(First published January 10th 2011, revised edition published July 10th 2014)
Monday, 10 January 2011
Belle and Sebastian "Write About Love" (2010) (News, Views and Music 86)
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Belle and Sebastian “Write About Love” (2010)
I Didn’t See It Coming/Come On Sister/Calculating Bimbo/I Want The World To Stop/Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John//Write About Love/I’m Not Living In The Real World/The Ghost Of Rockschool/Read The Blessed Pages/I Can See Your Future/Sunday’s Pretty Icons
(First published January 10th 2011, revised edition published July 10th 2014)
(First published January 10th 2011, revised edition published July 10th 2014)
You can just imagine the conversation in the head office of record company 'Rough Trade': 'Hey guys, four years between albums is too long. I don't care if you're exhausted and you've travelled halfway round the world and your old fans are exhausted too after travelling all that way with you in their imagination. The new fans you got on your last two records don't think like that. They want more product. They want an even more modern production. They want you to record in a posh state-of-the-art Los Angeles studio, not in some shed in Glasgow. They want guest appearances by current big name superstars who'll be forgotten by next year. They want a TV special. They want you to write about love!' The older Belle and Sebastian would have resented any attempt to change who they are and what they stand for. The Belle and Sebastian who worked for Jeepster would have shrugged their shoulders, taken time out to film a music video that cost £54 and some digestives and got on with what they were meant to be doing. And the old Belle and Sebastian did nothing except write about love anyway - but the multi-layered idea of love, of struggling to find it, retain it or simply learn not to prod and poke and to exist in the moment in all its unfurling beauty. I know of no more romantic an album than 'Tigermilk' - but it's an album about a series of hard-done by characters dreaming of the future rather than actually experiencing it firsthand.
The difference is that, by 2010, Belle and Sebastian are on shaky ground. The 'Belle' love story is over and while still playing a part on this album is now one of many pieces of material being woven into the style and feel of the album ('Read The Blessed Pages' being one final goodbye song). The whole point of Belle and Sebastian i the early days was that story, the idea that ordinary kids who didn't live in London and didn't have a voice except through teeny-boppers and dancing pop stars could make you feel less alone and isolated in your crumbling bedsit with your aspirations fading along with the wallpaper you couldn't afford to change. Gradually, ever since Isobel Campbell left the band in 2002, this isn't the same Belle and Sebastian anymore but a bona fide pop band who had hit singles and did interviews (in this context the lines of some of the songs on this album make a lot of sense: 'Will I Make it in the real world?' 'I want the world to stop' 'I didn't see it coming!') Ironically this is the first Belle and Sebastian album ever that isn't predominantly concerned with 'love' - because the 'love' that Murdoch used to sing about is no more with his muse out of the band and recording her own hit duet albums with gravelly voiced Mark Lanegan (everything Stuart is not). The last two albums ('Dear Catastrophe Waitress' and 'The Life Pursuit' have been attempts to work out where to go next, whether there can be a life for Belle and Sebastian without 'Belle' in the band and while it's been a bumpy and not altogether successful ride someone somewhere seems to appreciate these new more-produced, more mainstream quirky songs. What's ironic is that Belle and Sebastian have never been as popular, the word of mouth about their albums growing with every release (both the last album and this peaked at #8 after the band spent half their career failing to make the charts at all) just at the point when they don't know who they are anymore.
