Music fandom has been a constant in my life since my pre-teen years but my love of individual artists has always been a fickle and fleeting thing in terms of their output. Loyalty to the creator is less important than love for to a specific song, album, or hot streak.
The Clash and The Byrds are my two “favorite” bands but that designation bundled up with a host of qualifiers — “ends with Younger Than Yesterday” or “but not Sandinista” and so forth. Even if the love for what I do love remains constant over the years, the overall process is akin to paths that cross for a time before splitting off in different directions.
Because of this, I have a difficult time getting into later releases or incarnations of even the most dear-to-me artists. Occasionally an exception will come around (such as the Damned’s 2002 Grave Disorder album), but mostly I try to avoid past-prime or post-reunion output. At best, it sounds like a fading echo. At worst, it’s a painful reminder of entropy’s iron grip.
That’s why — despite my ears pricking up at the news — I’ve been trying to keep any news about Belly’s reformation at arm’s length. The band occupies a deep and very personal niche in my developmental history, the transition from my punk rock adolescence to a rough semblance of my present adult state. My initial interest in the band flowed from their connection — via Tanya Donelly — with the Throwing Muses, but it didn’t take long before became a thing unto itself.
Belly’s first LP Star dropped when I was twenty-one years old and coming off a stiff aggro-punk hangover that dated back to my late teens. I was maturing, but not quite mature, past the early turbulent phase of a long term relationship but still dealing with the psychic fallout surrounding my mom’s death. My musical tastes had also shifted, from “SMASH-CRASH-KICK” to “gloom-doom-mope” and used vinyl echoes of childhood pop charts.
Belly was an outlier, more so than the Muses or Carter USM or the few other contemporary artists I listened to. There was something about their unique mix of dream pop and indie rock that resonated precisely with the swirl of emotions going on in my head. They were lullabies and fairy tales steeped in contradictions — sweet yet sinister, soothing yet disconcerting, ethereal yet abrasive.
Star and its 1995 follow-up King bracket the adolescence I was trying to let go of and the adulthood I was awkwardly fumbling towards. The music stuck with me (and rare is the week where I don’t listen to at least one song from either album) but the feelings it elicits are rooted in a specific moment of time. While I was glad to hear Belly had reformed and would be releasing new material after twenty-odd years, I had my doubts whether it could register anywhere outside my nostalgia cortex. Other acts might’ve been able to skate by on that, but it would’ve gutted me to witness that happening to Belly.
Morbid curiosity is a hell of a drug, however, especially when friends familiar with your fandom keep sending new info about the subject. One of these was a link to a streaming clip of “Starryeyed,” a new track on the Feel EP scheduled to release on Record Store Day 2018. I pressed play and hoped for the best.
The song was a slower ballad in the same vein as “Stay” or “Judas My Heart.” I could feel the empty flashbacks building in intensity, and then Donelly familiar voice delivered the first line.
“You can come home now/No one left to impress.”
And it floored me. The next track on the playlist was “Star Align,” a more uptempo indie rocker off the band’s upcoming Dove album. By the time it hit the chorus, there were genuine tears in my eyes.
The past few years have been taxing for me, to put it mildly, marked by significant accomplishments and countless bumpy patches. The miscarriage. The protracted process of attempting to adopt a child. Health issues. Financial turbulence. The passing of multiple beloved pets and the declining health of close relatives. The triumphs scattered between them have not been insignificant but any moments of celebration have been undercut by a pervasive feeling of dread — the sense that I’ve finally gotten to a decent place just in time to watch everything crumble around me.
The rational part of me understands this is the natural order of things, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult to come to grips with. The window between “Gen X” extended adolescence and middle age lasted all of five years in my case, at which point the forces of entropy began to run riot, and I still feel like a kid play-acting at being a grown-up.
I’ve spent the past three months trying to get a handle on the approaching demise of my maternal grandmother, a woman who has been more of a parent to my than my actual parents were. She has gone from an spry and active woman to a tiny, bedridden figure hooked up to machines and subject to violent panic attacks where she claims she has already died. While the eventual outcome is pretty clear, there’s a great deal of ambiguity about the specifics and what her trio of grandkids will need to work out in the short term.
It — among other ongoing headaches — has been weighing heavily on my shoulders lately, which is why hearing a familiar voice the past sing “I could you it’s all gonna be all right” triggered some cathartic waterworks. It was exactly what I needed to hear at exactly that moment.
I had mixed feelings about Belly reuniting because I didn’t want to fall into the generational trap of being told to “Take It on the Run” and “Don’t Stop Believing” while artist and audience try to convince themselves that the past few decades never happened.
There’s little — if any — of that sense of temporal stasis on Belly’s new material. The sound is familiar but not retrograde. We’ve all gotten older, grayer, and (hopefully) wiser since the heady days of the mid-Nineties, and it’s reflected in the music and lyrics. It’s a reunion in the purest sense of the term, getting together again after a long separation, and I’m truly grateful for that.