tentative sense of occasion as lilies scent the cruise ship symmetries of Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. The flip side of a longevity that daunts the new is a library of pop songs that bears comparison with the assembled works of any of their near-peers. There is a case to be made that they are The Smiths who survived their schisms, or – given their founder’s centrality – The Cure who never faded to grey.
On stage and off, Murdoch is very much the animating presence of The Belles, the channel through which many of their finest moments flow. As a collective, the songs of his bandmates hit home most effectively when they chime more closely with his sensibilities, or – rather – the world he has delineated; a place where to be less than cocksure, other than picture perfect is still okay. This evening, he’s constantly on the right side of wrong, sporting the kind of tartan trews that only a showman could wear without indignity, bedroom dancing to the audience with only the merest whisper of self-consciousness.
And against the odds, against the expectations, fresh miracles of transient transport are conjured from the chorus and verse of popular music, as a Monday night Manchester is cajoled from the safety of its seats and onto its left-footed feet.
Heard in this context, this year’s We Were Beautiful, a half-cousin to Momus’s dislocated discopop, performed with the slight wink of a statement keytar, is revelatory; as glorious, and as unfixed in time as any of the hits-that-never-quite-were. Sarah Martin’s Northern Soul-inflected (no pun intended) The Same Star also merits its place in their firmament.
And if the group are stars, they are anything but starry. Whereas lesser artists might spout rhetorically about their esteem for their fans, The Belles actually enact that spirit of communion; at first when a solitary figure from the throng ascends to dance in polite abandon to the private protest of I Want The World To Stop, and later – as the audience is won over anew – when an extended mix of Sukie In The Graveyard sees the stage play host to the disinhibition of the inhibited, as the Bridgewater stage is transformed into an annexe of The Star And Garter, an indie disco for young and old.
The stage invasion foreshadows the stage inversion of an encore that will see Mr Murdoch performing The Party Line from the vertiginous heights of the top tier, having also found time to pay tribute to Mark E. Smith with a megaphone stomp through Mr. Pharmacist.
Belle & Sebastian were beautiful. Long may they continue to find a way to be so.