Artist: Belle & Sebastian
Album: Write About Love
In Brief: For an album so heavy on bright, catchy, nostalgic pop sounds, it sure does a great job of reminding me not to spend my whole life living in the past.
It amazes me, in this digital age where new independent acts spring up seemingly out of nowhere on a regular basis and manage to find a following based purely on word of mouth, that some of the stalwart supergroups from indie rock’s golden years (we’re talking ancient epochs like the 1990s) have not only managed to survive, but to actually thrive in the dizzying modern culture brought to us by speed-of-light Internet. Having a bunch of people in a group, with multiple singers and several writers all throwing in their ideas, is hard to sustain in the long-term – eventually key figures will depart or else go all ADHD with side projects. So when one manages to stick around and still find something interesting to say after a decade-plus of existence, I figure that’s commendable. Even more so if I’ve been aware of their existence for several years, but they finally release something interesting enough to get me over the panic of having a large back catalogue to catch up with if I should start to really dig the band. Belle & Sebastian have managed to do this with their 2010 release, Write About Love.
I had first investigated this Scottish indie pop act back in 2006, when their newest work at the time was The Life Pursuit. I had a tough time connecting with it. The vintage pop sounds were great fun, particularly when they went all manic with the gang vocals or experimented with funk overtones, but there was a lot of mid-tempo stuff that just didn’t beg for repeated listens. Bandleader Stuart Murdoch also had a strange habit of mixing religious metaphors with unexpected profanities that seemed to betray the sunny, innocent feeling of many of the songs. I know that was meant to hint at some depth and/or angst underneath the easygoing exterior, but the elements just didn’t taste good together. Write About Love, the band’s first record back after a hiatus just long enough to make me forget about them for a while, remedies a lot of those problems. it’s brimming over with strong hooks and addictive personality, still sensitive enough to take a breather here and there as Murdoch deals with his personal angels and demons, but also giving the other voices capable of taking a lead role a little bit more to do, which gives the record a lot more variance. Sarah Martin, the group’s violinist and often a cutesy counterpoint to Murdoch’s vocals, stands out in particular on the few tracks where she is front and center, so it feels a lot less like one man is running the show. (And they even throw in a few guest vocalists for good measure, so in general, there are a lot of tasty vocal arrangements on this album.)
The overall exuberance of this Write About Love, combined with the more democratic approach, tempts me to compare B&S to Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers (who I also got into when they had been around for nearly a decade – I’m just slow to get with the program sometimes, I guess). It’s probably better to view The New Pornos as the North American answer to B&S, though, given that B&S was around a good three or four years earlier. I have no idea whether the two groups influenced each other at all – B&S is more heart-on-sleeve while The New Pornos are comparatively more off-the-wall and obscure. But if you like that whole “throw everyone’s ideas at a wall and see what fun stuff sticks” approach to making an album, I’d heartily recommend both groups.
Write About Love managed to get my attention late in the game (it was probably old news to most of the band’s fans before I finally caught up with it in the summer of 2011) not just for being a spirited indie pop album, but also for its interesting reflection on fantasy vs. reality, and on Murdoch’s ongoing, outside-looking-in view of Christianity. This is a man who attends church services just because he finds the whole culture interesting – he doesn’t adhere to any faith that I’m aware of, but I’m fascinated with this front-row-seat view of what a faith that’s permeated Western culture looks like to someone who is fond of its stories and rituals and isn’t sitting in a pew just out of some sense of dull obligation. In that sense, God haunts Murdoch’s songwriting in a similar manner to that of Iron & Wine, with the exception that Murdoch isn’t as obsessed with highlighting the sinister underbelly of it all. So you combine some of those soul-bearing, “Am I ready to take the leap of faith?” sorts of moments with stories of characters who are trying to reconcile real, messy relationships and careers and daily routines with the ideal things they dreamed they’d become when they were little, and you get quite an interesting hodgepodge of songs. Somehow it all hangs together better than it should, despite the occasional mood whiplash.
