Many longtime Belle & Sebastian fans will feel frustrated when they hear The Life Pursuit. Ever since 2003’s sparkly, soulful Dear Catastrophe Waitress marked a drastic shift away from shoegazer sentiment and gauzy, lo-fi production for the Glasgow pop septet, some hardcore devotees have felt they’ve been deserted for ABBA-esque backing vocals, amped-up bass and funky, sunny hooks. They’ll feel that Belle & Sebastian no longer make music in the same sanctified language.
On their latest, B&S test our faith while simultaneously struggling with their belief in their own work. Despite near-deification from a devout fanbase, they’re people just like us – and though their music can sound intensely intimate, even divinely inspired, their ethos isn’t universe-defining, true-since-the-beginning-of-time theology. They’re musicians, not apostles; they write songs, not gospel.
And that’s the attitude fans (or anyone who’s ever formed an opinion about the group’s oeuvre) will have to take to appreciate the chrome-shiny pop exultations that producer Tony Hoffer – the guy responsible for the electrified eroticism of Beck’s Midnight Vultures – has brought to their new sound.
Gone are stripped-down torch songs like “We Rule the School” and “Fox in the Snow.” The absence of those intimate moments can make Pursuit feel a little hollow on the first few listens, as if it’s all glitzy melodies and big smiles. But thematically, the group deals with new directions as well as tests of faith; the fact that they’ve created an album that believably explores these ideas within an ultra-pop framework – hooks galore, a boosted rhythm section and even guitar solos – shows the complexity and artistic force behind all those catchy melodies. Fans of all stripes should be ecstatic: The group has graduated to a brand-new sonic palette in which they can work more magic.
The cool, syncopated piano of “Act of the Apostle I” opens Pursuit. The two-part story of a girl struggling with her faith during her mother’s illness frames tracks that illustrate characters at different junctures in life and the band’s own stylistic experimentations. The art-school hellion of “Sukie in the Graveyard” eclipses the timid Mary Jo and dreamy Judy, other archetypal female figures in Murdoch’s back catalogue, with her runaway antics and nude modeling for drawing classes. The story is punctuated with a joyful, ascending organ hook that’s just one of Pursuit’s many infectious musical tropes. The vocal effects and blues-rocky riff of “The Blues Are Still Blue” create the impression that Murdoch discovered a lost Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie track. The AM Gold-style backing vocals and searing guitar solo (!) on “We Are the Sleepyheads” and “Song for Sunshine’s” chilled-out funk progressions, however, might take a little getting used to – but when would anyone have expected Belle & Sebastian to sound like this and sound so good?
Pursuit’s second half suffers from a slight lack of momentum, simply because of the bloc of brilliant, danceable tunes on the first half. The sweet, sincere “To Be Myself Completely,” a contribution from guitarist and underrated B&S member Stevie Jackson, comes closest to their old-school sound; the effect is at once comforting and a little sobering. And Pursuit’s first single, “Funny Little Frog,” doesn’t stand out much on the album, let alone as another addition to the band’s rich singles catalogue, despite the fact that its candy-coated melody provides a welcome jolt of energy before the album’s gentler denouement.
“For the Price of a Cup of Tea,” in which a social pariah discovers a 7″ at a record store, sets a sentimental mood for closer “Mornington Crescent.” Despite the shift to a slow-tempo, retrospective tone, the track points forward to a new future. With its tinkly piano and constant, Ringo-esque drums, “Crescent” sounds somehow unlike anything they’ve released: It’s not a quirky, pop exercise on unrequited love, but an expansive ballad on emotions far more complex.
And the fact that Belle & Sebastian can still do sentimental without sounding like their old selves shows that this growth is a good thing. The Life Pursuit hasn’t narrowed their thematic or sonic scope. Rather, this new direction opens up creative possibilities for one of the most musically dynamic bands of our time. They’ve given us 10 years worth of fantastic records, and the least we can do in return is hear them out for the next decade.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Belle & Sebastian
The Life Pursuit