Compilation albums get no respect. Often they’re written off as cynical cash-grabs, bereft of any artistic merit, the soundtrack of the Johnny-come-lately. This is unfortunate, because when done right, a compilation lets us observe the trajectory of an artist’s career. Push Barman to Open Old Wounds is such an album. This is the first Belle and Sebastian compilation record, but Matador opted to forgo the typical greatest-hits fare, instead providing a much more essential collection of the seven non-album EPs released between 1997 and 2001. Encapsulating the vicissitudes of the band’s career and containing some of its strongest material, Push Barman to Open Old Wounds is the quintessential Belle and Sebastian release.
The best way to tell a story is from the beginning, and that’s what this compilation does. The first disc of the two-disc set contains material from Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light, all released in the summer of 1997 on Jeepster. These EPs mark the tail end of the band’s frantic infancy, in which the band released two full-lengths — Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister — and three EPs in less than two years.
These songs showcase frontman Stuart Murdoch’s deft storytelling abilities. Set to the band’s lush, orchestrated chamber-pop, Murdoch’s early work speaks to the young and disaffected, chronicling their trials and tribulations as well as their victories, however small. It’s often said these EPs contain the strongest songs in Belle and Sebastian’s catalogue, and with “Dog on Wheels,” “Lazy Line Painter Jane” and “A Century of Fakers,” that’s certainly a viable position.
By contrast, the material on the second disc is taken from a time in the band’s history that is oft maligned as its worst, creatively speaking. The four EPs collected here — This Is Just A Modern Rock Song, Legal Man, Jonathan David and I’m Waking Up To Us — were recorded during a time of chaotic upheaval for the band. The albums released during this time (The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998), Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like A Peasant (2000), and the soundtrack for Todd Solondz’s film Storytelling (2001)) were met with gradually decreasing fanfare. This is often attributed to band members Isobel Campbell, Stuart David and Stevie Jackson contributing to the songwriting. This democratization of the creative process caused the band to move away from Murdoch’s haunting narratives and set the tone for the band’s move to a more polished, baroque-pop sound.
The band was further torn asunder by core members Campbell and David leaving the group to focus on new projects. David was the first to exit, following the recording sessions for Fold Your Hands; he went on to form Looper with his wife. Campbell parted ways with the group after a blowup with Murdoch during a North American tour just prior to the release of Storytelling. She has since put out a well-received solo album, Amorino in 2003.
Although critics and fans alike were vocal in their displeasure, the criticism was unjust. This was certainly a different Belle and Sebastian, but the evolution in their sound was a necessary step to avoid stagnation or self-parody. There may have been a few stumbles along the way, but tracks including “Jonathan David” and “I’m Waking Up to Us” show a band beginning to feel comfortable in its skin again, leading to the revelation that was Dear Catastrophe Waitress.
As a piece of nostalgia, Push Barman to Open Old Wounds will appeal to longtime fans who are eager to have all this material in a convenient package. But the set could prove even more indispensable to those unfamiliar with Belle & Sebastian. Encompassing the band’s musical progression every step of the way, the compilation serves as a perfect introduction to one of the most beloved pop bands of the past decade. If you’re only going to buy one Belle & Sebastian album (and shame on you if you are), make it this one.