1. I Didn’t See It Coming
My favorite tracks on The Life Pursuit were the quirky ones with the most personality. This one has tons of personality to it, but doesn’t have to play up a gimmick in order to be a standout. It comes rolling in on a modest but catchy drum groove, which is soon enough supplemented by a fluid bassline – Richard Colburn and Bobby Kildea are this band’s unsung heroes (no pun intended) for the solid backing tracks that they lay down so consistently. Stuart hands the lead over to Sarah Martin for this one, and she’s got one of those shy, innocent voices that is just perfect for such an up-tempo and yet sad pop song. She wants to be whisked away to more innocent times as she sings, “Make me dance, I want to surrender/Your familiar arms I remember.” She only gets to toy with the idea of a romantic escape briefly before the economy snaps her right back to reality: “But we don’t have the money/Money makes the wheels on the world go ’round/Forget about it, honey.” You can hear the disappointment and resignation in her voice – she’s the modern version of a damsel in distress, and the monster holding her captive is sheer boredom, apparently. Stuart’s voice isn’t completely absent from the song – he provides backing vocals and even takes over for the bridge, which briefly breaks into more of a danceable rhythm. But he seems detached from it, as if he got caught up in “Make me dance” and he just wants to ignore their troubles. It’s an interesting balance between dreamy escapism and harsh reality, and B&S pulls it off beautifully, creating the most addictive song I’ve heard from the band thus far.
2. Come On Sister
Other songs will compete fiercely for that honor, of course. And this is one of them, with a big, sparkly synth hook worn like a silly grin on its face. I wouldn’t quite call it synthpop, despite the prominence of Chris Geddes‘ keyboards, because that old-school sunny pop groove is still alive and well behind it, the drums and bass knowing we don’t need a fancy programmed rhythm to get up and dance. Stuart’s got a silly little crush that he’s trying to write off as nothing serious, but failing miserably – as he notes in the chorus, “It’s gonna cause a crisis/Might just lose a little faith!” It seems she’s a bit of an up-and-coming celebrity, or at least in his mind she deserves to be one, to the point where he sees himself as a member of an untouchable caste, knowing it’s for her own good that he remains at a distance. The cheeriness of the music hides the sad sack nature of his excuses. But then there’s that slight glimmer of hope behind it, as if he might just be able to win her over if he could only get her to sit down for a second and have a drink and a friendly little chat with him, no strings attached.
3. Calculating Bimbo
This song isn’t nearly as mean as its title would have you believe. It’s actually a bit of a sleeper, throwing me off a bit by having such a languid tempo so early in the album. The band plays it delicately, and Stuart’s melody (subtly harmonized by Sarah) goes down smoothly as he laments a relationship lost to miscommunication. He’s too resigned here to really play up the melodrama, though there’s a hint of bitterness to it, as if it’s no fun any more to imagine her as the rich girl living the high life, because now it’s true and he wishes she hadn’t left him on the ground floor. The real twist of the knife is that she still knows how to get a hold of him, but she saves it for emergencies when she needs a shoulder to cry on, and he’ll take any scraps he can get, so it becomes one of those types of on-again, off-again relationships. Clearly this builds up a lot of resentment, leading to the titular accusation that she’s just using him on purpose. It’s not the world’s kindest song, but I should note that this is about as harsh as the language gets on the entire album. While I didn’t care much for this song at first, analyzing it more closely has helped it to grow on me.
4. I Want the World to Stop
Bobby Kildea’s bass practically owns this song, and that’s not something I can say for a lot of dense pop songs that seem to have a million things going on. It takes off running and never looks back, its twisty melody and ping-pong vocal interplay between Stuart and Sarah depicting a true sense of emergency, an existential crisis begging for just a few hours of free time to sort it all out. The chord changes are killer here, and despite layering on jangly guitar, strings, horns, old-fashioned synths, and incessantly manic vocals, you never lose track of that wicked cool bass line. The lyrics here paint a picture of a grey and white city, all full of dreary hustle and bustle, and the troubled yet beautiful melody fits this image perfectly. It’s one of the album’s most stressed-out songs, and yet it delights in defiantly throwing colors at that cold, wintry, artificial landscape.
5. Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John
Here a band with more than enough capable vocalists decides to surprise me by enlisting the talents of… Norah Jones? You can’t be serious. Not only did this idea initially strike me as destined to fail, it also seemed so desperately six years ago that I wondered what insane label executive’s idea it was. To be fair, I actually liked Norah Jones and her super-relaxed, organic jazz and country vibe back in the day, but I started to get rather bored with her as she started to stray from the core sound that worked from her. So I wouldn’t think a simple, downbeat indie pop arrangement like this – where neither the drums, nor the bass, nor the guitar really do much to stand out – would really be her forte. But this works a lot better than it ought to, as Stuart and Norah play their respective roles in a song that is all about assumed names and fake identities concocted to support temporary relationships that apparently took place in far-flung locales. It’s almost appropriate that the characters involved are such meek, unassuming ones who wouldn’t seem like the love-’em-and-leave-’em type. “What a waste, I could have been your lover/What a waste, I could have been your friend”, Stuart pines as the song begins. It’s like the big escape dreamed of in “I Didn’t See It Coming”, actually happened, except the guy just ran away and met someone else and had a one-night stand and realized the whole thing was kind of a silly mid-life crisis. Norah, for her part, seems to want to make more of the charade: “Can I stay until the milkman’s working?/Can I stay until the café awakes?” When the two voices finally reach a crescendo together and realize in the harsh light of day that they neither know nor like that much about each other, only then is the charade revealed, and the two hastily go their separate ways.
6. Write About Love
Another celebrity vocal shows up here in the form of actress Carey Mulligan, though her style is chirpy enough to fit right in with B&S to the point where I didn’t realize at first that it wasn’t Sarah. The sixties (seventies?) seem to be alive and well here, with the little stabs of guitar and horn fanfares and group vocals chiming in on the chorus bringing images of long-haired go-go dancers to mind. Just listen to that keyboard solo in the bridge and tell me you’re not seeing flowers and peace signs. The song is a quirky dialogue between Stuart and Carey – he’s telling her to use her imagination and pour herself out onto the page as a cure for what ails her, and she’s trying her best to escape into that fantasy, but it’s a bit difficult with the weariness of daily life bearing down on her. Only B&S could get away with cheerily singing a chorus as drab as “I hate my job, I’m working way too much (Every day I’m stuck in an office)/At one o’clock, I take my lunch up on the roof (Up on the ROOF!)” Everybody emphasizes that line like it’s the greatest thing ever. And for some reason, I find it amusing to hear Stuart backing Carey word-for-word as she pines, “I write about a man/He’s intellectual and he’s hot, but he understands.” You can hear him urging her toward something more spiritual in the final lines of the song, but she’s not having it: “I know a way (So you know the way?)/Get on your skinny knees and pray (Maybe not today!)” Ah well, it was worth a try.
7. I’m Not Living in the Real World
The album’s most frenetic song shows up here, which is saying a lot after “I Want the World to Stop”. There’s just a nervous energy to it even though the lead instrument is an acoustic guitar – it’s in the way the chords jerk around, stopping and starting and leaving space for the drums to rat-a-tat-tat in between. I think guitarist Stevie Jackson is on lead vocals here, because it doesn’t sound like Stuart – though there are so many words crammed in that the other members have to help him out, giving him a bit of a call-and-response vibe. To stick with my earlier analogy between B&S and The New Pornographers, this would be the oddball Dan Bejar song that sticks out like a sore thumb. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s fun and just a little bit crazy. Underneath all the whimsy is the cry of a man who feels a bit like he grew up too fast. I guess some of us embrace the “real world” we were told was out there waiting for us when we became grown-ups, while others nervously try to fit in, hoping we won’t be exposed for not knowing what the heck we’re doing, longing for that imaginary day when the light bulb will finally come on and we’ll magically feel like true adults. Yeah, I’m more in the latter group, so I can relate.
