Review Summary: Belle And Sebastian create their magnum opus, which should be lauded by every music critic partial to indie-pop
Here’s the thing: at first, Belle and Sebastian may come off to some as an underwhelming act whose songs are low-caliber -- upon listening to them for the first time in 2008, my general impression was that their songs were homogeneous and lacked discerning qualities, and, judging from other users’ comments, I’m not the first to have made this error in judgement. I can’t explain it now for the life of me; there’s something new and exciting to be found with each listen that I missed prior to that, but at the time it failed to entice me. The truth is, every single moment of The Life Pursuit
is enthralling, even the off-kilter album closer - Mornington Crescent, a song which appears bland in comparison is still enjoyable in its own right. At its core, The Life Pursuit
is a collection of excellent pop songs.
Although Belle and Sebastian aren’t nearly as commercially successful as they should be, a lot of people have likely heard some of their songs without knowing it, like their biggest radio-hit Funny Little Frog, a song that, in its short running time of 3:08 encapsulates everything unique and special about their sound and style. The song starts out very tastefully with piano, guitar, prominent bass and a short trumpet section before leading into the infectious lyrics: “Honey, loving you is the greatest thing/ I get to be myself and I get to sing”. Stuart Murdoch and Stevie Jackson are inarguably two of the most talented lyricists writing today. Not only do they write well to fit the context of the music, they write clever, captivating short stories. Funny Little Frog, for example, is the short tale of a man intoxicated with love: “You're my picture on the wall/ you're my vision in the hall/ you're the one I'm talking to when I get in from my work/ you are my girl and you don’t even know it/ I am living out the life of a poet”, which sounds utterly endearing and would surely make anyone crack a smile. However, the song does a complete 180 in its closing thirty seconds to reveal that the character is actually obsessing over a famous woman who he’s seen in magazines: “And I don't know how you smell/ you are the cover of my magazine/ you're my fashion tip, a living museum”. Re-listening and focusing more on the lyrical content further helps the listener understand even earlier on that it’s just a fallacy in his head: “I had a conversation with you at night, it's a little one sided but that's alright”.
Their ability to immediately change the premise of a song within a seconds’ notice is what make them so unique. Other lyrical content on The Life Pursuit
touches on issues of love, loss, envy, delusion, confusion, irony, and yearning. Dress Up In You is a song enveloped by an entire range of emotion as it paints a picture of a confused, and jaded person towards a relationship gone sour: “I've got a boyfriend, I've got a feeling that he's seeing someone else/ he always had thing for you”; and yet, at the same time this person seems envious: “if i had a second skin I’d probably dress up in you”. The music is lead with Stuart’s vocals in the forefront being followed occasionally by Sarah’s euphonious backing vocals (an effective, and well-placed technique). A trumpet in the background brings itself to the foreground halfway through which leads to a smooth, distinctive bass line. Another element that Belle and Sebastian have going for them is how clear and memorable the bass lines are as, unlike in most modern music, the bass is just as prominent at times as the guitar work is.
Their prevalent influences like Bob Dylan, and The Smiths aren’t as apparent here as on previous releases. Instead, The Life Pursuit
is somewhat of an expansion of sound from Dear Catastrophe Waitress
. However, while better than its predecessors, some might find The Life Pursuit
to be less enjoyable, as the Glasgow band play more to their pop sensibilities and there isn’t a definitive best track such as Like Dylan In The Movies from If You’re Feeling Sinister
, or Expectations from Tigermilk
. No particular track stands out amongst the rest, however, just because no one song is better than the next (or the aforementioned tracks) it doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy; every song here (save for Mornington Crescent) could potentially vie for the best indie-pop song of 2006. Song For Sunshine pays homage to 80s funk;The Blues Are Still Blue is suave, slick and smooth with hand claps and a simple, yet catchy bass line; Another Sunny Day is a sweet summer anthem perfect for casual listening... I could go on forever as to why each track is essential, but that would be redundant. The only real detractor holding this back from being a classic is the consistency killer - Mornington Crescent, which is a small folly in an otherwise perfect record
What the album proves is that a band can venture out of their comfort zones to make an outstanding pop album if they lend their minds to it, and that’s exactly what they’ve done here. Piano, keyboard, drums, electric and acoustic guitar, bass, trumpet, etc., the band uses everything at their disposal to create a fun and varied experience that is ironically their most realized sound thus far. The wit, and mastery of their narrative approach combined with lush production and charm make this their quintessential album, and one of the best albums to be released in the last decade. They’re clearly heading towards a more poppy style, and where their contemporaries have failed, they have, and will continue to surpass and supersede them.
Act Of The Apostle
The Blues Are Still Blue
Dress Up In You
Funny Little Frog
For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea