Belle & Sebastian – The Life Pursuit (Matador)
For better or for worse, the Belle & Sebastian of your older sibling’s college days are long gone. The elegant lo-fi tweeisms have given way under an avalanche of sugary-sweet power pop. Take the blind test, and you could easily mistake The Life Pursuit for a New Pornographers album.
Not even the group’s previous release, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, can prepare listeners for what The Life Pursuit offers. Stuart Murdoch has proven his worth as a songwriter in the past, and on Waitress he began to adapt his skills into new terrain for the Scottish group.
These songs split the difference between the aforementioned Pornographers and Of Montreal, but lack the depth of the former and the cute insanity of the latter. Taking an even greater step from the band’s original sound, most of the tracks on Pursuit are competent enough, however certain slips abound. Belle & Sebastian are a band still walking hands-out, blindly trying to find their way through a couple of disappointing albums and an entirely new direction. This is an easy album to listen to and a tough one to obsess over—these pop and glam hooks require little-to-no thought and offer the ability to mindlessly bounce around. But it doesn’t pull the heartstrings, nor does it capture the small-yet-profound moments of everyday life that shape our emotions most—a technique Murdoch perfected on earlier albums. The band even found the perfect midway point on Waitress‘ “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love,” but aren’t as successful here.
In an interview with Filter, director Mike Mills recently declared his love of burying miserable, broken-hearted sentiments under sweet exteriors, a practice not uncommon in indie pop’s recent years. Certainly, Weezer wouldn’t have been able to defraud us for the last 6 years if they hadn’t built a nice bank account with that formula on their first two albums. Although the melodies and sharp cuts on Pursuit are energetic and blissful, Murdoch hasn’t changed the focus of his lyricism at all. Like the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, Murdoch creates characters and uses each song to tell their stories of heartbreak, loss, and near-obsessive infatuation. Although he does manage a few quirky jabs (“Another sunny day / I met you in the garden / You were digging plants / I dug you / Beg your pardon”), most of the album focuses on the bitter over the sweet. “Dress Up In You,” one of two tracks that focus on the Smiths-meets-Simon & Garfunkel chamber pop of their early life, walks the line between romanticism and plain creepiness: “I always loved you / You always had a lot of style / I’d hate to see you on the pile of ‘nearly made its’ / You’ve got the essence dear / If I could have a second skin / I’d probably dress up in you.”
To be honest, I can’t understand why record labels don’t plan their releases seasonally. This is no winter album. The February release date puts The Life Pursuit behind the 8-ball—pop music like this is most effective when the weather is warm, and I’m not sure I’ll reach for this album until the suns strengthens. Even on cruise, Belle & Sebastian are entertaining, and you can tell they put their work in on The Life Pursuit. Still, they haven’t found that conspicuous area where pop music is fun and captivating. Until they do, they’re still climbing their way back to the top.