If you’re reading this, chances are your interest in music is such that by now you’ve heard at least one album from Belle & Sebastian in your lifetime. They’ve been around since 1996 and have a handful of critically acclaimed albums to their name, so to ignore them or at the very least not give them a try would be shorting yourself. True, not everybody LOVES Belle & Sebastian, but they keep getting more and more popular with each successive release. Their last album, 2006’s “The Life Pursuit”, saw them crack the Top 10 UK Albums chart for the first time ever, and a mid-60s rank on the US charts was also their highest to date. They’re also playing larger venues, to the point where they had a very strongly attended show at the 3,000+ capacity Chicago Theatre earlier this week. The grand point in all this is that Belle & Sebastian are continuing to grow in esteem, and their new album “Write About Love” provides that much more evidence as to why. If you actively dislike the group, there won’t be any reason for you to change that opinion, but for any newbies, this new record isn’t a bad place to start primarily because there are very few bad places to start in the band’s catalogue period.
Every now and then it’d be nice if Belle & Sebastian would just throw us a curveball by attempting something truly experimental. Sure, they’ve dabbled in such moments before – a song like “Your Cover’s Blown” is one of the best songs in their library – but those have been far too fleeting. Instead, the band has created a set of expectations with each new release and they largely stick to the script. Today it’s classified as indie pop, but their on-the-sleeve influences stem from the late 60s and early 70s, when there was plenty of AM gold to go around and disco was something of a passing phase. The sound is instantly recognizable though, and indie kids without the classic rock knowledge have probably labeled at least a couple recent bands as “Belle & Sebastian-y”. There’s always a splash of guitar, occasionally it gets funky and into a toe-tapping groove, while the bass often takes a walk, a piano might pop up for a moment, and more extraneous elements like horn/string sections or xylophones don’t feel too out of place. Vocally, there’s lots of sharing, and though Stuart Murdoch is the official “frontman” for the band, it’s not uncommon for Sarah Martin to add her female influence via harmonies, call-and-response lyrics, or taking over the lead entirely. Stevie Jackson and others also handle portions of the singing, as this is very much a group affair. But have a listen to virtually any Belle & Sebastian album and you’ll find all these elements. Listen to “Write About Love” and you’ll be “surprised” to learn they’re back again.
So what separates “Write About Love” from everything else the band has done? Not a whole lot, but if you’re working on the “if it ain’t broke” model, this isn’t a problem. Norah Jones pops up for a duet with Murdoch on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John”, which would be an interesting twist had the track not gone for the obvious smooth, almost jazzy stylings Jones is typically known for. That actually hurts the record just a little, taking the focus away from what’s pretty much a strong collection of pop songs and ballads otherwise. So long as we’re mentioning guest cameos, actress Carey Mulligan (see: “An Education”, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) also pops up for the album’s title track, and the good thing is that she’s got a strong voice yet doesn’t have a legitimate singing career (i.e. she’s not playing the “double threat” card a la Zooey Deschanel). You’d never know it was Carey Mulligan either (it could well have been Sarah Martin again) had there not been a bunch of press making a fuss about it. Special guests aside, what continues to make Belle & Sebastian such a draw and each of their releases so worthwhile are the small things that aren’t the easiest to pick up on. Take opener “I Didn’t See It Coming”, which starts off with typical flourishes of piano and guitar matched to Martin’s voice. It’s all very pleasant, and the harmonies come in and it’s even more pleasant, and then suddenly the track builds into this monstrosity where synths enter the fray and everything just gets overwhelming in the best way possible. It’s like a weather microburst, where it’s sunny outside one minute, then storming like crazy the next before quickly returning back to sun. And if you’re looking for the song that wins the prize for best composition, look no further than “Come On Sister”, which is an incredibly tight pop song that does everything Belle & Sebastian do best without a single second wasted. If effortlessly catchy is your style, try “I Want the World” on for size and tell me if the 1-2 lyrical punch of “I want the world to stop/give me the morning” doesn’t stick with you for awhile afterwards.
All indicators suggest that “Write About Love” is yet another check mark in the “excellent” column for Belle & Sebastian. How they’ve been able to keep up such a strong stable of records largely seems to be a product of embracing the fully collaborative spirit everyone seems to bring to the studio. Stuart Murdoch may have been the guy most responsible for the band’s early work, but he’s by no means infallible, as evidenced by that little side project he’s been working on the past couple years, God Help the Girl. The whole concept of it being a soundtrack to a supposed musical he was busy writing and preparing to stage/film was somewhat clever, but given that nothing’s really come of it leaves an album and EP’s worth of songs out there with little to no context or meaning behind them. Perhaps they’d be better were they placed within a plotted framework? But getting back to it, while most Belle & Sebastian records do sound the same, the strength of the full band continues to try and push that sound to newer, more advanced levels. On “Write About Love”, the arrangements are tighter and more beautiful than ever before, while Murdoch’s lyrics hold steady on his two favorite topics, love and religion. The couple tracks that do fall just a little flat hold the album back from eclipsing much of the band’s previous work, but if you’re a fan it probably won’t bother you much, if at all. After nearly 5 years, it’s just nice to have more Belle & Sebastian in our lives.