Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit

Bill Cummings 05/02/2005

Rating: 4/5

Scotland's Belle and Sebastian were always a band treasured by a cult following, a band that revelled in a by-gone age, in a vision of a black and white Scotland, a twee indie-folk soundtrack to shyness, heartbreak, the everyday. In some ways Stuart Murdoch and co. could be compared to the Smiths - not musically, you understand, but in terms of their aesthetic. Creating music, an image, a set of album sleeves that, whilst rooted in the past, inflected their unique influences and experiences as a band, whether that was the tragic folk stylings of “Tigermilk”, or the indie pop of “Boy with the Arab Strap.” After a few disappointing releases, notably the soundtrack album “Storytelling”, came the more successful widescreen leanings of 2003's Trevor Horn produced “Dear Catasphrophe waitress.”

Belle and Sebastian now return with one of their boldest efforts yet, entitled “The Life Pursuit”. Recorded in LA with the help of producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air), the influence of sunshine and Americana bleeds through the kaleidoscope of the new Belle and Sebastian sound: summery, well executed rock, pop and soul tracks that slink against songs that hint at their older work. It's also more economical than any of their other releases: originally slated as a double album with over twenty tracks, it was whittled down to thirteen perfectly honed pop songs.

In terms of highlights “Another Sunny day” is typical, almost Spectorish in its glorious pop sheen, with glimmering Bryds-y guitars, Stuart's reminiscent melodies adding a bittersweet tinge to the song's edges. It is clearly noticeable that Stuart's vocals are higher in the mix than much of Belle and Sebastian's albums of old. In a recent interview, guitarist Stevie and Stuart claimed they were happier in the band than ever before and The Life Pursuit clearly shows.

Whilst “White Collar Boy” begins with a throbbing T-Rex style guitar building into a stomping Hammond beat and Beatles-esque repeated refrains (“White collar boy on the run from the law”). Similar the Shins' “Chutes too Narrow”, this is pure widescreen pop, harking back to the 60s and 70s but crucially adding individual twists.

The pivotal track is “Dress Up In You”, more recognisably Belle and Sebastian than much here, its stately piano's beautiful female backing provided by Sarah Martin then half way through there is a majestically placed horn solo that moves the song into pearlessness. Stuart takes the first person narrative about a female singer who left a band and went onto more successful things, but the lyrics seemingly stretch out wider, into a bitter critique on the world of celebrity (“You always had a lot of style/I'd hate to see you on the pile/Of 'nearly-made-it' s”). Elsewhere “We Are The Sleepyheads” is brilliant: reminiscent of “Up Up And Away” by the Mann, Johnny Singers its frenetically strummed sun rays of jangle allow 50's style falsetto harmonics to shoot over the songs rhythm like a multi coloured rainbow.

First single “Funny Little Frog” is a pure pop gem - it's certainly this album's “I'm a Cuckoo” as a more immediate tune about someone who thinks they're in love with an actual person but is actually in love with an image. Meanwhile, “To Be Myself Completely”, sung by Stevie Jackson, offers a new dimension to the albums last section, with its melancholic, early REM folk stylings the lyrics seemingly referring to the depression of a touring existence (“And to be myself completely I've just got to say goodbye/Z-list star in a hundred grand Garrett/The ladies say 'Hey baby, you've earned it!'/I'm not so sure, I toured the land.”)

There are moments when these songs do seem a bit slight, and lacking any discernable impact upon me as a listener: for instance the Bowie-esque fuzz of “The Blues Are Still Blue” and the Stevie Wonder-style harpsichord power pop of “Song For Sunshine” seem to be lyrically obvious, coming across like musical workouts that pave the way, towards the better moments on the album. The concluding “Mornington crescent” is pure class - a lonely, weary, shuffle, a reticent self-referential vocal and a laid-back blues riff. “Mornington Crescent/Sin is my game/We'll all be lined up/Irrelevant fame/Next to the broker, the nurse and the drunk/I was a joker, the wannabe punk that got lucky/Had a good time/Life became fruitless.”

Some fans of the bands older work may be disappointed by a seeming lack of lyrical substance on some of the albums tracks but that would be a red herring. Belle and Sebastian have bravely evolved, musically they sound more at ease than ever and the lyrics are deceptively clever. Whether that's brilliant character portraits, carefully painted narratives or the personal motifs, there is the odd track here that has less of an impact, but the majority of “The Life Pursuit” is a master class in pure pop song writing that retains the original spirit of one of Scotland's best ever bands.