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.
You can download “Another Sunny Day” from Matador and “Funny Little Frog” from Insound.
15 thoughts on “Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit”
if you’re calling “dear catastrophe waitress” a “disappointing album,” then i’m not sure i’ll trust this review in the slightest.
where does it say that?
“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.”
compared to their first 3 records DCW IS a dissapointment, compared to Fold Your Hands and Storytelling that preceded it, it’s not so bad, and compared to The Life Pursuit, it’s downright great imo.
i honestly love maybe 4-5 tracks off this new one (Price of a Cup of Tea, The Blues Are Still Blue, etc.) and that’s about it, there’s 2-3 songs that just bug the shit outta me after a few listens (Sukie in the Graveyard for one), and the rest i can take it or leave it.
To clarify, the disappointing albums I was referring to were Fold Your Hands and Storytelling. I like Waitress, but don’t love it.
I think its a great cd. Not too many acts these days have the staying power and consistent product of B&S. It has stayed in my cd player since i got it.
The main thing to remember with this album is that it sounds really damn good! The best I’ve heard for months and one of my favourite B&S albums. I liked DCW too.
Thank goodness for itunes.
I couldn’t find this cd in stores today in NYC so it must be selling.
Got it on itunes tonight!
Yay! I luv me some B & S!
Ok, I picked it up, and I only have one question: when did B&S turn into the Archies?
I’ve just got the Life Pursuit….and after the first listen through, I really like it. It’s not really B&S, but I don’t really care right now; I’m swept away in the happy, poppy strains.
I queued this from a bloke at a local raveup. he said i owed him 30 pence for the recourd, i said that was bloody hell and we got into some fisticuffs afterwards. the local bobbies were called.
anyways, i like the lp, there are some boring spots and throwaway tracks, but who can complain?
FROM THE DESK OF ROPIN’ RODEO NATE
One of their best. It’s so great to hear a band not only reinvent themselves, but reinvent themselves in a non-egregious way, and do it well. Anyone that thinks this sound is incredibly different from “If You’re Feeling Sinister” is mistaken…it’s only a step or two away. If they kept making the same album, they’d be dismissed and disliked a lot more than with this CD…it’s the right move.
By the way, I just saw B&S in Chicago – at the Riviera – and the opening act, The New Pornographers, blew the band from Scotland away. Not to say that B&S were bad (they weren’t) but the Pornos were incredible…even without Neko Case.
I’ve just bought ‘The Life Pursuit’ a couple of days ago and I’ve given it a going over but I feel exactly the same way about it as ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’. It just doesn’t grab me the way previous albums did. It’s a shame to admit that the days of being able to confidently buy a B&S album are long gone.
The band themselves were pretty much a guarantee of quality. Maybe buying cd’s from Tesco is a bad idea?
To say that this isn’t Belle and Sebastian is to be like the old fogies who talk about how much better things were “back in their day.” As if this isn’t their day, too. This is a damn fine album; B&S keep evolving and exploring new paths. Groups that aren’t willing to change as B&S have don’t survive. Belle and Sebastian are not a brand. Let’s enjoy the album for what it is – the latest release from a group that never ceases to amaze – and stop worrying about the influences “that sounds like T Rex,” and all that rubbish.