As well as being love stories the early Belle and Sebastian records were also about identity to some extent, of finding your place in a world so already over-stuffed with people drifting that there's no automatic place for anyone anymore. That theme really comes to the fore on 'Write About Love', which even more than normal seems to ask 'who am I? And why am I here?' On the one hand Stuart goes back to where it all began, getting in touch with his sick-bed self between 1987 and 1994 who wrote that first batch of great songs and had so much to say - using love in an abstract sense ('I know a trick, forget that you are sick! Write about love, it can be in any form!') 'I Want The World To Stop' seems to be crying out against the fact that something somewhere went wrong and the narrator ended up someone he didn't want to be. (Sarah's 'I Can See Your Future' plays a similar trick, imagining going back to the narrator's past and whether if he had the chance he'd do things a different way). 'Sunday's Pretty Icons' is similarly 'lost' and confused, but is written in terms of 'a friend'. 'Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John' finally comes up with some sort of definition of what a person in the song is, but the line 'you're just part of this lifetime of dreaming' isn't exactly specific. The only Murdoch song on this record that has any answers is 'The Ghost Of Rock School', Stuart's first overtly religious song after some 20 off years of being a Christian convert (who was working as a church caretaker when the band were originally formed) where it doesn't matter what he does or why because the narrator sees 'God' (read 'love') everywhere he goes. Stevie's song 'I'm Not Living In The Real World' is even more explicit: the narrator is a man out of time, 'born on a Sunday' when everyone else was born on a Monday, struggling to cope in a world of bills, jobs and material assets rather than love and music, adamant that 'his' is the real world, not the one around him which seems completely false. Sarah's 'other' song 'I Didn't See It Coming' again sees the narrator finding identity only through the money she doesn't have, flying on budget airlines to save money (although the closing line 'we're following the right line' is about the one positive statement across the whole album, as if offering comfort to the rest of the band).
This is, then, a band a little bit lost as to who they are anymore without the old B and S story to hang on to - and even more lost now that they're a million miles away from home geographically as well as emotionally. The band are in L.A. at producer Tony Hoffer's urging - and if ever a band should have stayed at home and surrounded themselves with fading home-grown equipment rather than compete with the big boys its Belle and Sebastian. This is plainly 'wrong' for anyone who bought an earlier LP by the band specifically because they didn't sound as shiny and made-up as everyone else (the whole point of B and S in the early days being about finding natural beauty anywhere you looked, without the need for make-up, plastic surgery or shiny productions). Alongside this the album was announced not with a small self-mocking comment on the website, a fan-produced newsletter or a cryptic photograph in a music mag that only fans would get but with a TV special. A TV special! Exactly the sort of thing that killed off the careers of Johnny Cash (who lost a lot of his credibility once he was seen singing with anyone who was 'dish of the day' - although admittedly he had a lot of great musicians on too, including some AAA ones) and Lulu (who became ever more of an everywoman 'celebrity' afterwards rather than a singer with a truly natural gift of a voice). Admittedly this was a very 'different' sort of TV special, complete with an edgy sketch about record company ideas of commercialism (which made even the similarly heavy-handed Paul Simon 1977 TV special run by his 'producer' Chevy Chase subtle) and some question and answers from earnest fans that would have flown over the heads of most people watching, but still: even used as subvertedly a TV special about a band who always used to hate publicity just seems wrong.
Even Stuart's typically entertaining essay in the CD booklet seems to make him appear as if he's rather be anywhere else but recording with the band, rambling into his old English class being forced to stay inside while studying a poem about the freedom of escaping the classroom and dreaming his own dreams of 'not being in this room, but being out in the open, roaming around this city [Los Angeles]'. In fact, I hated this record on first hearings, as background music – the production really is awful and mires the band in the 1980s like never before (their 1960s influences, alas, have been growing more distant since the first records of the 1990s). In fact I can more or less guarantee that the last time you heard so many sounds of the 1980s in one place it really was the 1980s. It also says it all to me that guesting non-voice background music singer Norah Jones fits as snugly into this record as the-Janis-Joplin-of-the-1990s Monica Queen did on the band’s ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’, as the band turned more or less 180 degrees since their 1995 inception. However, I do prefer this production to what Hoffer did on 'The Life Pursuit' - this time there are proper instruments along with the synthesisers, little touches of Belle and Sebastian charming amateurism (the false start to 'I Want The World To Stop'), much more of Mick Cooke's brass and the band's string section and the fact that this time the vocals aren't treated to quite the same amount of technological trickery. Yes there's still a little too much for my taste ('I Didn't See It Coming' would be a great song - if I could actually hear what Sarah's singing behind all the glossiness), but there's been a conscious reign in from 'The Life Pursuit's out-and-out commercialism to something more down the middle road between 'old' and 'new' that's much more suitable for a band whose 'lack' of a glossy sound used to be the whole point. 'Write About Love' doesn't quite get the mix as cleverly as Trevor Horn's production on 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress', but this is undeniably a step in the right direction, sounding - at times at least - like something the 'old' Belle and Sebastian might have done.
