Once, after listening to a plaintive cello line on one of Belle and Sebastian’s early albums, a friend imagined bandleader Stuart Murdoch hovering over the other players as they rehearsed, slapping each of them gently with a soft white glove, chastising them to “make it prettier! Make it prettier!”
An unfair caricature, perhaps, but not too far out of line with the cast of beautiful losers and adolescent eccentrics populating the band’s own songs. And, after all, it was Mr. Murdoch’s sharp lyrical wit, paired with near-perfect musical arrangements, that made Belle and Sebastian’s early efforts so captivating.
In the late 90’s, for the span of a few albums and EP’s, the band seemed blessed with infallible instincts: This track needs an acoustic guitar; that one calls for a piano accompaniment; a second guitar or backing vocal should chime in exactly here; the organ and the strings should hang back in the mix there; the brass should stand out. When they threw in a surprise—what synthesizer is making that buzzing noise? And are those bagpipes?—the effect was usually subtle enough to catch your ear without being obtrusive. It didn’t matter when a song sounded like it had been recorded in a church with a single microphone—everything seemed to fall into place just the same.
Their sound was cobbled together from various influences, ranging from late-60’s and early-70’s folk-rock to more recent British indie pop. What’s more, they convinced listeners that improbable combinations were completely natural. Interrupt a jangly, Felt-inspired chord progression with a trumpet break cribbed from Forever Changes? Sounds good! Nico and Nick Drake’s cool introspection dovetailing with some Sarah Records–style cuteness? More, please.
The band fashioned striking, tasteful backdrops for Mr. Murdoch’s literate story-songs, which in turn contained just the right blend of satire and sympathy. You could laugh at and forgive the crew of mopey, bookish outcasts, art-school dropouts and opportunistic flirts. Mr. Murdoch delivered most of these character sketches with a gentle, vulnerable tenor. The effect was something like a choirboy replacing the text of the hymnal with impish observations about his schoolmates.
For Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003), Belle and Sebastian switched to the Rough Trade label, hired a professionally pedigreed producer and demonstrated that they could challenge themselves while keeping sight of their established strengths. We were treated to unfamiliar approaches like the swinging, baroque sing-along of “Step into My Office, Baby,” the Thin Lizzy–inspired harmonized guitar hooks of “I’m a Cuckoo” and the jagged, percussive stabs of rhythm guitar on “Stay Loose.” The songs exuded fun and confidence.
On their new record, The Life Pursuit (Rough Trade), the fun often veers toward self-indulgence and the confidence toward a labored bravado. It’s a conflicted record: About half of it fits snugly with the band’s back catalog. The other half is a pastiche of guilty pleasures, borrowing heavily from the soul, glam rock and soft rock of the 70’s. What sets these stylistic forays apart from both the classic albums like If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996) and the conscious experimentation of Dear Catastrophe Waitress is that they’re often more distracting than supportive.
It must have been amusing, for instance, for everyone in the studio to watch guitarist Stevie Jackson shred Steely Dan–style—so amusing that you get to hear it twice (drenched in a cheesy flange effect) during the hyperactive shuffle of “We Are the Sleepyheads.” But was it necessary? On “Song for Sunshine,” the funky clavinet, smoothed-out harmonies on the chorus and the shaker-bongos-synth conclusion add up to something closer to parody than tribute. And on a couple other tracks, the band brings little new to the British boogie rock they’re aping other than some ill-fitting twee elements.
The guitars wail and the bass growls; the drums and cymbals are driven so hot in the mix that the thudding and crashing threatens to bury everything else. Mr. Murdoch pushes hard on the vocals; at times his voice even sounds constricted. It’s all very assertive, but something gets lost in the clutter.
Mr. Murdoch’s thumbnail tragicomedies are the work of a very talented, sophisticated and perceptive singer-songwriter, and Belle and Sebastian’s best offerings flesh out his songs with appropriate arrangements. They depend on delicate instrumental interplay and melodies that sound permanent, not merely catchy. Those qualities are still apparent on a few tracks from The Life Pursuit. “Another Sunny Day” stretches a tale of blossoming love over five verses—only to watch it crumble abruptly. The song is bright and jaunty, but the upward-telescoping vocal melody beautifully implies a longing that must be let down. And the two-part “Act of the Apostle” joins together some unexpected key changes with a haunting tune and an echoing wash of piano, organ, guitars and the occasional clang of a triangle.
“Mornington Crescent,” the album’s lazy closer, samples too liberally from another 70’s genre—in this case, Jackson Browne’s California country-rock ballads. Mr. Murdoch’s sweet vocal melody unfurls without so much strain, and the brief arc of the story emerges: At the end of the first verse, the wry narrator looks on a crowded subway stop and confesses, “I love the exquisite array / I love the camp as camp parade / The possibilities suggest themselves to me.” By the last verse, the narrator has reconsidered; the parade is more like a rogues’ gallery: “We’ll all be lined up … / Next to the broker, the nurse and the drunk … / The possibilities suggest themselves to me / We’re a little too free.”
It’s a caveat the band could have paused to consider while making this record: Rein things in a bit, and make it prettier.