Belle & Sebastian Write About Love
By john taylor
October 26, 2010
Write About Love, the seventh release from twee pioneers Belle & Sebastian, is lazy, goofy, playful and content. In other words, it's everything a reunion should be.
For those unfamiliar with the Scottish pop-act, B&S are a collective that have more or less been the voice of lonely hipster boys and girls ever since The Smiths broke up. With songs comprised of stories semi-autobiographical, introspective, and sometimes outright fictional, frontman Stuart Murdoch has been capturing the imaginations of those lonely hipster boys and girls for the past decade and a half.
The problem with hipsters, and hipster bands, is that the musicians and fans who love them one day grow up. They get married, find jobs and perhaps have kids who will one day become disillusioned with middle-class life and make music about it (see: Arcade Fire). Despite how the years have dragged both B&S and their fans into a post-B&S era, it doesn't mean we can't be nostalgic for the glory days.
Fresh from a four-year hiatus, B&S return with a culmination of styles seen in past works, from the folk-pop of If You're Feeling Sinister (1996) and The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998) to the string-laden, bouncy production of “radio-friendly” affairs Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003) and The Life Pursuit (2006). Their last record, Pursuit, felt very much like a bookend showcasing the limits of what B&S is capable of musically. Bandleader Stuart Murdoch is aware of this on Love, and isn't trying to rewrite the indie rock handbook. He's simply here to remind you he exists, and to remind you why you loved B&S so much back before life got in the way.
The sounds on Love are always familiar, yet never recycled. Though much of the charisma and youthful energy that made past efforts so lovely and timeless have been replaced with worn, tired arrangements, Stuart and the gang are never too old to have a little fun. While it would be a stretch to liken the presence of Norah Jones and actress Carey Mulligan (An Education) to that of mid-life crisis stunts, it's hard not to smile with B&S in their gentle mischief. On the title track, Mulligan makes the lines, I hate my job! I'm working way too much! Every day, I'm stuck in an office! somehow playful and charming.
If anything, Love is far more interested in its audience than any of its fictional characters. Tell me all about your man and your hopes and the flaws of your life, waxes Stuart on “Come On Sister.” Narratives take a backseat emphasis, as Stuart mulls over the past with a positive demeanor: Every girl you ever admired, every boy you ever desired/ Every love you ever forgot, every person that you despised is forgiven, he preaches on New Wave-flavored closer “Sunday's Pretty Icons.”
Musically and lyrically, Love maintains a peaceful tone as it effortlessly strolls through neo-soul, recycled Motown riffs and retro '60s pop. With the exception of boogie freakout dud “I'm Not Living In the Real World,” the record favors consistency over needless risk-taking. Unquestionably fueling the band's contentment is the presence of God, who is seen “shining up from Her reflection” on “The Ghost of Rockschool.”
In every way, Love is the kind of sellout album that should enrage longtime fans, but doesn't. Compared to other B&S albums, Love is sorely lacking in the hook department. Most of the time, it sounds bored and senile. It features a sultry duet with Norah Jones that will no doubt be heard in your local Starbucks one day. It's also probably the first B&S album you could give to your mom.
The genius of Love, and its “sellout” aesthetic, is that the record captures where the audience is in life right now. Most longtime B&S fans are no longer moping in high school hallways: they've already fallen in love, and work nine-to-five shifts. They're worried about things like savings accounts and the war on terror; the war of nerds and jocks nothing but a distant memory. The only place Love has in their lives is in escape and nostalgia. Even if Write About Love isn't perfect, like real life, it plays on the best of what used to be: of what we had and what made bands like B&S so magical.
Stuart Murdoch understands we've all moved on. He's moved on, too. Love isn't here to impress. It's a largely forgettable album, and by the time the record needle stops spinning, many of the tracks will probably be gone from memory. But before that happens, you'll be smiling and thinking of the good ol' days.