Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (2006)



David Byrne mentioned at some point that he and the rest of Talking Heads hired Jonathan Demme because they thought of Stop Making Sense as an actual story rather than just a concert, of the mannered, tightly-wound, ultra-dignified suited businessman (portrayed by Byrne himself) gradually loosening up and embracing the stranger, kinkier parts of himself. The arms stretch out and expand out into a dancing orb of rhythm. In that case, taking Belle & Sebastian's career as an equal but lengthier narrative, The Life Pursuit comes up someplace around "Girlfriend Is Better." We can be even more specific and point up the cathartic release of everything. "For the Price of a Cup of Tea" isn't merely Murdoch's oblique but irresistible conception of a "hit," it's a climactic moment in the all-stops-out power of a band with whom one does not associate the word "power." All apart from its sense of celebration and danger, there's the feeling that it's a defining of what "pop" itself can mean in the context of the archetypal Indie Rock Group and all its exorcisms of a person's unfitting furies. And therefore its listeners'.

There are no complex polyrhythms, no African percussion, but in Stuart Murdoch's world, the cutting of the cord translates to a sunny burst of power pop that expands upon the bookish, witty, snooty and sad eccentricity of yore. No less eccentric, though; eccentric in its bliss, fervent in the same, this album is a joyous experience. When my mom heard it she said it reminded her of Simon & Garfunkel, and maybe that was always on the tip of Murdoch's senses, but this aesthetic compliment hit me sideways: the reason I love this record so much, one reason anyway, is that it sounds like something my parents would've loved and played when I was growing up -- a fixture to be filed in between Bridge Over Troubled Water and, I dunno, Rumours.

It's not even a progression, exactly. Probably a minority of B&S fans are going to argue with you if you elect If You're Feeling Sinister as their signature moment. There was never much room for improvement from that reference point of immaculately precise, detailed and fussy but gently emotive desperation. Murdoch nailed the simultaneous detachment and passion of the hipster persona before anyone had even noticed he was in the room, before the signal was even ringing far out of Glasgow. But in perfectly appropriate fashion, cassette dubs were made and swept around, crushes were made and broken, a minor league legend was born that by the new decade would coalesce into a major cult. And where did you go? The Boy with the Arab Strap, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, and Dear Catastrophe Waitress all have their defenders (this particular individual included in the latter two cases), but after Sinister, Life Pursuit is easily the group's most indelible, deeply persuasive creation -- and impressively separate, expansive beyond that earlier touchstone. Yet big important secret things remain the same in a number of degrees: it's all still dusty and baroque and gawky, because what would be the point otherwise?

Still, even if one was well versed in the grandiose AM maneuvers of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and its outrageous earworm bids "Step into My Office, Baby" and "I'm a Cuckoo," it was maybe an inevitable shock to the system to hear what amounts to K.C. & the Sunshine Band, bursting with that weird vast clear-as-anything reverb, on "Act of the Apostle I." The voices come in and it's Brian Wilson shit; the chorus and bridge and we're into the groove with Spanky & Our Gang, maybe? It's still Stuart Murdoch in all his winking preoccupations, young female characters late to class and they know it, with every bit of nonconfrontational joy and curiosity, and not a trace of Knack condescension. Later we come back to all this for the big Kinks move; "Act of the Apostle II" expands on all this like a naive "Shangri La," the build back into the original melody frankly glorious.

The Kinks are an easy, maybe lazy comparison to make in regard to Belle & Sebastian, but their ghosts are everywhere you look on Life Pursuit, particularly the wisps of their last three '60s albums which always seemed more boorish, less polite than Murdoch could ever allow. No longer true -- the cyclical "Dress Up in You" is admittedly a stirringly quiet and pregnant lift of sorts from Something Else's "Two Sisters," but otherwise the Kinks evoked so pleasingly here are the Kinks straddling the gulf between "You Really Got Me" and "She's Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina." That is, the crunchy and bawdy, angsty nightclubbers of "Dead End Street" and "She's Got Everything." Maybe your first thought about that maxed-out rhythm guitar on "The Blues Are Still Blue" is T-Rex, maybe "Another Sunny Day" calls the Records' "Starry Eyes" to mind almost subliminally, and maybe "White Collar Boy" is like clapping Gary Glitter backed by the New York Dolls, but what all these connect-the-dots games have in common is their Anglophilia, and Murdoch's closest brethren in the rock sourcebook is so vividly Ray Davies that by "Funny Little Frog" his chirpy little voice even sounds nearly indistinguishable from his potential mentor. The Kinks' sly humor and melodic smarts had a cerebral impact on lots of indie rock, from Davies' sometime backing band Yo La Tengo down to the Decemberists' livelier moments, but Belle & Sebastian seem to get the letter unnervingly right here with its jolts of pleasure and its sometimes-kinda-but-not-necessarily-totally serious obsessiveness, even conservatism.