What's more, the band seem to have suddenly remembered their old fans. There are less out and out explorations of fantasy on this record, less laundromats, funny little frogs and white collar boys on the run from the law and more recognisable three-dimensional characters. Stuart speaks in his opening essay about the 'hum of the cosmos' and that's pretty much what was missing from the last album - it all happened in the writers' heads rather than outside their windows. The title track is the most B and S set of lyrics since at least 2001: a mind-numbing job that leads the narrator to do all sorts of dumb things with dumb people as comic relief. 'I Want The World To Stop' is back to the good/bad old days when B and S narrators poured out their hearts while spending a wakeful night worrying over some big deal the next day that might change their life. While the lyrics don't necessarily refer to it, the music promo for 'Come On Sister' takes up this theme, showing a kind of 'Trumpton' idea of Glasgow where Belle and Sebastian never happened and the band all have 'proper' jobs (so convincingly are they that the video ends with an outtake of someone genuinely entering 'Jacksons the Butchers and haggling over the price of meat!) 'Sunday's Pretty Icons' also comes up with perhaps the best summary of what Murdoch and co have been doing all these years singing about the 'secret lives and loves' of their audience. While the packaging for 'The Life Pursuit' was pretty minimal by Belle and Sebastian's expansive (if never expensive) tastes 'Write About Love' goes back to having the sort of cover booklets that you can read like a book rather than something to sing along to with the record, complete with three essays (the most yet!) 'Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John', one of the album's lesser moments, is the one exception to this, with Murdoch actively telling us that they're the creation of his furtive imagination that is the one song here that sounds like it belonged on the last LP.
If the early Belle and Sebastian albums were stories, books designed to make fans feel less alone and as a sort of self-help manual (see 'Tigermilk' which makes reference to the 'State I Am In' book written in the first song - which isn't 'any help at all' by the last track!), then 'Write About Love' is a letter. An intimate letter from one friend to another, keeping them abreast of what changes there in the band's life and wanting to keep in touch. The front cover even has a model poised over some paper, pen in hand (along with the title we're clearly meant to think of this as a 'love letter', but as we've seen B and S don't actually sing about love much this time around). In this context the way the CD booklet ends is classic B and S, with the first mention of how fans can keep in touch since 'Fold Your Hands' nine years before. For those who don't have booklet to hand (or whose pet tiger just ate it) the full text isthe delightful: 'Write to us, or if you must send us your band's latest music, or a home-made T-short, or whatever it is you're into: we will endeavour to write back but admittedly the pile grows ever higher and wobblier!' I have to say, though, I’m curious about the CD’s inner sleeve which seems 'wrong' for this album somehow. We do see a book being read - for the first time in 15 years. But it's a book of poetry, with 'a girl reading 'Keats' and a boy reading 'Yeats' - fitting for the title, maybe, but this is the least 'poetic' Belle and Sebastian album yet (the lyrics do read more like letters compared to days of old - even 'The Life Pursuit' sounded like a book of nonsense poems when 'read' rather than heard). What's more, this personal album is more like the kind of 'realism' poetry you get from Wordsworth or Gerard Manley-Hopkins, not the flowery 'Keats' or 'surreal' Yeats (whose image should be on a Moody Blues or Pink Floyd album, not a Belle and Sebastian one). Is this a rare mistake? Did the band have less input into the packaging this time around? Or am I missing the point? (again!)
Overall, then, this isn’t a vintage record by any means – there are too many breathy ballads, fewer lyrical twists than we’re used to hearing and a continuation of the hideous production styles of the 2000s which has seen our gloriously ramshackle uncaring band turned into Indie popstars. In fact, I hated this record on first hearings, as background music – the production really is awful and mires the band in the 1980s like never before (their 1960s influences, alas, have been growing more distant since the first records of the 1990s). There is, undeniably, a lot of filler - the days when B and S delivered a completely or near-completely perfect record have been gone a while now and some of this stuff is either awkwardly modern ('I Didn't See It Coming'), poor ('Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John') or both ('I'm Not Living In The Real World'). However 'Write About Love' is a step in the right direction and there are six songs that add a great deal to the B and S canon (three more than last time out): the clever twist of 'Caluclating Bimbo', the urgent 'I Want The World To Stop', the catchy but deep title track, the brilliantly uplifting 'Ghost Of Rockschool', the heartfelt 'Read The Blessed Pages' and the best attempt yet at contemporary sounds 'I Can See Your Future' (that sounds very Human League like - that's a compliment by the way!)
