The Life Pursuit
Jack Black should issue a public apology on behalf of the character he played in the movie High Fidelity who forever tarnished the image of the Scottish indie group Belle and Sebastian as boring purveyors of “sad bastard music” to American audiences. It’s just not fair anymore.
Ever since their last album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the group appeared to be working hard at perfecting an infectious uptempo sensibility some have even been known to call Twee Pop (“twee” is a British term for sweet). Though the group predictably denies such a label, their latest offering, The Life Pursuit probably won’t do much to convince anyone that they’re not hearing a sugary sound that just begs to be realized to wider market potential.
Whatever the case may be and wherever they end up in music history, it’s obvious enough right now that the group seems to be moving toward a genuine solidification of form. At times, front man Stuart Murdoch seems to be channeling the high tenor appeal of Marc Bolan and Barry Gibb before Glam Rock and Disco respectively made it big in the states. Believe me when I say that I mean that as a compliment—perhaps the biggest one I can think of at the moment. Yes, anyone who’s ever defined a musical genre is bound to come out of the gate not accepting it, even for what it is. But even though labels are often placed upon artists without their consent, it doesn’t always have to equate to a bad thing either.
It just happens that the countless songs Belle and Sebastian have written for disaffected youth seem to tune into the same art school angst that once made The Cure and the The Smiths household names. Witness songs like Sukie in the Graveyard, whose plastic romanticism plays on the the group’s most repeated narrative—the damsel in distress.
What makes the whole of this album different from other Belle and Sebastian mainstays, though, is the attention they’ve taken to broaden the musical flavors. While Song for Sunshine works in a rhythmic groove that could easily be mistaken for Philly soul music in its hey day, The Blues are Still Blue swings back and forth with more rhythm and blues than any Scottish band I can think of offhand. That stylistic juxtaposition between songs makes this album more interesting than the last. Although a lot of it still borrows heavily from the 60′s and the 70′s, such as the Spirit in the Sky baseline of White Collar Boy, the group expands its parameters far more than they have in the past. Mornington Crescent, for instance, has a country ballad quality that could probably pass for Ryan Adams if you heard it playing on someone’s shuffled iPod.
But all of the drama still sits on top of a pristinely white and very sweet tasting wedding cake. Even the lyrics seem to be treated as mere words that only exist to disperse happiness and sunshine all over the place. It’s the kind of stuff that’s so cute it’ll make a cynical person puke, while everybody else just smiles along. Funny Little Frog probably demonstrates best.
You are my girl, and you don’t even know it
I am livin out the life of a poet
I am the jester in the ancient court
You’re the funny little frog in my throat [sung as throw it]
I haven’t decided if this is the best music I’ve heard so far this year, although it’s likely not to be by the end of it. But it is easy enough to tell that Belle and Sebastian are making better music now than they ever have. Their latest album does seem to have all the elements it needs to launch a semi-movement with authentic staying power.
But if it doesn’t, they can always fall back on blaming that bastard, Jack Black.