Review Summary: Belle and Sebastian pull a cannonball after a series of swan dives.
It kind of figures that a band whose subtle songwriting and wit has propelled them to success would slip and stumble at the point where they’ve adopted the most bold album title since Prince’s Lovesexy
. You see, Belle and Sebastian have been writing about love their entire career; good love, bad love, sadomasochistic love – they’ve run the gamut. Coming off two marvels of artistic reinvigoration, Dear Catastrophe Waitress
and The Life Pursuit
, the idea that this is where the topic needed a signpost could very well have been a cause for worry but who would’ve thought of that? The band were on a steep upward trend and nobody likes a pessimist. Unfortunately, this is where the trend curves. Write About Love
is a determinedly placid record.
It’s very possible that the impact of Write About Love
’s failure is greatened by the success of the two albums preceding it. Four years is a long time to wait and coming off back-to-back successes, anything not up to that standard would’ve been met with dissatisfaction. It mimics the release of The Boy With The Arab Strap
– an album burdened by the pressure of following up one of the most universally adored indie pop albums ever. The truth is, though, that Write About Love
is weak in any context; uncreative by their high standards and mediocre by most others. The Life Pursuit
was a record that brought ambition by the bucket load but one of the key downfalls of Write About Love
is that it feels too lazy to have even gone to the well.
Where at one time every word sung from Stuart Murdoch’s mouth seemed to glow with creativity, Write About Love
is, at its weakest moments, exceptionally plain. The problem with many of the songs, like “Calculating Bimbo” and “The Ghost of Rockschool”, is that they’re just nice
songs. They’re nice in the way your grandma would respond when you asked her as a kid to watch you cannonball off the diving board: “That’s nice
, dear.” Let’s face it, she wasn’t that impressed. You could’ve done a few spins. Jumping backwards was a known crowd-pleaser. If you were especially committed you could’ve gained a few pounds, skinny kids never make big waves. At the end of the day, you just didn’t do enough – that’s the crux of Belle and Sebastian’s problem; it’s not bad, it just isn’t enough. It’s unremarkable. Belle and Sebastian’s grandmother is not impressed.
It’s not even that easy to pick the winners here. “I Want The World to Stop” is the best example of the up-tempo, hook-boasting pop they’ve championed their entire career and it’s a delightful song from start to finish but it stands far and away as the best here. “I Didn’t See It Coming” and “Write About Love” are a step above the rest, the former being a great Sarah Martin-led number and the latter marked by Carey Mulligan’s contribution, in which her fitting, lovely vocals sing the inexcusably bad: “He’s intellectual and he’s hot / but he understands” though, in all fairness, she’s far too cute to hold it against her. Then there’s “Little Lou, Ugly Jack and Prophet John” which is a confusing addition in the sense that it’s pleasant and Norah Jones sounds as good as ever, but the song is something you’d much sooner find on a Norah Jones album than a Belle and Sebastian one (unless Belle and Sebastian decide to start recording boring piano lounge albums) and the fact that it’s on a Belle and Sebastian album is what makes it feel like you’re being cheated.
Worst of all though, and by some margin, is a moment that might just go down as the strangest artistic decision of 2010. “Read The Blessed Pages” doesn’t have a lot going for it to begin with: it’s dreary, frustratingly slow and completely uninspired. Even amidst the mediocrity, it’s pretty bad. And then, of all possible things, there’s (what sounds like) a pan flute solo. An outrageously odd, out-of-place, medieval pan flute solo. Now, don’t get me wrong, pan flute is a perfectly acceptable instrument if used in the right context. Here, though, I feel like if I concentrate hard enough memories of King John and the black plague would begin rushing back. And then “I Can See Your Future” brings us back to the buoyant and twee Belle and Sebastian we know, and it’s as if nothing ever happened. But it did happen and it was absolutely baffling.
At the end of the day, the title Write About Love
turned out to be just as bland as the music it pertained to. It’s disappointing that after The Life Pursuit
exemplified their creative best, they’d fail to recapture that form four years later and the brilliant records that preceded this are just another reason why it’s a total bummer giving such a great band such a low rating. They’ve written a pleasant album and the problem is, as well the reason why the hammer has come down so strongly, with a band like Belle and Sebastian, and after records like If You’re Feeling Sinister
, Dear Catastrophe Waitress
, and The Life Pursuit
, just good isn’t good enough. Get back on that diving board, Mr. Murdoch.