On closer "Mornington Crescent," however, Murdoch gets something more foreboding out of Davies' valentines to old-fashioned solitude. It's a wistful, slow ride off into an anti-"Waterloo Sunset" that reveals the crushed downside to a constant pursual of contentment and security, the faded punk posters of arrested development. "We're a little too free," he concludes, a strangely unnerving cap to an often delightful record. There's evidence earlier here of the darkness in his preoccupations, even if it takes a dozen or more times through all this ridiculous cheeriness to scope it out. Pay mind to the coded message of "The Blues Are Still Blue," a goofily metaphorical chronicle of a long-term relationship whose only driving force is mutual destruction and futile sadness. "Funny Little Frog" is an actually haunting missive from the familiar territory of unrequited obsession, here with an unwitting muse. Ringing out with all the horns and bells and whistles of a '60s Wall of Sound, its main attraction is nevertheless one of Murdoch's strongest and most tortured vocals ever, all desperate and croaking. "My eyesight's fading, my hearing's dim / I can't get insured for the state I'm in / I'm a danger to myself, I've been starting fights / At the party at the club on a Saturday night" is not quite "tales of drunkenness and cruelty," but it comes from the same eerie place of stunted masculinity.

And maybe no one but Belle & Sebastian could lay out the postmortem of a summer love like this: "I thought it was for real; babies, rings and fools kneeling / And words of pledging trust and lifetimes stretching forever / So what went wrong? It was a lie, it crumbled apart / Ghost figures of past, present, future haunting the heart." But here's the rub -- the words are there if you want, and they're mostly well-written (we will momentarily excuse the song that rhymes "slave" with "Dave" and "bitch" with "rich"), but the songs barely need them. That same tune, "Another Sunny Day," blasts in like George Harrison cutting himself loose for once, and then the backing vocals kick in with their fuck-all, and "your dark mascara bids me to historical deeds," which, fine, is a line we do need. I'm saying that the deeper, more pressing and immeasurable pleasures of The Life Pursuit are all musical, that its immediate jugular effect is of more lasting meaning and utility than any of Murdoch's cleverly worded, cleverly jaded themes. The tunes are richer when you have some idea what they're about, but in contrast to the group's earliest works, they don't necessarily require such attention for maximum impact.

So what The Life Pursuit really means to me is blasting out "The Blues Are Still Blue" -- which lord knows I should've taken advantage of when I used to spin records at a laundromat -- and screaming along to "BABY I LOVE YOUR FACE" with my girlfriend. The song's deadly accurate lyrics capture a fragmenting relationship with uncomfortable ease, but in the moment all we care is its absolute bliss of pop hookery. I know semi-hoodlum anthem "White Collar Boy" is a giant valentine to Breathless and If... and Zero for Conduct but all I hear is that fuzz and the cleverly embedded Queen references. Spit in your gin and get on your bike, indeed. The most beautiful and urgent of the fast ones is "We Are the Sleepyheads," and I don't know if it's about cultish weirdos or being in a slightly semipopular band or going to Bible study but I'll tell you that its screaming guitars and oddball arrangement mean enough to me that I almost don't remember a time before it, which is a Beatles-level achievement.

The lesser cuts, whether kiddie singalong or Bill Withers ripoff, have greater merit cumulatively, too, and separated from their lethal sarcasm. Murdoch's always had a talent for getting wound up in himself like this, but he's learned to make it musical. I perk up in "Dress Up in You" every time they do that trick in which everything drops out except his voice, for starters. And I'm only categorizing "To Be Myself Completely" as lesser because I assume it's taken for granted since it's sung by sideman Stevie Jackson. I personally love its splendid Motown lift, like a Smiths variation on "Hitsville UK." Or one of those Dave Schramm cuts on Ride the Tiger.

Still, ignore anything about the massive, gently driving "For the Price of a Cup of Tea" at your peril. This is our sequel to "Piazza, New York Catcher" in the sense that it's the Belle & Sebastian tune of its period that I can't help wanting impulsively to sing along with, every word, and the blending of lyric to melody is on some sort of a higher level. Its plot hinges on a line of coke, a broken date, and person-to-person warmth and relief. You might be the village joke but you can listen to my stereo. Take a walk as you follow me. (For years I thought he said "bother" which I like better.) And I suppose it makes some sort of a point that B&S follow all this with the downtrodden reflection of "Mornington Crescent," but their alienated character here finds her redemption: she pushes back her fringe and finds herself the person she wanted to be. It's a triumph, it's all the best sorts of feelings in the world set to obliquely perfect pop, and it seals The Life Pursuit as a classic of its kind. Maybe the fact that the album's tentative despair tries and fails to spoil it plays a role in how much this music brightens me up every time. I feel an incredible kinship with this record, and I'll tell you all about it someday.

Write About Love (2010)

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