Arts & Entertainment

Belle and Sebastian return with old and new tricks

Write About Love, Belle & Sebastian’s first album since 2006’s The Life Pursuit, is something of a return to form for the Scottish pop classicists and also a step forward.

Belle and Sebastian's newest album, Write About Love, dropped last Monday.

To properly understand where Love falls into the B&S cannon, one must understand the break between the first and second phases of the band’s career.

The first phase began in 1996 out of a student project between frontman Stuart Murdoch and former bassist Stuart David. The band’s early sound can be described as lo-fi. It drew on the influence of 80s Scottish college rock (C86), The Smiths, The Velvet Underground, The Zombies and a number of other artists.

Their first three albums were, in essence, a unique summary of the previous three decades of rock and pop with a unique, dry sense of humor. These albums predicted the tone for indie pop in new millennium (The Shins, for instance)—a mixture of old and new, retro and fresh ideas.

The second phase began officially with 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Both this album and its follow-up, The Life Pursuit, expanded the band’s sonic palette, but were on the whole blander than their previous work. Production was slicker. Tunes, unfortunately, felt like rehashing of influences (T-Rex, Big Star and even a little Stevie Wonder).

It was as if Belle & Sebastian were out to prove that they had mastered pop history, but they ceased to stand out as much as they had in years past. The songs weren’t bad, but were ultimately a guilty pleasure.

Enter Write About Love. In spots, the album sinks into the faults of their previous albums. And while those moments certainly aren’t bad, the album shines most in the moments that hearken back to the band’s early years while simultaneously treading down unworn paths.

“Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John” features the smoky vocals of Norah Jones in a duet with Murdoch. The song is perhaps the closest to Motown as the band will ever come—a lovely song, though nothing groundbreaking.

“I’m Not Living in the Real World” recalls the symphonic elements of XTC. Others like “I Didn’t See It Coming” and “Calculating Bimbo” are reminiscent of those first three albums, but incorporate new elements.

“I Didn’t See It Coming” in particular adds textures that evokes the British dream pop of two decades earlier as well as flourishes of 80s synth and a vaguely psychedelic sounding chorus. There’s also a few twangy country guitar licks thrown in for good measure. “Come On Sister” is a classic B&S dance number.

“Read the Blessed Pages” is an acoustic number that incorporates bits of synth flute that sound surprisingly un-cheesy. “The Ghost of Rockschool” ponders God, grace and of course love, all with a lovely brass instrument backdrop. Murdoch sings “God before bed and the promise of sleep. God in my dreams and the free ride of grace,” and elsewhere, “There’s a demon that waits at the garden gate. If you get past him maybe Lawrence and Phil will be waiting to take you to the ghost of Rockschool.” No clue what that means, but it sounds grand.

All-in-all, Write About Love is a fine addition to the Belle & Sebastian catalogue and is also an improvement over their previous two albums. The album is not as over-produced or as cliché as either of those records.

It may very well mark the beginning of a new phase for the band—a happy medium between the first and second phases. Murdoch is a disciple of pop history and has a seemingly endless bag of tricks. This album finds him making better use of those tricks. Recommended.

Nick Skiles is copy editor and a contributing writer for The Aviso.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment

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