Comparing Belle and Sebastian’s latest album, Write About Love, with their first, Tigermilk, it’s easy to see how Belle and Sebastian has grown over the years. Their sound is cleaner, they are more confident, their instrumentation is more sophisticated and the vocals are always on key. However, we also see that in growing as musicians and performers, the band has also lost some key characteristics that made them so great to begin with.
Nearly each track on each of the group’s first three records was instantly recognizable. The vocals were more subdued, as were the instruments whenever they would weave in a melody. There was a certain lo-fi glory to it all. Stuart Murdoch’s fragile voice sung clever lines and cute stories emanating emotion listeners could connect to on a personal level. Even when another member would step in on vocals the result was similarly pleasing and connectable.
Of course, after three excellent records, one of which being an iconic ’90s indie classic, things got shaky until they reinvented themselves with 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress. There was a new exuberance to their still unmistakable sound. It was both a necessary and welcome change. Everything that made them great beneath the surface was still there: the melodies, the excellent lyrics, etc., but now there was a polished sound and moments of giddy joyfulness. 2006’s follow-up The Life Pursuit was nearly as good. Personal preference determined which of the two got more plays.
Write About Love is not so much another reinvention as a change in focus. It’s mostly the pretty stuff, with an occasional step out into the peppy. The sound is mostly the same, but it’s brighter. They have also added MIDI sounds and brought on some guest vocalists. The first half is very pleasant, very good even. “I Didn’t See It Coming” and “Come on Sister,” open up the album spectacularly. The former features the pleasant and light vocals of female vocalist Sarah Martin and the latter features the band being awesome. Really, “Come on Sister” ranks among the best Belle and Sebastian songs of the past ten years.
But about halfway through the record, somewhere around the time guest vocalist Carey Mulligan sings the line “He’s intellectual and he’s hot, but he understands,” you start to realize something isn’t quite right. This band, often celebrated for subtle witticisms, just had a guest come onto their album and use the term “hot.” Then you look back at “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John” and realize that, while maybe a good song, it feels out of place. Norah Jones is a wonderful vocalist, but her appearance on this track doesn’t bend to the Belle and Sebastian mold so much as it bends the band to hers.
You want to keep hope, but singer Stevie Jackson insists you shouldn’t by way of his contribution to the album, “I’m Not Living in the Real World.” It’s a rather annoying track that says little and changes key a few times to compensate. The last few songs are passable, but unremarkable. So you’re left with a good four-track EP and a collaboration that should probably find a different housing.
Write About Love is not a bad record; it is transitional. There are some ups, a few downs, and a lot in between. The follow-up, which hopefully won’t take another four years to make, will likely improve this formula.
Write About Love
Artist: Belle and Sebastian
Genre: Indie Pop