Yes the modern sound is still often supremely irritating but compared to 'The Life Pursuit' there's more reward for our efforts in digging beneath that surface. The lyrics are usually the highlights of a B and S record and, although not classic, this album does have a few gems hiding underneath all that surface noise. ‘Calculating Bimbo’ for instance, is a gentlemanly song about a person trying to convince us he’s a gentleman, which he succeeds with right up until he speaks the title words in the last sentence, surrounded by the most wonderful lilting, typically fragile melody. ‘The Ghost of Rockschool’ is nothing less than an essay exploring whether God really does exist in the art of creation, refusing to believe until a glorious last happy chorus sets us on our way just when we thought the song was over. Best of all, ‘Read The Blessed Pages’ is the most moving Murdoch song in years, the most naked song yet about Isobel’s role in the band and how badly Murdoch needed her inspiration to create any sort of band at all. The other songs can’t compete, but when Murdoch’s up to this sort of level few writers can compete anyway. Talent never disappears, it just gets covered up occasionally, and like many a B and S record the treat is in the detail, the lyrical touches that make these songs read less like accompaniments to music than as novels in their own right and the odd arranging trick that goes in directions no other band would dare to try – or think up. The more I hear this record properly, by concentrating on it for this review, the more I like it. In fact I’d go so far as to say this album is the first B and S record to trounce its predecessor, the solid but uninspiring ‘Life Pursuit’ of 2006, as the band has been suffering a gradual decline bit by bit since releasing the almost-perfect ‘Tigermilk’ in 1995. There are touches of greatness here and one or two songs to treasure. And to be fair, I’m just grateful to have the band still around at all. There’s been a record four year gap between albums, punctuated only by philosophical solo records, and it really did look as if the B and S story was over – even at half capacity I’m oh so pleased to have them back and I can even forgive them the oh so obvious (in 2010- she's rather disappeared since this review was written!) presence of Norah Jones for that.
Opener ‘I Didn’t See It Coming’ isn’t the best place to start, however. For this album’s two starting tracks the nasty production values are turned to the max and for B and S these lyrics are more kindergarten than Keats. Those of you who’ve read my forum will know that I consider Sarah Martin the unsung heroine of the band and that her track ‘Family Tree’ is currently sitting top of my ‘gold song award’ lists. But this song – one of only two by her on the album again, alas – is her worst song yet. The tune sounds suspiciously close to something else, the uncharacteristically noisy drumming gets in the way and the quagmire of 1980s synthesisers is painful to the ears. If you read this song, though, rather than read it, it does have a sort of quiet charm: in the context of the Coalition’s so-called ‘credit crunch’ these lyrics are quite moving - forced to take the train instead of the more expensive plane means that ‘I can see the world from a different side’ and the comment that money makes the wheels’ go round is met with the rejoinder ‘forget about it, honey’. There’s also perhaps the best rhyme of the whole record: ‘we’ve been going trans-continental – got no car, we just take a rental’. The narrator appears to be hit hard by financial difficulties – she repeats over and over that she ‘didn’t see it coming’ and – from lyrics alone – we should be really moved by this song. The tune, alas, is not as strong as the words though and the horrible production (perhaps equating this credit crunch period with the riots of the 1980s) makes a promising song sound awful.
‘Come On Sister’ is slightly better, thanks to a ridiculously catchy riff played on keyboards and guitar – in fact the fiery guitar part here is the best on a B and S record since ‘Tigermilk’, driving the song forward rather than being merely a wash of colour as it has recently. Sadly, though, this is Murdoch’s weakest song on the record, a simple song about being awake in the middle of the night and trying to forget his recent heartbreak. For all the song’ s attempt at forced jollity, though, the song sounds forced – the sharp angular melody and the bittersweet lyrics really aren’t a good match for each other and the idea has been done before many times by other bands. Murdoch, too, sounds uncomfortable singing the lead – he’s doing his best to sound upbeat but it’s clear the lyrics don’t fit the mood, even though some of the lines are as clever as anything else he’s ever written (‘it does me no good to keep looking ahead to your future adoration’, for instance, that no other band would dream of using and yet it says everything about the narrator’s confused love life here). Even when meant ironically, though, it’s sad to hear a band of B and S’ talent reduced to singing a chorus of ‘Saying Ho! Saying Yo!’ Not a good start to the record.
