February 16, 2006

A New Chapter In The Dynasty

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Belle and Sebastian is what happens when preschoolers learn how to play drums, piano and guitars and become well-versed in Kafka, Flannery O’Connor and the Bible. Such a mutant sound has always been their aesthetic, casting their songs headlong into contrasting binaries: precious, nursery-rhyme jingles meet the evilest institution in music – rock & roll – and religiosity is undercut by a sneering, even sinister, sense of humor. For that reason, few bands create such a diametric opposition within their popular reception as Belle and Sebastian. You either love them or hate them – this is not music that lends itself to a middle ground. But, love them or hate them, it’s impossible to deny their importance to pop music, and The Life Pursuit, the group’s sixth studio album, is yet another testament to their reign as indie deities.

The Life Pursuit represents a critical new point in the band’s genesis, marking their biggest departure yet from their trademark chamber pop sound. But their “biggest departure” is really more a matter of modification and small experimentation, expanding their sonic palette to include influences from more diverse musical epochs. While there are some regrettable decisions here and there, it is ultimately for the best, as the group has been mired in a somewhat crippling redundancy for some time. Of course, that’s not entirely their fault – it’s hard to improve when you create a masterpiece like If You’re Feeling Sinister, which is basically the defining chamber pop record. The Life Pursuit is by no means a return to that level of brilliance, but it is without a doubt the best Belle and Sebastian record since their seminal album’s release 10 years ago.

The album begins in more vintage form, with the opening two tracks being the most similar musically and lyrically to the days of If You’re Feeling Sinister without sounding complacent. By consequence, they are also two of the best songs on The Life Pursuit. “Act of the Apostle” sets up expectations with a meandering, lounge piano rhythm and then quickly belies them by ascending into a gloriously reverbed chorus. Stuart Murdoch also uses the opening track to establish the album’s thematic conceits, which wind through every song. Belle and Sebastian albums have always seemed like a carnival of confused souls, with latent homosexuality, gender mutability, religious doubt, aborted creativity and, ultimately, redemption, forming the foundation of the many characters in search of themselves that Murdoch has formed over the years. Here, we meet a girl in the process of discovering God and music, who laments, “Oh, if I could make sense of it all! / I wish that I could sing / I’d stay in a melody / I would float along in my everlasting song / What would I do to believe?”

Next is “Another Sunny Day,” by far the album’s catchiest track, and a dead ringer for Belle and Sebastian’s halcyon days. It’s the kind of power pop that Belle and Sebastian were born to do, and they manage to recapture all the warm, head-bobbing rhythm that informed their early work without sounding reused. But the album’s true gem is more of a patience reward, buried at track nine in “Funny Little Frog,” a wonderful effort that mixes glitzy, showtune pianos, down-home guitars and kitschy hand claps with lyrics that constitute an ambiguous cross between teenage stalking, gross hero worship and necrophilia.

When The Life Pursuit ventures into more untraditional musical territory, it discovers itself in odd ways as well, with such pleasantries as “Sukie In the Graveyard” and “We Are the Sleepyheads,” which lays blazing, pseudo-funk guitar and pixie backup vocals to abet lyrics that pronounce the group’s commitment to liquor and the gospels (“Over tea and gin we talked about the things we read / In Luke and John the things he said”). But experimentation is also the cause of The Life Pursuit’s biggest disappointments. “White Collar Boy” may be the worst Belle and Sebastian song I’ve ever heard, carjacking Pulp’s hit machine without knowing how to operate it, and “Song For Sunshine” attempts a terrible Sly Stone impersonation before diving headlong into a chorus that sounds like it was ripped from an ABBA b-side.

What the album generally lacks is a shimmering centerpiece, as nothing here even approaches the nearly sublime perfection of “The State I Am In,” “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” or “If You’re Feeling Sinister.” While it certainly would have profited from at least one masterful track, the album retains a sense of cohesion that makes it feel full and complete, and Murdoch effectively brings things back to the beginning, both sonically and lyrically in “Act of the Apostles II,” where he revives the opening track’s glossy melody and assumes the persona of the soul-searching girl, crooning “The Bible’s my tool / There’s no mention of school! / My Damascan Road’s my transistor radio / I tune in at night when my mum and dad start to fight / I put on my headphones / And I tune out / I am devout.” For Murdoch, life’s pursuit is an awakening of the soul, whether that may be through knowing God, finding the miracles of pop music, or both.

Archived article by Zach Jones
Sun Associate Editor