8. The Ghost of Rockschool
A pair of ballads here in the back half originally struck me as a bit of a mood-killer in between all of the upbeat stuff, but digging deeper into this track has proven to be quite rewarding. It’s one of Stuart’s more spiritual songs, reflecting on all the places he’s seen reflections of God and “the free ride of grace”, and weighing what that means against his dream of finally getting the girl. The longing and temptation and his prayerful posture all play out against a chilled-out soundtrack with a trumpet confidently leading the way, as if to herald the arrival of something regal amidst the relaxed pace of normal life (well, for a schoolboy relatively free from grown-up responsibilities, which I’m presuming is the time frame of his little flashback here). At one point he posits that the beautiful girl he’s pining after “has no soul to discern” and is just there “to tempt you like the perfume of flowers”, but in the final stanza of the song there’s this beautiful zen sort of moment where he learns to see “God shining up in her reflection”. In this moment, he is reminded that she is human, imperfect, created by God just as he was, and in need of that same grace.
9. Read the Blessed Pages
Stripping the full band back to just an acoustic guitar and Stuart’s voice (with a brief little flute interlude that feels dropped in from a Ren Faire or something) feels like it’s taking away too many of their strengths, even if it does focus our attention on one of his more insightful lyrics. Here Stuart sort of deconstructs his own talents as a songwriter, remembering something beautiful he once wrote about a woman that connected with an audience, but that apparently rings hollow to him now, just a story on the paper that some album’s liner notes were printed on, a fragment of some fictional character’s life. As Sarah softly harmonizes with him near the end, a line really stands out to me, one that could perhaps sum up the lament of the entire album: “Moan about the present/Venerate the past.” Escaping into nostalgia loses its luster after a while – you end up hungry for something to look forward to. While this song ends on a soft, peaceful note that could have easily ended the album, I’m glad for thematic reasons that they chose to finish with a few upbeat songs instead.
10. I Can See Your Future
Sarah returns to lead vocals here, another trumpet fanfare boldly ringing out to herald her arrival, as if she’s the voice of reason beckoning a despondent man toward a better tomorrow. This is the sort of song that sneaks up on you, playing it gently at first, even to the point of having its string and horn-drenched bridge (where the percussion drops out entirely) show up early in the song, leaving the second verse and a memorable vamp for the last half. She seems to be dispensing wisdom to someone she loves that he once gave to her, trying to pull him out of that pit of believing his best days are over: “Don’t leave me behind, stuck in a memory/Caught on a line, something that once you told me/Fortune and fate (look in the glass)/Please don’t be late (let the day pass)/Watch and a world will form in the sand.” As the horns and strings reach their happy crescendo, along comes the vamp, which I guess you could consider a “chorus” except that it doesn’t show up until everything else is over: “Forward’s the only way to go/You catch me up, I’ll take it slow/I can see your future, there’s nobody around.” It’s like an encouragement and a somber warning all rolled into one – either come with me and we’ll beat this depression, or stay here with your head stuck in the sand and eventually your last few friends will be a thing of the past as well.
11. Sunday’s Pretty Icons
The album closes on a perky note as Stuart shows us that the words of his personal muse managed to penetrate his character’s thick skull – now there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to seek naive escape and relive the past any more. He’s accepted it now, finding his old friend returning to his side to guide him through this new chapter, as a talkbox-infused guitar melody, another sweet drum groove, and a sunny keyboard melody do their best to lift his spirits, and also mine as the last notes of Write About Love gradually fade out. We are left with a sense of renewal and reconciliation, as Stuart and Sarah gracefully remind us: “Every girl you ever admired/Every boy you ever desired/Every love you ever forgot/Every person that you despised is forgiven.” And at this moment, I want to breathe out, let go of the baggage, grab hold of that little piece of innocence I never thought I’d get back. Belle & Sebastian certainly think it’s possible.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
I Didn’t See It Coming $2
Come On Sister $1.75
Calculating Bimbo $.75
I Want the World to Stop $1.75
Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John $1
Write About Love $1.50
I’m Not Living in the Real World $1.25
The Ghost of Rockschool $.75
Read the Blessed Pages $.50
I Can See Your Future $1.25
Sunday’s Pretty Icons $1
Stuart Murdoch: Lead vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, keyboards
Sarah Martin: Vocals, violin, keyboards, electric and acoustic guitar
Stevie Jackson: Vocals, electric and acoustic guitar
Chris Geddes: Keyboards
Richard Colburn: Drums
Mick Cooke: Trumpet, French horn, bass, guitar
Bobby Kildea: Guitar, bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: