Sunday, October 17, 2010

Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love (2010)



Reports indicate that seeing Belle & Sebastian on their current brief U.S. tour is a breathtaking experience, a communal participation in the pretty and the witty under the night sky that feels wonderful for all concerned, in a world that presently needs more wonderful satisfactions. If only they could stay over here longer. One interesting facet in the elation people are experiencing from these evenings is that they know and love all of the songs. Of course, you know all the songs at a Pixies or Pavement or Brian Wilson show, but what's different about this is the cozy but transcendent confidence of B&S's songs; they've always suggested time long past, and by (reportedly) only playing a couple of songs from their new album on this tour, they reinforce the celebration of living apart in one's own dusty, quiet universe.

That doesn't make them an oldies act. That only suggests a subservience to the stage, their surrender of exposing their new music to the larger scope of bringing their entire career to people who have rarely been able to see it performed. And yet, I can scarcely imagine a tour behind any of their last three albums that sidestepped much of the new material. Perhaps those seemed more immediate, perhaps they were just a bit stronger, but Write About Love, their seventh album, sounds like an extension of the same proto-nostalgia. Whereas their three full-length efforts of the 2000s brought them to new territory, eventually to actual power pop, Write About Love is more of a refinement, or a career summary, or even a reminder that the band still exists after a four-year hiatus.

Stuart Murdoch's songwriting hasn't flagged, but some element of his musical ambition seems to have calmed down since the last we heard from him. The majority of these songs could be on any of the records from the first half of the band's career, the chief difference being an integration of some of the production tricks and vocal expansions discovered in the years since. Only one of the songs is something for which I can't think of a predecessor in their catalog. That's the audacious beachball-juggling summer fun of "I'm Not Living in the Real World," which is utter bliss and opens up in a wild, unpolished manner that Murdoch's obsession with baroque minutiae seldom allows, less akin to the Beach Boys than the fucking Sunrays. I wouldn't mind a whole LP like it.

Nevertheless, the numbers are on their side; I count seven excellent songs out of eleven total. Full curtain opens on the beautiful, breathy vocals of Sarah Martin for the melodic light synthpop of "I Didn't See It Coming," continuing the gradual improvement in the songs not voiced by Murdoch. And as an opener, it grips immediately and properly anticipates the extra punch of "Come On Sister," Life Pursuit-like power pop elegantly bringing Holland-Dozier-Holland into the Information Age. Two perfect pop songs, momentum building, and then they have to go and crash us back to earth with "Calculating Bimbo."

This track is a good example to cite of why Belle & Sebastian aren't Lambchop -- why they're more popular and why their cult will never be quite as emotionally intense. It's beautiful music set against quirky intellectual trash-talk -- a joke that's become less funny over the years. I don't know if Scottish kids grow up with the same class-conscious inferiority complex that we hear so much about from England, but Murdoch at times comes off nearly embarrassed at his own gifts and cheapens them with the same awkward character studies that began creeping into Ray Davies' work around 1972. But the larger problem is that the song is just indistinct in style and production. Early in B&S's career, their crafting of mood was expert. It remains potent now, but I tend to wonder by this point if it's really necessary to add any more of these dirges to the catalog; that point was made years ago and they're better at different things now. The same criticisms apply to "Read the Blessed Pages" on the second half, here with Murdoch applying his cynicism to some sort of odd Behind the Music plotline, albeit with the intriguing twist that his timewarp has officially moved forward to the '70s and a solid Richard Thompson influence.

Elsewhere, though, Belle & Sebastian's fixation with '60s iconography and alt-'80s stylistics holds fast on this album; the strongest illustration is the ingratiating "I Want the World to Stop," as indebted to the New Romantic movement (Depeche Mode, A Flock of Seagulls, etc.) -- calling back to the Trevor Horn production on Dear Catastrophe Waitress -- as to the more obvious traces of Northern Soul girl-group pop. And it wouldn't be Belle & Sebastian if these hook-filled pastiches didn't ultimately carry a certain world-weary, wistful sadness. Elsewhere, the winning, immediately treasured title track perfectly conveys a modern day cynicism against a musical jumble of stuff likely blaring out of windows at Berkeley in the early Vietnam era, Simon & Garfunkel back to the Kinks back to Nico-period Velvets. "I Can See Your Future" calls back to the Turtles-like "For the Price of a Cup of Tea" on Life Pursuit but is just as good, just as sweet and instilling of sheer wide-eyed wonder. I'm more dubious on the keyboardy "Sunday's Pretty Icons," the brightest of the period-alternative lifts here. It sounds like it could've been a Modern Rock hit around 1993, slightly in the vein of the Cranberries, but like the Cranberries often were, it is seriously kind of annoying. I don't remember saying that about Belle & Sebastian before, but there it is.

The only other song here I initially cited as a dud was "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John," but the problem isn't really anything to do with the song. The melody is nice and the performance seems designed to evoke the country-edged singer-songwriters of the Nixon years; think Gram Parsons' albums with Emmylou Harris, or Richard & Linda Thompson, or even the Loretta Lynn albums from the period. But here's the clincher: To further this impression, they bring in Norah Jones and have her sing in an attempted Southern twang that sends the whole enterprise clattering down, in true what-the-hell-were-they-thinking fashion. Jones' voice hasn't ever really appealed to me anyway, but it doesn't fit here at all, and I can't help wanting to know why they didn't use Sarah Martin for her part. (Surely Norah Jones' commerical presence is no longer such that her credit will improve sales?) The song is good enough to mostly keep the bad feeling from bringing the album down as a whole.

Disregarding their likely discomfort about all that, it won't be difficult at all for a Belle & Sebastian fan to love this record, and it will certainly cause less backlash than the increasingly sunny pop of the last two did, but I hope we haven't heard the last of the Belle & Sebastian that was determined to change and alter its sound as the years went by. As solid as these songs are, I'm not overwhelmed with joy like I was by The Life Pursuit and Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Maybe it's the feeling that this is all sort of easy for them, or at least, easy for Stuart; is the "stretching" over? Or is the pulling back just reflective of Murdoch's detail-oriented perfectionism, meaning they just need time and they'll be thrilling again instead of merely great? Or is this all just, you know, the life cycle of a pop group? I don't want to sound ungrateful, because this record is full of songs I'll keep with me forever.

Besides, none of that applies to the true masterpiece of this album, a song nestled near the start of Side Two called "The Ghost of Rockschool." There's nothing immediately unusual about it, just Murdoch singing another lonely tune in his traditionally affected, dejectedly bouncy way. But as the song presses onward, that feeling of discovery appears and you start to hear the sort of aching melody and gorgeous arrangement made for those misty-eyed, deeply moving moments at future Belle & Sebastian shows. Or just future times alone with the song feeling every nook and cranny hidden in the witty words and vibrant music. And then you're more thankful than ever that they're still around and, damn everything, hope for a dozen more albums just like this one.

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