Sympathetic Stupid

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit

This is a great album.

Dear Catastophe Waitress was old-school narratives mixed with big pop arrangements - yes, B&S were happy now, and playing on the big stages, but they'd lost none of their charm. In hindsight, though, the mix wasn't entirely comfortable. The pop gems were there - Step Into My Office, Baby, Dear Catastophe Waitress - but with lyrics verging on the punny simplicity of Legal Man. On the other hand, the literate narratives of Piazza New York Catcher and, especially, Lord Anthony evoked a strong sense of nostalgia for the old stuff without hitting the pop notes. It made for a fun album, but the fusion wasn't quite cooked.

I say this with the perspective you get from a higher peak.

The Life Pursuit is the album DCW wanted to be. They obviously know their 70s pop far better than I ever will, so I'm going to jettison the de rigueur T-Rex and Sly and the Family Stone references. But the songs are strong even without context. The first one which got me was the ridiculously catchy White Collar Boy - a big funky bassline, Stuart's exuberant vocals with the best call-and-response they've done yet. "You were chained to a girl that would kill you with a look"; reply "It's a nice way to die she's so easy on the eye". This is the witty, self-deprecating feel that I love about B&S - "She said 'You ain't ugly, you can kiss me if you like'".

In fact, this track leads off the irresistible seven-track soul of the album. The puntastic, catchy Blues Are Still Blue follows with, stomping along with another killer bassline, synthy highlights and a great heavily syncopated chorus. Then Nice Day For A Sulk, sorry, I'll read that again, it's Dress Up In You. This feels like a Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant outtake, but with the vocals and trumpet closer to the front of the mix and generally more interesting production. And I do love the line "If I could have a second skin/I'd probably dress up in you".

Sukie In The Graveyard is the big one. Sukie is a typical B&S character from as far back as She's Losing It, but the track itself is a long way from Tigermilk. The funky bass makes another appearance, joining Richard's foot-tapping groove in the solid rhythm section which drives the whole thing. But Chris dancing around the organ behind Stuart's fast-paced, acerbic vocals - "Sukie was the kid, she liked to hang out at the art school/She didn't enrol, but she wiped the floor with all the arseholes" - is what turns the track into a masterpiece. When the organ rolls jubilantly into that last verse, the roof comes off the building.

We Are The Sleepyheads is Stuart in an upper register with Sarah right there, fast-paced and with a bit of Bible study for good measure. Song For Sunshine contrasts a brazen organ line with a cheesy synth chorus; though "Sunshine, we all see the same sky" is a little saccharine for me. Then the putative single Funny Little Frog, which is probably the most Dear Catastrophe Waitress of anything on this album, the spiritual successor to Stay Loose - it's fun but doesn't hit the catchy heights of other tracks.

And there's plenty more besides. Old-school jangle on Another Sunny Day; variations on the classic simple narrative plus muted accompaniment on Act Of The Apostle II and Mornington Crescent. Isolated bits are less than convincing, but overall the record really gets to that toe-tapping place inside, without losing Stuart's smart lyrics - the essence of the band.

I don't know exactly where B&S are going but I'm more than happy to be riding with them.