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Belle and Sebastian - Write About Love

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Artist: Belle and Sebastian

Album: Write About Love

Label: Matador

Review date: Oct. 11, 2010

I have vivid memories of an adolescence spent with Stuart Murdoch and Co. From hours listening to Tigermilk on repeat while chuckling through Catch-22 to autumn drives accompanied by Dear Catastrophe Waitress (begun always with the pensive swagger of track three, “If She Wants Me”), Belle and Sebastian provided the soundtrack to many moments in my transition to young adulthood. It’s not surprising, therefore, that what the group most represents for me is precociousness. From the vantage of my younger years, the group’s genesis in a 1,000-vinyl college project appeared less like endearing contingency and more like poetic destiny.

Biographical projection aside, a vision of youth ahead its time suffused Belle and Sebastian’s early classics. “We’re the younger generation, we grew up fast / All the others did drugs, they’re taking out on us,” Murdoch sang on “Me and the Major,” epitomizing self-conscious youth searching for its identity. On songs such as “The Stars of Track and Field,” “You’re Just a Baby,” “We Rule the School,” and “Summer Wasting,” Murdoch set his precise and precious wisp of a voice to lyrics chock-full of cleverness and sensitivity too wise for (but unable to weigh down) their singer’s youthful spirit. When combined with twinkling guitar, keyboard, cello and trumpet, his literate schoolyard ruminations yielded fragmented glimpses of tender years with self-awareness, humor and nostalgia all brought into harmony — each contributing, none dominating.

Alas, the charms of youth don’t last forever. If Murdoch’s voice continued to sip from the fountain of renewal into the new millennium, it didn’t keep Belle and Sebastian from experiencing the travails of aging. An indie pop institution by the end of the 1990s on the basis of three excellent LPs and a slew of EPs that decade, the group released two unambiguous flops at the turn of the aughts. After working through a partial democratization of the songwriting process (once the exclusive domain of Murdoch), and the loss of founding members Stuart David and Isobel Campbell, the band did rebound. Yet if the brasher sound and studio sheen of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit were a marked improvement over the poorly composed Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, the new Belle and Sebastian were not the same kids so spry and sensitive in the spring of their youth. Murdoch continued to demonstrate his talents as a songsmith, and the accompanying performances were as tight as ever, but in too few instances did the emotional resonance of group’s early folk-pop resurface.

Four years after the release of The Life Pursuit, Belle and Sebastian have finally returned with its follow-up, Write About Love. Produced by Tony Hoffer, like its predecessor, Write About Love sounds older still, but neither as nimble nor as poignant. “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John,” for instance, Murdoch’s duet with Norah Jones, is too pleasant by half. Resolute in its inoffensiveness, it’s always teetering just one gradation away from utterly bland. “Calculating Bimbo” is similar indie pop muzak — a ballad lazy and pale in comparison to even the group’s latter day highlights, like the stately “Dress Up In You” from The Life Pursuit. Murdoch’s lyric is ironic: “A lack of understanding / You took for being lazy / I was just being lazy / I’m even doing it now . . . You calculating bimbo / I wish you’d let the past go.” Yet if they constitute an amusing, inadvertent rejoinder to critique, such lines do little to redress the basic problem. Other numbers seem out of place — lacking the Belle and Sebastian (or shall we say Stuart Murdoch?) touch. Somewhere between XTC and Michael Penn’s “No Myth,” Stevie Jackson’s “I’m Not Living in the Real World” has a catchy verse and keyboard lick, but its busy instrumentation and abrupt harmonic shifts jar on a record otherwise marked by undifferentiated vanilla.

Write About Love is not without glimmers of at least Belle and Sebastian’s latter-day best. Arranged with a cheap, Casio-style keyboard sound that harks back to Tigermilk days, “Come on Sister” is also one of the album’s best songs — its harmonic transitions as seamless as they are propulsive. Likewise touching is “The Ghost of Rockschool.” “I’ve seen God in the sun, I’ve seen God in the street / God before bed and the promise of sleep / God in the puddles and the lady’s sad eyes / I’ve seen God shining up from her reflection,” Murdoch implores, before a trumpet carries the track over the horizon.

For the most part, though, Write About Love is a disappointment. That’s even truer, I suspect, because Belle and Sebastian aren’t the only ones getting older. To borrow a verse from Murdoch, at his career best: "This is no declaration, I just thought I’d let you know, goodbye / Said the hero in the story, it is mightier than swords / I could kill you sure but I could only make you cry with these words."

By Benjamin Ewing

Other Reviews of Belle and Sebastian


Dear Catastrophe Waitress

The Life Pursuit

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View all articles by Benjamin Ewing

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