Belle and Sebastian have long since shed their image as a slight, press-averse, soft-spoken band. Those qualities still exist, in one or way another, though they have all been eclipsed for nearly a decade by a growing confidence and dynamism. This transformation seems quite natural, and in retrospect, necessary. The elusive Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000) contained a handful of the group’s most memorable lyrics and melodies, however the album seemed to be the result of a familiar system in transition — musicians wanting to cut loose, yet uncertain of the next direction to take.
Guided by the matchless hand of producer Trevor Horn, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003) was a crucial breakthrough. A mixture of sharp songwriting and adventurous pop production yielded a significant shift that continued on the Tony Hoffer-produced The Life Pursuit in 2006. As his production credits include Beck’s Midnite Vultures, Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend and Supergrass’ Life on Other Planets, Hoffer, perhaps to an even greater degree than Horn, should be considered the go-to guy for a band seeking a shot in the arm. On Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, Hoffer is back and the combination of band and producer is once again electrifying.
As the rhythm section, drummer Richard Colburn and multi-instrumentalist/bassist Mick Cooke form an especially tight unit. While the album lacks some of the more surprising rhythmic strokes of the last two albums, Colburn and Cooke make chief contributions to the group’s present liveliness. They are the solid foundation and dynamic pulse of standout songs such as “I Didn’t See It Coming” and “I Want the World to Stop”.
Another successful development of the recent past that has been carried over into the album is the more active presence of female vocals. Although Sarah Martin and former member Isobell Campbell occasionally provided (and/or were provided by bandleader Stuart Murdoch) some show-stopping moments on albums and singles, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love is the first full-length Belle and Sebastian release on which female voices are the foremost component of the album’s musical identity. One could look to Murdoch’s ongoing God Help the Girl project — essentially his Catherine Ireton-fronted girl group — as an influence on this approach.
“I Didn’t See It Coming” is a duet between Murdoch and Martin, who wrote the song. In her many years as a singer, violinist, and multi-instrumentalist in the group, Martin has not offered a hook this addictive. Her delivery and the band’s deft interpretation easily justify the song’s status as lead-off track. Elsewhere, guest vocalists Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Norah Jones turn in highlights and completely avoid associations of “stunt casting”. On the title track, Mulligan trades lines with Murdoch. Though the song doesn’t quite reach the heights of previous office-set romance tale “Step into My Office, Baby”, Mulligan taps into a kind of youthful longing that wouldn’t be as convincing if it came from any of the other players. Even more stunning is Jones, whose contribution to regretful ode “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John” rivals the material from her career-best Feels Like Home.
By making space for these guests (as well as for “I’m Not Living in the Real World”, the requisite Stevie Jackson jam), Murdoch again proves to be a bandleader ready and willing to step aside when doing so serves the material. His ever clever songwriting imprint remains. For Murdoch, writing about love is a decades-in-the-making pursuit, but he does not seem anywhere close to running out of inspiration or variety. The title of “Calculating Bimbo” could be mistaken for misogyny, but as executed here, the song is a slow-burn ballad about lovers keeping a record of wrongs. In “The Ghost of Rockschool”, Murdoch inserts faith and praise into his turns of phrase, as he did on other recent Belle and Sebastian songs, such as “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love” and “Act of the Apostle”. Overall, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love plays like a greatest hits, though not necessarily of former songs. Rather, the album collects most of the winning stylistic evolutions that the band has undergone during the past decade and produces something fresh: a modern rock album without a single skip song.