Belle & Sebastian have a history of being described in anemic terms often contrary to the expectations of a rock ‘n’ roll audience: they’ve been dubbed twee, chamber pop, literate, and (as Jack Black so sensitively put it in High Fidelity) sad bastard music. For those who cower at rock’s brute force and head for the blue-skied indie hills, they salute you.
Or they once saluted you; that original incarnation of Belle & Sebastian, the one behind albums like If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With the Arab Strap, seems to be something distinctly left to the care of the past. The Belle & Sebastian we now know have been fed that proverbial burger and pep-talked by Tony Robbins audio cassettes. And while it’s not like they’re the resident jocks of the indie world, it’s safe to assume that their lunch money is no longer perilously stashed in oft-plundered pockets.
The Life Pursuit, their seventh full-length album, may not exactly sport the glistening results of a rigorous all-band body workout (Stuart Murdoch’s voice, for one, remains delicate and properly enunciated), but it certainly takes another big step in a more assertive direction. Following the similarly bicep-bolstered Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003) and the lit-funk of the 2004 Books EP (especially its extendo-jam “Your Cover’s Blown”), The Life Pursuit is an extremely self-conscious effort to plug the band’s short-story songs into rock ‘n’ roll scenarios and more classically recognized pop templates. It’s a move that will effectively further separate the band from the sweater-and-spectacle image that made it a name in the first place.
So is The Life Pursuit the final death blow to those still pining for a return to the old, a line in the sand separating those who live in the past from those who simply remember it? Hardly — there’s nothing here that will risk alienating or embarrassing either the performer or the audience. This ain’t Dylan Goes Electric. In fact, many of Belle & Sebastian’s hallmarks remain intact, including Murdoch’s catty, image-rich, and double entendre-prone lyrics, as well the band’s ability to ride a melody like a breeze.
Still, there’s a palpable shift in how Belle & Sebastian have learned to wield self-confidence while staying true to their formative visions. The Life Pursuit is judiciously sun-kissed with a production style that shimmers with optimism; the band hunkered down in Los Angeles with producer Tony Hoffer (responsible for some great albums in recent years, such as Beck’s Midnite Vultures and Supergrass’ self-titled release), who ensures that the album fits fashionably into its tight vintage duds. They’ve finally perfected that ritualistic art of the groove, which explains the songs that swagger and thrust and twist with thick hips and nimble feet (“Funny Little Frog” and “Sukie in the Graveyard”, in particular, are ravenously infectious). There’s blue-eyed soul and Northern soul to be found, not to mention chicken-scratch funk and jangly Cali-pop, horn sections, some wailing guitars, handclaps, beefy synths, distorted drums, and absolutely filthy bass lines. What? It’s a party, as if the chug-chug-a-lug guitar in “The Blues Are Still Blue” didn’t make that clear.
And party it does. The Life Pursuit‘s structural template pulls its puzzle pieces from similarly captivating source material. “Act of the Apostle”, a song that questions belief in a Bible study setting, snatches piano chords that fluttered from a Brill Building window and glittering keyboards straight outta “Good Vibrations”. A T. Rex boogie pose is struck for “The Blues Are Still Blue”, right down to Murdoch’s affected accent; there’s Motown class in “To Be Myself Completely” and Sly & the Family Stone sass in “Song for Sunshine”; and the funky disco-on-uppers “We Are the Sleepyheads” more or less defines the album’s frequent giddiness. In fact, it’s the songs that don’t acquiesce to the band’s new nothing-ventured-nothing-gained attitude that end up leaving the faintest impression: “Mornington Crescent”, “Dress Up in You”, and “Act of the Apostle II” cling to those old ideals of appearance (read: safe and sedate) and are left in the dust by the more adventuresome tracks.
That Belle & Sebastian are willing to take the chance, muss up their hair, and recognize that this whole band business requires…well, at least the illusion of an edge, is largely what makes The Life Pursuit successful. “White collar, got dirt in your pants / You got egg in your hair / You got spit in your chin,” goes the diss of “White Collar Boy”‘s chorus. Apply the same lines to Belle & Sebastian circa 2006, and it’s less of a diss and more of a compliment — the start of a new definition. Sheesh, it’s about time.