Belle and Sebastian
'The Life Pursuit'
6 Feb 2006
Rough Trade Records
Belle and Sebastian - Album Listening Party Click Here To Listen
There is something so cherishable about the fact that seven albums in Belle and Sebastian have just made the best record of their career; something so Belle and Sebastian about it, in fact. Here is a band whose whole existence stands in accidental opposition to the conventional showbiz way of going about things. So, waiting until most people think they've got you pegged as fey cuties who will never make a better record than 'Tigermilk'/'Boy With The Arab Strap'/'If You're Feeling Sinister' (delete according to prejudice) and to then cut the feet out from under everyone with a record of such startling clarity, accomplishment and oomph as 'The Life Pursuit', really is beyond gratifying; it's nothing short of a revelation.
In truth, these changes have not been wrought overnight. The decision to partner up with producer Trevor Horn for the last record ('Dear Catastrophe Waitress) was a clear statement of intent; a message that said, "think we are lo-fi underachievers? think again - we're working with the guy who does Tatu". What is now clear - with producer Tony Hoffer back at the helm - is that 'DCW' was but a stop on the way. And what that album started, 'The Life Pursuit' delivers in spades.
Decamped for the duration of recording to Los Angeles, Belle and Sebastian have found the focus to fully realise what the late John Peel correctly identified as their "surprising muscularity" at Glastonbury three years ago.
Of course, to those paying attention, it was always clear that in chief songwriter Stuart Murdoch we had a national treasure in waiting. Perceptive, humane and hilarious, his writing has always had a voice as discernible as a Cocker or Morrissey, but perhaps the bushel obscuring it was a little more, uh, capacious. On 'The Life Pursuit' this individuality seems to have reached its apotheosis of heartbreak and humour.
One of the chief pleasures of listening to this record is to follow the lives of Stuart's engaging cast of characters. You may never be quite sure whose "voice" it is you are listening to, but unlike, say, Morrissey, it would be a mistake to assume that it is always "Stuart". 'Dress Up In You', for instance, despite being sung in the first person and starting with a line about being "the singer in the band", seems, at its conclusion, to be about female rivalry. Of course with typical Belle and Sebastian contrariness its bitter war is played out against the tenderest of musical backdrops, so that the kiss off line of "they are hypocrites, so fuck them" feels like a stroke on the cheek with a velvet glove. Swearing sotto voce is something at which Belle and Sebastian excel.
Elsewhere, Stuart revisits the echoing school corridors and draughty church halls of his back pages. Religion, shorn of dogma, permeates much of 'The Life Pursuit'. Here, the choirmaster who's a "bastard", there the Good Book used as an excuse to skip school ("the bible's my tool / there's no mention of school"), and on 'Act of the Apostle Part 1' a girl seeming to have an Old Testament fantasy. Always, however, lines you cannot imagine anyone else, anywhere writing or singing.
On 'Funny Little Frog' Ã¢Â€Â“ one of the very best of the slew of fantastic singles that pepper 'The Life Pursuit' Ã¢Â€Â“ we start with what seems to be a functional relationship ("Honey loving you is the greatest thing / I get to be myself and I get to sing"), before it becomes clear that we are more in 'Just My Imagination' territory ('You are my girl and you don't even know it") and then perhaps the striking idea that he could be addressing an icon of the Madonna ("You are my picture in the hall / You are the one I'm talking toÃ¢Â€Â¦ I don't dare to touch your hand / I don't dare to think of you in a physical way"). If this is a hit Ã¢Â€Â“ and it surely deserves to be - then it will be one of the most cryptic hits since 'Walk on the Wild Side'.
The other great thing about 'Funny Little Frog' - and about the whole album, in fact - is the way it feels both familiar and strange at the same time. There is a powerful aesthetic at the heart of the 'The Life Pursuit' that places it at some time in the early-to-middle Seventies without ever specifically sounding like anything you can put your finger on. It is more "muscular" than previous Belle and Sebastian albums Ã¢Â€Â“ and there is a gravitation towards a liver, beatier sound - but unlike any of their peers, it is impossible to reduce their influences to a few key sources.
Belle and Sebastian pull in stuff from all over the place, so that Sly & the Family Stone/Funkadelic inflections ('Song For Sunshine') sits side by side with the classic Bubblegum riffs and call-and-response vocals of 'White Collar Boy' (another sure-fire stomping single); the 'Queen Bitch'-era Bowie stylings of 'Sukie In the Graveyard'; the glammy T-Rex of 'The Blues Are Still Blue'; the prime-time miserablism of a Terry Hall (Mornington Crescent) and the irrepressible rousing piano drive of 'The Price Of A Cup Of Tea'.
Another stand-out single, 'The Price Of A Cup Of Tea' begins with the show-stopping couplet, "for the price of a cup of tea / you get a line of coke". Like the swearing, Stuart under-cutting his Sunday School teacher rep with such antithetical sentiments, is strangely thrilling, especially when you realise that he cheekily is quoting fellow Glaswegian Bobby Gillespie.
Writing in his occasional diary on belleandsebastian.com Stuart has been trying to contextualise the band's current position within the realm of other what Stuart considers to be "late blooming" artists. Referring to the point at which Jagger sang 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' he continues:
"Never been a 'consistently' big Stones fan, but I just loved the production on this track, and the ambition, and the soul. And the groove. It struck me that I felt some parallels with the Stones around that time. Now this may seem extremely presumptuous and all that, but a boy has to dream.
"It seems to me that they started making some of their best records around that time. I add that to my mental list of groups that had been kicking around for a while, but somehow still had to make their decisive move. (Stones, Bee Gees, REM) Less for the Stones, more for REM."
With 'The Life Pursuit' Belle and Sebastian have decisively made theirs.
'The Life Pursuit' was originally slated to be a double album, but no-one could think of a double album they actually liked (except maybe 'London Calling'), so
with due culling its18 tracks were reduced to the following all-killer, no filler 13:-
The Act Of The Apostle part 1
Another Sunny Day
White Collar Boy
The Blues Are Still Blue
Dress Up In You
Sukie In The Graveyard
We Are The Sleepyheads
Song For Sunshine
Funny Little Frog
To Be Myself Completely
Act Of the Apostle part 2
For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea
Belle and Sebastian tour Britain in January & February 2006 here:
15/1 GLASGOW, ABC
16/1 GLASGOW, ABC
17/1 GLASGOW, ABC
18/1 ABERDEEN, Music Hall
26/1 BIRMINGHAM, Academy
27/1 LIVERPOOL, Academy
28/1 NEWCASTLE, Academy
29/1 MANCHESTER, Ritz
1/2 BRISTOL, Colston Hall
2/2 CAMBRIDGE, Corn Exchange
3/2 BRIGHTON, Dome
5/2 DUBLIN, Ambassador
7/2 BELFAST, Ulster Hall
9/2 SHEFFIELD, Octagon
10/2 LONDON, Hammersmith Apollo