The titans of twee finally find their inner strength
As far from snot and spittle as they might seem, Belle And Sebastian are products of punk. You can blame punk for a lot. Sure it stopped people making albums called ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’ (ask modern progsters Mystery Jets) and it turned John Peel from bearded hippy to modern-day messiah but, thanks to its DIY ethos, it entrenched a ‘that’ll do’ aesthetic within British alternative music that lasted for years. It’s an aesthetic that works well when applied to any two-chord ejaculation of rage but that can leave anything with any subtlety or beauty sounding insubstantial: The Birth Of Venus painted in watercolour.
The ‘indie’ music of the late 1980s and early 1990s was founded on this ideal. These winsome and whimsical offerings, epitomised by the NME compilation ‘C86’, wore its frailty on its sleeve. When Belle And Sebastian emerged in 1996 they seemed to hark back to this era of bully-victim indie: a reaction against art-school poseur mockneyism (see: Blur) and the prevailing culture of booze and birds. Belle And Sebastian weren’t just a band, they were a lifestyle choice. The duotone record sleeves (a very Smiths touch) screamed with understatement: carrying them promised the owners entry into a secret world where greasy spoon cafés were secret rendez-vous for poets and propagandists. The lyrics encouraged bookish deconstruction. I read, therefore I am a Belle And Sebastian fan (incidentally, Preston Ordinary Boy did a good job of cultivating this bookish air up until some recent TV programme or other).
One problem, though: Belle And Sebastian had some genius songs. Genius. ‘Stars Of Track And Field’ and ‘Seeing Other People’, the opening two songs from breakthrough album ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’, would stand comparison to great songs from ANY great British band from ANY decade had it not been slightly stymied by the DIY production. The bookworms could hear beyond the slight production, but the chance of the culture at large hearing it? Slim. There was a danger that Belle And Sebastian would be beloved only by those who press flowers and bruise easily. Albums four and five, ‘Fold Your Hands Child…’ and ‘Storytelling’, did little to shift this perception.
Thus it fell to producer Trevor Horn to give the Belles a little sonic gusto. Perhaps too much. You half expected Grace Jones to break into song during the uncharacteristic middle eight of ‘Step Into My Office Baby’ (from the Horn-produced ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’). But while ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ delivered an aural punch above B&S’s usual weight, it wasn’t quite the return to form many claimed. That return is delivered here, on ‘The Life Pursuit’, Belle And Sebastian’s seventh album and their best since ‘…Sinister’.
Originally conceived as a double album (almost always a bad idea), Stuart Murdoch and gang stripped their collection of new material to a taut and manageable 13 songs.
There’s a real confidence here, not quite a strut, but definitely a swagger. Working with producer Tony Hoffer, the band have not returned to their pre-Horn slightness. Opening song ‘Act Of The Apostle’ swings with the essence of mid-’60s Britain with an occasional Beach Boys flutter. ‘Another Sunny Day’ gives a country and western twang to a familiar B&S jangle. An unexpected foray into glam rock gives us a Sweet stomp in ‘White Collar Boy’ and a Bolan boogie in ‘The Blues Are Still Blue’ while the excellent ‘We Are The Sleepyheads’ confounds its title by being vibrant and energetic. Like the aforementioned Big Brother contestant, there’s a Stevie Wonder influence to this indie-ism, as evidenced by the clavinet riff on the genuinely quite funky ‘Song For Sunshine’. Funky? Belle And… it’s a relative term. Perhaps the greatest disappointment is the first single, the throwaway ‘Funny Little Frog’, which is a fitting reminder of why “twee” is often used as a pejorative.
All is redeemed by the quite wonderful ‘Act Of The Apostle Part 2’. It’s the dramatic hook on which the album rests. A bar-room shuffle, like something from Bugsy Malone, its unexpected segue into the melody of ‘Part 1’ is thrilling, and what makes ‘The Life Pursuit’ an album as opposed to a collection of songs. Belle And Sebastian then: still perverse, still twee, but strong enough to take on the bullies.