If there’s one thing pop culture has taught us recently, it’s that you can’t go wrong with retro. Specifically, ’80s retro. In the past few years alone we’ve had “Stranger Things,” “Black Mirror”’s standout episode “San Junipero” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” to name a few examples. Two of this year’s big Oscar nominees, “Call Me By Your Name” and “I, Tonya,” are set in the ’80s. Maybe we’re sick of the time period we’re really in, maybe we’re finally directing our attention to a previously underappreciated decade or maybe it’s just good, old-fashioned, random nostalgia.
Whatever it is, Belle and Sebastian are here for it. This week, the Scottish band released the third and final segment of their trio of EPs, collectively titled How to Solve Our Human Problems. As a whole, the album comes together as a delicate, angst-ridden appeal to human emotion, laced with the refurbished yearning that seems to have characterized a lot of the artistic output of recent years.
In a sense, How to Solve Our Human Problems is a work built on echoes, full of call-and-response. This comes across in its literal structure — the three EPs work as a fully connected album, but their releases were staggered over a three-month period, which seems inevitably designed for each one to reflect what came before it. Furthermore, each song sounds like it’s a response to some other song on the album. “Poor Boy” and “Show Me The Sun” both work as opening tracks because they’re both jumpy, derisive injections of energy. “I’ll Be Your Pilot” is an offshoot grown out of the chorus of “Sweet Dew Lee.” And yet, for the most part, these songs all work independently of each other as well.
Part 3 offers new iterations of many of the themes that the album has already successfully established. Contemplative tracks like “Too Many Tears” — and, from Part 1, “Everything is Now (Instrumental)” — channel the lush, Pacific Northwest dreaminess of “Twin Peaks.” In keeping with the tradition of the two previous EPs, many of the songs are between four and six minutes long, allowing the band ample time to explore plenty of melodic, temporal and atmospheric changes within the span of each track. It’s full of jaunty riffs, folksy choruses and synthy cascades siphoned from old arcade machines. The album equally embraces love and distance, is equally skeptical of the future and the past. Maybe that’s one of the things that feels so ’80s about it: The sense that you know you’re done with the era behind you, but you’re not entirely sure which new era will come next.
In a lot of ways, this skepticism is what makes the music feel organic. It’s nostalgia, yes, but recharacterized by the existential preoccupations of life in the late 2000s. In the understated dancefloor dream “Poor Boy,” the speaker laments, “Poor boy, I could never live up to your imagination.” In “Too Many Tears,” he confesses, “Just between myself and the mirror, I am a lonely soul.” Similar to “I’ll Be Your Pilot,” “Best Friend” grapples with the complications of maturing and coming into oneself, but in the new context of a hesitant romance: “I’m not saying that we will be best friends / But I took you dancing at the weekend.” These songs are anxious while also self-collected, and above all, surprisingly honest.
How to Solve Our Human Problems is at turns gentle, distressed, confessional and even overtly political — such as the verse in “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” that professes, “They’ll take profits over people / They will make the country great again.” But taken as a whole, the album resonates more than anything else as a triplicate of vivid scenery and synth-pop fantasia. The ’80s were in some ways a transitional period, and How to Solve Our Human Problems — equally full of desperate reaches for the past as it is of running leaps toward the future — illuminates what it is about that liminality that we find so appealing. As a country and as a culture, we’re also living in a period of great transition. We know what’s behind us, the good and the bad, and we have no way of knowing what will come next. There are times when all we can do is close our eyes and picture ourselves wherever the music takes us — a dim arcade, a neon-lit diner, a car speeding along down the highway — and ride out the dream for as long as we can.