Belle & Sebastian

The Life Pursuit

(Matador; 2006)

By David M. Goldstein | 9 February 2006

Stuart Murdoch need only ask the likes of Gordon Gano, Patti Smith, and more recently, Julian Casablancas: achieving perfection on your first go-round is a special kind of hell. The kids don’t know that the Violent Femmes ever released any albums other than the one with “Kiss Off” on it, First Impressions of Earth can be currently found hightailing it to a used bin near you, and really, how in the hell was Murdoch’s merry band expected to follow up If You’re Feeling Sinister (although technically Tigermilk came first)? The Boy With the Arab Strap was an admirable facsimile with more than a handful of solid moments (see also: Room on Fire) but its difficult to argue that things sort of went to hell when Murdoch got a little too...umm…democratic (can you say “Beyond the Sunrise”?) with the songwriting duties on full length number four.

Ignoring the inessential soundtrack to Todd Solonz’s equally inessential 2002 movie Storytelling, 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress was purposely designed as a turning point of sorts. Having already perfected their chosen status as literate, frequently muted (I hesitate to use the word "precious") popsmiths on their first two records; they ran said formula into the ground over the course of their next couple of releases, and made a concerted decision to go seriously pop with DCW by bringing Frankie Goes to Hollywood producer Trevor Horn on board and employing degrees of swingin’ jaunt far more akin to the families Partridge (“Roy Walker” indeed) and Osmond than anything by a band once favorably compared to the Smiths and Nick Drake. While Belle & Sebastian had experimented with such uncharacteristic degrees of happiness in the past, most notably on the campy '60s tribute “Legal Man,” DCW marked the first time that they had made an entire album of the stuff; effectively resulting in the death knell for legions of fans unable to adjust to B & S Mk. II. These same killjoys also deprived themselves of the unadulterated pleasure of 2004 follow-up single “Your Cover’s Blown,” a brilliant slab of blue-eyed disco from a band you’d have thought completely incapable of such a feat nine years prior.

As enjoyable as much of Dear Catastrophe Waitress was, it suffered from having the distinct feeling of a transitional record. Though the band (in particular co-frontman Stevie Jackson) was certainly up to exploring the possibilities that a transformation into a feel good pop ensemble could bring, a number of tracks felt a bit hesitant and awkward; with obvious bones thrown to older fans (“Wrapped Up in Books,”“Lord Anthony”) surrounded by half-baked joy for joy’s sake (“If You Find Yourself Caught in Love”). But with “Your Cover’s Blown” effectively scaring off every last bookish type unwilling to deal with the evolution of their onetime favorite band, Murdoch and Co. no longer have any reason to be coy. The Life Pursuit is unquestionably even more upbeat than its predecessor, but contains newfound degrees of confidence and swagger that elevate it over DCW in nearly every respect, resulting in the finest Belle & Sebastian record top to bottom since Sinister.

No one disagrees that the temperament of this band has changed considerably over the past three years; Murdoch no longer shuns interviews like the plague, and his band’s once amateurish live show has been polished via a solidified lineup and more frequent touring. A natural result of this progression; The Life Pursuit sounds like a band waking up to the fact that not only do they enjoy playing remarkably upbeat pop songs, but they actually happen to be extremely good at same, with an attention to detail that you would anticipate from a band that claims seven full time members.

Such degrees of confidence are clearly manifested in their sharpest collection of tunes in years. No longer content to merely whisper, Stuart Murdoch’s (and in the case of “To Be Myself Completely,"Stevie Jackson’s) lead vocals are stridently at the front of the mix. Further, he no longer fears what might have one time passed for the ridiculous, like the Marc Bolan swagger of the feverishly catchy “The Blues are Still Blue” or his borderline whiteboy rapping on the Chris Geddes organ romp “Sukie in the Graveyard.” Ideas that once sounded a little underwhelming on DCW in retrospect seem like launching pads for fully formed tunes; the call and response group harmonies of “White Collar Boy” had their genesis in “Roy Walker,” but a fuzzy electro-hook, tense money laundering narrative, and Murdoch’s gutteral "uh!" at the bridge make for an entirely better song. Elsewhere, the lite funk of “If She Wants Me” has now given way to the horn laden Motown thrust of first single “Funny Little Frog” as well as the Roy Ayers homage “Song For Sunshine,” whose prominent employment of a clavinet and slow jam bassline comes off as far less caucasian than one might expect.

All this being said, many fans will still dismiss The Life Pursuit on first listen because even coming after DCW, its unbridled enthusiasm can be shocking. This is especially prevalent in the album’s mid-section, which will result in several utterances of “are you fucking kidding me?” the first few times folks hear the likes of “Sukie in the Graveyard” or the double time “We Are the Sleepyheads,” which to this critic sounds like the Keebler Elves rocking out after whipping up a particularly gnarly batch of E.L. Fudge. It’s to the band’s credit however that when they do elect to dial it down in favor of the old school (“Dress Up in You," “Act of the Apostle I and II”) it now simply feels like a natural mood shift as opposed to a purposeful reminder that this is technically the same band responsible for “The Stars of Track and Field.”

It’s been roughly eleven years since the release of Tigermilk, putting The Life Pursuit on an album release timeline akin to that of New Times or Dream of Life; two records that I’m guessing the majority of our reader base will have never heard of, nor comprehend their inclusion in this review without a quick perusal of the first paragraph. Time will tell if The Life Pursuit is able to avoid a similar fate, but its infinitely more satisfying than either of those two albums (sorry Gordon), and actually has the potential to deliver this band an entirely new set of fans (“Funny Little Frog” has already garnered them their highest U.K. chart placement). Despite being pasty Glaswegians, Belle & Sebastian have an admirable love for the New York Mets; evidenced by their song “Piazza: New York Catcher” (now playing for San Diego, natch) and Murdoch’s tendency to wear a skin tight '80s Mets tee every time I’ve seen him onstage in New York. Though never having played for the latter, the talents of onetime Cub and longtime Seattle Mariner southpaw Jamie Moyer would appear to mirror Belle & Sebastian’s current standing with The Life Pursuit: career revitalization resulting from a variety of killer change-ups.