A Belle & Sebastian record is like a Wes Anderson film: a delicate, self-contained universe of immaculate detail and pitch-perfect wordplay, where unforgettable and nearly unbelievable characters interact to earn a few highbrow guffaws and reveal subtle truths about the human condition. Both Anderson, director of such cult classics as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, and indie-pop heroes Belle & Sebastian, fronted by singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch, interweave vaguely retro aesthetics with strikingly au courant human commentary. Both Anderson and Murdoch bring an auteur sensibility to their art. And both, on a small scale, have inspired fervent fan bases.
That said, the Scottish group's fifth and latest full-length, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, is the most Anderson-like of any Belle & Sebastian project yet. Any of the album's 12 bubblegum-flavored, AM-pop-radio-tinged songs could slide in perfectly on an Anderson soundtrack alongside the Kinks, Nico, Cat Stevens, or even Chad & Jeremy. The difference is that Belle & Sebastian sing their current Super '70s, "As Seen On TV!!!"-worthy collection with tongue planted whimsically in cheek.
See album standout "Piazza New York Catcher", which in its stripped-down acoustic arrangement actually sounds most like the band's previous efforts. First, there's the intrinsic pleasure of hearing a Scottish band sing about a well-known American baseball star. Then Murdoch takes his lyrics for their usual Morrissey-inspired, sexually playful turn: "Oh, elope with me in private and we'll set something ablaze / A trail for the devil to erase / San Francisco's calling us, the Giants and Mets will play / Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?"
"Their old shit was better," some self-parodying fans and critics are already braying. But like sometime Anderson straight man Luke Wilson's Rushmore character, an ordinary asshole who's just not quite "in" on the protagonist's whimsical flights of fancy, these listeners simply miss the point.
The painstaking arrangements, dynamic shifts and tempo changes of Dear Catastrophe Waitress equal or surpass the chamber-pop perfection of the group's earlier work. To be sure, nothing on this record stands out with the earnestness or immediacy of "The State I Am In", from 1996's Tigermilk. But any attempt by Belle & Sebastian to duplicate such songs would lack the critical element of surprise that those early records enjoyed; "If You're Feeling Sinister, Part Two" would merely signal they'd run out of ideas. And there's no paucity of ideas here: What the songs lack in directness they make up for in pop songcraft and, most impressively, Andersonian verisimilitude within the album's concept.
Remember the mid- to late-'90s, when the mention of Belle & Sebastian in print invariably evinced the phrase "Quiet is the new loud"? The twee, folky pop of those early records fell neatly into the sensitive-guy indie canon alongside Nick Drake or the Smiths; the music was indeed brilliant, but it was hardly revolutionary and in many ways merely confirmed its fans' record collections, much as the Strokes do today.
Where those albums were unassumingly elegant, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is so 1970s, over-the-top pop that it's by far the most challenging proper album the band has presented to its fanbase, who probably never owned a record by the Turtles or Partridge Family. The brash horns of "Asleep on a Sunbeam", the almost-but-not-quite-cheese-laden harmonies of "Step into My Office, Baby", and the Highway 61 Revisited whistles of "Roy Walker" are more jarring by far than if the band had finally located their distortion pedals. ("I'd rather listen to Thin Lizzy-o," Murdoch quips in "I'm a Cuckoo", over laughably un-hip twin guitars worthy of the very same Thin Lizzy's mid-'70s mega-hit "The Boys Are Back in Town".)
"Lord Anthony" provides the album's most tender moment, with more Moz-worthy lyrics addressing a brainy social outcast: "Tony, you're a bit of a mess / Melted Toblerone under your dress / When will you realize that it never pays / To be smarter than teachers / Smarter than most boys?" But more representative of the album is "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love", with its Bacharach-worthy, near-camp melodic intricacy and pure Belle & Sebastian lyrical playfulness: "Something has got to give / You're too good-looking not to live."
Quiet is the new loud, huh? Then Dear Catastrophe Waitress is Belle & Sebastian's loudest. Yep, you read it here first: The seemingly harmless, mellow AM-gold Dear Catastrophe Waitress is the most punk-rock record Belle & Sebastian have ever made. It's the sort of plot twist that'd be ample grist for Anderson's next film.