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When Belle and Sebastian first emerged from Glasgow a decade ago, the band bonded with its fans like a child does with his imaginary friend: intensely, intimately, and, above all, secretively. In its earliest days, the group almost denied its own existence, famously refusing interviews and spurning photo shoots. Its music first made the rounds on cassette copies of cassette copies of an album conceived as a school project and pressed in a ridiculously small quantity. It helped, too, that Belle and Sebastian’s 1996 debut, Tigermilk, featured tender vocals and hushed instrumentation that evoked the feeling of being under the covers well after bedtime, commiserating and conspiring by a flashlight’s glow and hoping not to wake the parents.
This situation, of course, was utterly unsustainable. Fans grow up. More important, so do bands.
This is not news, as Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch recently acknowledged in his occasional diary on the band’s Web site. Musing about midcareer turning points, Murdoch named some groups “that had been kicking around for a while, but somehow still had to make their decisive move”—including, by his account, R.E.M., a band with an early mystique roughly comparable to that of Murdoch’s own outfit. Those Georgia boys started out as arty kids who conjured a world of oblique mystery, of small Southern towns and mumble-whispered words and evenings spent in the weird gardens of outsider artists. They moved into rockin’ out and Wire covers and a major-label debut. Then they gave us “Shiny Happy People.”
Belle and Sebastian have undergone a similar progression. And they’re presenting their latest, the delightful The Life Pursuit, as a “decisive move” of their own into a new and liberated future—a step into adulthood that leaves behind the imaginary friend once and for all. It’s not a dramatic step, mind you. The band has steadily glossed up the production values with each new release, and its last studio effort, 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, set Murdoch’s hipster worldview—references to Harajuku, Thin Lizzy, and an existence “punctuated by philosophy”—against the clearly commercialized board work of Trevor Horn, who’d worked with the trashy likes of t.A.T.u. But The Life Pursuit is still something new and, yes, decisive. After all, no one comes back from a boogie record.
Well, not the whole record, but there’s an overall grooviness to The Life Pursuit that you won’t find anywhere in Belle and Sebastian’s earlier work. That may have something to do with another bit of deft production—this time by Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air), who Murdoch says was alarmingly demanding of the band. Or with the fact that the album was recorded in Los Angeles. But more important, there’s a new directness to Murdoch’s songwriting, a clarity and boldness that allows him to throw the word “suffragette” into the thumping, glammed-up “The White Collar Boy” and even to try singing like Bowie on the very next track, “The Blues Are Still Blue.” Songs that before were lovely wallflowers waiting for you to discover and appreciate them here march up and introduce themselves with juicy riffs, shout-along choruses, and even the occasional squealing guitar solo.
The very good news is that Murdoch’s sophisticated lyrical style has lost none of its familiar poetic bite amid all the tough new sounds. Take “Another Sunny Day,” a countrified number featuring clean, chiming guitar leads polished to a reflective shine. The opening verse gives us a late-spring flirtation (“Another sunny day, I met you up in the garden/You were digging plants, I dug you, beg your pardon/I took a photograph of you in the herbaceous border”). Later ones give us wry comedy (“I saw you in the corner of my eye on the sidelines/Your dark mascara bids me to historical deeds”; “There’s something in my eye, a little midge so beguiling/Sacrificed his life to bring us both eye to eye”). But although the melody never darkens, the story does, as the blossoming love affair collapses: “So what went wrong? It was a lie, it crumbled apart/Ghost figures of past, present, future haunting the heart.”
A similar formula dictates “Funny Little Frog,” a hit single in the U.K. and perhaps the purest pop song Murdoch has penned to date. Driven by jaunty piano and funky bass, it sounds like another homage to sweet romance. The trouble is, the romance is a one-way street: “You are my girl and you don’t even know it,” Murdoch sings, hilariously invoking the life of someone who is either a tragic recluse or an indie-kid Travis Bickle. “I had a conversation with you at night/It’s a little one-sided but that’s all right/I tell you in the kitchen about my day/You sit on the bed in the dark changing places.” In the annals of decisive moves, this isn’t quite “Shiny Happy People”—it’s not one-tenth as inane, for one thing—but you can see what Murdoch is talking about. In case you missed that the narrator might be some kind of stand-in for the overzealous B&S fan, Murdoch name-checks the first song on Tigermilk, “The State I Am In.”
Although those longtime disciples may blanch in horror, a couple of songs on The Life Pursuit may even qualify as danceable. “The Blues Are Still Blue” is pure T. Rextasy, with hand claps, cowbell, and a shaker all imploring you to burn some calories. The hip-shaking “Sukie in the Graveyard” includes some groovy ’70s organ and a shuffling drumbeat straight outta early-’90s Manchester. “Song for Sunshine” even takes a stab at Shuggie Otis–style bliss funk—which, admittedly, doesn’t quite feel at home on a Belle and Sebastian album, even one as spunky as this one. But present-at-the-creation fans might forgive it in exchange for a vintage-B&S track such as “Dress Up in You.” It’s all here: the winsome tune, the delicate backing vocals, even the trumpet part. Murdoch charts a terrifically arch tale about envy and rivalry between two women that concludes with “They act so discreet, they are hypocrites, forget them/So fuck them too.”
Murdoch looks at the potential hypocrisies of religion, too, with a pair of lukewarm songs titled “Act of the Apostle” and “Act of the Apostle II.” With their musing about “mak[ing] sense of it all” and receiving revelation through music, the songs have a loose connection to each other—but hardly any to the rest of the album. Though interesting, the “Apostle” tracks cut against the grain of The Life Pursuit. Pondering God and faith is a solemn, intimate exercise, well suited to the Belle and Sebastian we’ve become accustomed to. But that’s not the state Murdoch and his mates are in here: Their hearts are in turning not inward but outward. To some, that may represent a sacrilege, but the truth is that Belle and Sebastian have sacrificed none of their integrity. They’ve just gotten a little brighter, a little louder, and, let’s face it, a lot more real. CP
Belle and Sebastian perform at 9:15 p.m. Sunday, March 5, and Monday, March 6, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 265-0930.