Belle and Sebastian have changed their sound incrementally over the eight albums they’ve released since 1996. They’ve shifted from the pastoral and twee to a rougher hewn but decidedly sophisticated brand of pop music. Many long time fans were put off by the comparatively muscular sound of their last album, The Life Pursuit. ‘Comparatively’ is the key word there – no one was going to confuse them with Mastodon or anything. But there were definite flashes of ‘70s era Glam and Classic Rock mixed in and I for one immensely enjoyed their new found r’n’r moves.
Their latest, Belle and Sebastian Write about Love, pitches its sound somewhere between the etherealness of their earlier records and the earthiness of their latter material. “I’m Not Living in the Real World” sounds like nothing less than Tommy-era Who with its furiously strummed acoustic guitars, rolling drums, and Beach Boy harmonies. “I Want the World to Stop” is the Cure minus the gothic affectations and “I Can See Your Future” is textbook B&S complete with Eurovision horns and shuffling beat. In general they’ve retained a tighter rhythm section and more focused songcraft while keeping things on the light and sweet side.
If anything is absent, it’s Stuart Murdoch’s penchant for the cutting, witty couplet. While perfectly accomplished, upon initial listens there was no single quip that made me smile quite like the bon mots he tossed out with alarming regularity on prior releases. The one stand out track for me, lyrically, is probably the most straight-forward song he’s ever written. “Read the Blessed Pages” seems to be about nothing less than the band itself. “Love was playing music. It was all we wanted, making plastic records of our history” is as touchingly sincere as they’ve ever gotten. There is a resignation in the song and the record as a whole, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. 14 years on, Belle and Sebastian are not about to reinvent themselves. They’ve forged a sound uniquely their own and should be proud to continue to plow that field as long as the crops continue to grow.