Despite all its self-defeating limitations, this remains a superb record...
Two years since their last album of new material, and all the characteristic eccentricities that once made [a]Belle & Sebastian[/a] such an interesting, mysterious and nobly intransigent musical/ cultural phenomenon have begun to wear thin. They offered a suitably shabby, second-hand blanket of anti-establishment isolationist sentiment and fuzzily melodic nostalgia, and the disaffected flocked to them like moths to a porchlight.
Yet their continued refusal to engage with the media has begun to beg certain hazardous, legend-debunking questions: is their wilful facelessness a symptom of timidity, or arrogant inverse elitism? Is their dedication to the underachieving indie ethos and dusty musical convention a gesture of rebellion, or are they just lazy? Despite the unimpeachable beauty of their every recorded moment, their art has failed to evolve – and it seems that if they are going to be the voice of misfit society, they should at least have something to say.
Finding even a hint of modernity on a [a]Belle & Sebastian[/a] album would be akin to seeing Christ’s face in a ciabatta roll – startling, unlikely and, in such a context, unappetising. It isn’t as though one wants breakbeats or cameo rappers, but [I]some[/I] sort of progression ? a fresh twist that might distinguish this from any other B&S record, perhaps – seems a reasonable request. It is not one, however, that they seem particularly concerned with. Despite the fact that songwriting contributions from other members continue to proliferate, it’s amazing how much their sound remains strictly marshalled within Stuart Murdoch‘s vision. So although there are intimations of Isobel Campbell‘s predilection for nursery rhyme lullabies and Stevie Jackson‘s love of Motown (plus a first-time offering from violinist Sarah Martin, ‘Waiting For The Moon To Rise’), we are still fixed firmly in what is now ‘classic’ B&S territory – watercolour strings and parps of brass, intricately constructed arrangements executed with effortless, vivid panache. And, of course, Stuart Murdoch‘s airless, disinterested voice presides.
To be fair, there are minor diversions from the template. Even though the songs are narratives starring boys and girls rather than men and women, they deal less with mawkish adolescence and more with abstract emotional disquiet. ‘I Fought In A War’ is a soldier’s letter home to his sweetheart, ‘The Model’ is a rambling, confessional apology (distinguished by lines like, “It was the best sex she ever had”, sung by a man who sounds as though he would find the sight of a woman’s bare ankle terrifying ), and the marvellous ‘Don’t Leave The Light On, Baby’ shimmers with the sort of arching, dimmer-switch and shag-pile sensuality that begs for a reprise. ‘The Wrong Girl’ is a Spector/ Bacharach/‘Daydream Believer’-type affair, and the most unashamedly pop song on the album, while ‘Chalet Lines’ is a minimal, brittle sketch of half-forgotten romance.
All of these balance out the album’s less inspired patches – the nauseatingly cute ‘Nice Day For A Sulk’, the fluffy-cardigan handclaps and Schroeder piano of ‘Woman’s Realm’, for example – and ultimately, despite all its self-defeating limitations and annoying, fey affectations, this remains a superb record. Quintessentially [a]Belle & Sebastian[/a]. Frustrating. Contrary. Insubstantial. Yet, in that insular, cloyingly sanctimonious world they inhabit, still peerless, still irresistible.