I guess this is what longevity means for an indie band. So much has changed since Belle & Sebastian broke through – not least the significance of that magical word “indie” – that it’s remarkable to be writing this review at all. Stuart Murdoch’s drizzly chamber pop brigade have been purveyors of self-aware uncoolness since before geek was chic; they gave “twee” its musical meaning and were grizzled veterans by the time the world learned what a Death Cab or a Decemberist was. It’s nice to see them still around, and even nicer to see them producing something more or less of note.
As per usual, Belle & Sebastian Write About Love is an eclectic series of brisk, weary pop arrangements that carry Murdoch’s stiff and intelligent songs from the schoolhouse to the office to the dance floor. It’s a sequel in spirit to The Life Pursuit, the band’s previous release, sounding clearer and more formal – and yes, more grown-up – than we’ve heard from Belle & Sebastian so far, but not sacrificing much in the way of character. The distinctive cynical energy of If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With the Arab Strap still pushes through from time to time, and when that’s not the case you’re left with decently interesting music all the same.
Write About Love features a bit of fresh air up front, as the first two tracks, ‘I Didn’t See It Coming’ and ‘Come On Sister’, depart a little from the Belle & Sebastian formula with a pair of synth-heavy, dance-friendly productions. Later, on ‘Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John’, Murdoch does his best Paul Simon impression while ceding singing duties to adult contemporary songstress Norah Jones. It’s an interesting change of pace to hear Murdoch and his self-occupied murmur laying texture to be sung over by someone with star power. For the band’s classic sound, your best bet is ‘The Ghost of Rockschool’, which would be right at home among the evocative schoolyard ennuis of Tigermilk and Sinister.
Track 6: “Write about love! It can be in any tense, but it must make sense.” The eponymous single is Beatles-y enough make Electric Light Orchestra blush, but it’s authentically Belle & Sebastian as well, wielding a set of forcefully wry lyrics. It’s Murdoch’s swipe at other indie balladeers, the ones who write lavish narratives of love and loss to communicate grandeur and romantic sweep, but in doing so step beyond the boundaries of actual human experience. Murdoch is good at resonating emotionally while tactfully holding back a bit; his characters are generally weak people and a little distant, sketched lightly but clearly, inspired by the daily chagrins and indignities we would all like to consider significant but which don’t in fact weigh any more than the words we use to describe them.
Beyond its four or five effective tracks, the fascination of Write About Love is the band’s relative consistency in tone and quality over the years. If You’re Feeling Sinister has its fourteenth birthday next month. If it were a person, it would already be in grade nine, kissing girls in English at the back of the stairs. Write About Love doesn’t hit you with that distance. Some musicians, especially those who inhabit a niche scene – and I think it’s fair to say that twee falls into that category – insist on a radical second or third act to their careers, but the Belle & Sebastian of today forms an unbroken line with the Belle & Sebastian of 1996, and thank goodness for that.
Tags: Belle & Sebastian