Belle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian

BandAlternative

Returning to Matador Records most people may have thought they had them pegged as fey cuties, but the band have cut the feet out from under everyone with a record of startling clarity, accomplishment and impact. 'The Life Pursuit' is nothing short of a revelation.

Biography

After making seven albums, Belle and Sebastian have just made the most forceful record of their career. Most people may think they’ve got them pegged as fey cuties, but the band have cut the feet out from under everyone with a record of startling clarity, accomplishment and impact. 'The Life Pursuit' is nothing short of a revelation.

In truth, these changes have not been wrought overnight. The decision to partner up with producer Trevor Horn for the last record (Dear Catastrophe Waitress) was a clear statement of intent – “Think we’re lo-fi underachievers? Think again - we’re working with the guy who does Tatu”. What is now clear – with producer Tony Hoffer back at the helm – is that DCW was but a stop on the way. And what that album started, ‘The Life Pursuit’ delivers in spades.

Decamped for the duration of recording to Los Angeles, Belle and Sebastian found the focus to fully realize what the late John Peel correctly identified as their “surprising muscularity” at Glastonbury three years ago.
Of course, to those paying attention, it was always clear that in chief songwriter Stuart Murdoch we had a treasure in waiting. Perceptive, humane and hilarious, his writing has always had a voice as discernible as a Cocker or Morrissey, but perhaps the bushel obscuring it was a little more, uh, capacious. On ‘The Life Pursuit’ this individuality seems to have reached its apotheosis of heartbreak and humour.

One of the chief pleasures of listening to this record is to follow the lives of Stuart’s engaging cast of characters. You may never be quite sure whose “voice” it is you are listening to, but unlike, say, Morrissey, it would be a mistake to assume that it is always “Stuart”. “Dress Up In You”, for instance, despite being sung in the first person and starting with a line about being “the singer in the band”, seems, at its conclusion, to be about female rivalry. Of course, with typical Belle and Sebastian contrariness, its bitter war is played out against the tenderest of musical backdrops, so the kiss-off line of “they are hypocrites, so fuck them” feels like a stroke on the cheek. Swearing sotto voce is something at which Belle and Sebastian excel.

Elsewhere, Stuart revisits the echoing school corridors and drafty church halls of his back pages. Religion, shorn of dogma, permeates much of ‘The Life Pursuit.’ Here, the choirmaster who’s a “bastard”, there the Good Book as an excuse to skip school (“the bible’s my tool/there’s no mention of school”), and on “Act of the Apostle Part 1” a girl seeming to have an Old Testament fantasy.

On “Funny Little Frog” we start with what seems to be a functional relationship (“Honey loving you is the greatest thing / I get to be myself and I get to sing”), before it becomes clear that we are more in ‘Just My Imagination’ territory (‘You are my girl and you don’t even know it”) and then perhaps the striking idea that he could be addressing an icon of the Madonna (“You are my picture in the hall / You are the one I’m talking to… I don’t dare to touch your hand / I don’t dare to think of you in a physical way”). If this is a hit – and it surely deserves to be - then it will be one of the most cryptic hits since “Walk on the Wild Side”.

The other thing about “Funny Little Frog” – and the whole album, in fact – is the way it feels both familiar and strange at the same time. There is a powerful aesthetic at the heart of the ‘The Life Pursuit’ that places it at some time in the early-to-mid Seventies without ever specifically sounding like anything you can put your finger on. It is more “muscular” than previous Belle and Sebastian albums – and there is a gravitation towards a more live, beat-oriented sound – but unlike any of their peers, it is impossible to reduce their influences to a few key sources.

Belle and Sebastian pull in stuff from all over the place, so that Sly & the Family Stone/Funkadelic inflections (“Song For Sunshine”) sit side by side with the classic bubblegum riffs and call-and-response vocals of “White Collar Boy”; the “Queen Bitch”-era Bowie stylings of “Sukie In the Graveyard”; the glammy T-Rex of “The Blues Are Still Blue”; the prime-time miserablism of a Terry Hall (“Mornington Crescent”) and the irrepressible rousing piano drive of “The Price Of A Cup Of Tea” (which quotes fellow Glaswegian Bobby Gillespie in its opening line).

Writing in his occasional diary on belleandsebastian.com, Stuart has been trying to contextualize the band’s current position within the realm of other what Stuart considers to be “late blooming” artists. Referring to the point at which Jagger sang “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, he continues:

“Never been a ‘consistently’ big Stones fan, but I just loved the production on this track, and the ambition, and the soul. And the groove. It struck me that I felt some parallels with the Stones around that time. Now this may seem extremely presumptuous and all that, but a boy has to dream. It seems to me th

Discography

Albums released to date (all Matador except Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Rough Trade):

Tigermilk (1996)
If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998)
Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (2000)
Storytelling (2002)
Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
The Life Pursuit (2006)