‘Calculating Bimbo’ is much better and one of the two highlights on the record for me. Murdoch’s melody is so sad and his words so full of regret and hurt that it’s amazing he doesn’t break down singing the lead. The production also works much better here, putting Murdoch’s lead and Martin and Stevie Jackson’s sensitive harmonies centre stage with only a ripple of synths rather than a sea. As discussed, the lyrics to this song are clever indeed, a sort of distillation of all of Murdoch’s past songs for Campbell, even mimicking ‘Dog On Wheels’ at the start with lines about ‘you mistook for being lazy – i was just being lazy’ mirroring the earlier ‘when I was a boy I was confounded by you – now I’m still a boy I am indebted to you’. The narrator thinks that on balance he’s happy that he had the relationship at all, even if it ended badly and in a moving line his partner has run away from his narrow world to have a ‘four floor view’ that takes in much more (Campbell sacrificed her supporting role in the band to undertake a series of successful duet albums with Mark Lanegan, giving her much more kudos from reviewers than she ever had while in the band). For the most part this is a beautiful song, with Murdoch ruminating where things went wrong, agreeing not to do them again and still aching for the old connection they used to share (even after the split it’s the narrator not his partner’s new lover whose on the phone in the middle of the night trying to put things right, ‘I’m your captain for the long haul’). Then comes that sudden twist of bitterness at the end, calling the lover a ‘calculating bimbo, I wish you’d let the past go’, even though the narrator has being doing nothing else for the whole of the song. Many past B and S songs pull off the same trick of the did-they-really-just-say-that? line stuck at the end of some pristine gorgeous ballad, but this song is more successful than most, really catching the listener by surprise and giving vent to all the bitterness that has been building up the whole song despite the narrator’s best intentions. Even better is the unexpected shift to the minor chord in the middle of the song (the verse beginning ‘With lots of time, a notebook full...’) as the narrator finally gives way to his feelings and begins to look backwards not forwards as he tries so hard to do. Lovely, moving and thoughtful, with unexpected twists and turns, this is one of two songs from the album that represent the best B and S work since the ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ album of 2005.
‘I Want The World To Stop’ is a less involved, more poppy take on the same subject, with the narrator trapped in his bedsit in ‘sheets of milky winter disorder’, wondering where things have gone wrong. Like some B and S songs of old, this song starts off simple and becomes more and more unstable, verse by verse, as the narrator’s life veers more and more out of control. The end effect isn’t quite as convincing as ‘Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie, perhaps the best example of that trick, but it still works well – especially after the juxtaposition of the last track. Mick Cooke’s bleary-eyed trumpet arrangement is spot-on, as is the call-and-answer section from an electronically treated Sarah and Stevie and the tune is a typically adventurous Murdoch one that appears to be serene and calm on the surface but is fighting for breath underneath it all. There’s an intriguing sub-plot, too, about the fickleness of fame – as you may recall if you’re reading these reviews in order B and S were such a famous cult band in 1998 that a Warner Brothers executive flew all the way from America to promise them lots of money and make them stars. B and S didn’t even bother turning up en masse to the meeting and told him to go home. Things have changed though, starting with the surprisingly good ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ album, making the B and S sound much clearer, easily digestible and more akin to what’s in the pop market. Murdoch seems to be regretting the decision here, though: ‘tinseltown has followed me...’, a place where ‘as the sun hangs low the girls don’t care, as they paint themselves at dusk’, a classic Murdoch image of desolation. In the next verse, too, workers move up to the suburbs, all angling to be rich and powerful, with Murdoch already aware that the happiness they seek can’t be found just through money and success alone and leave him offering up a ‘prayer for every car’ he passes. For all this fine imagery, though, the lyrics to this song aren’t as strong as others on this album – although the last verse, with the narrator trying to convince himself not to write to his lover as he used to at a certain time every day, is quite moving - and this track repeat the chorus too many times for comfort in the end.
‘Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John’ is another Murdoch-by-numbers ballad which tries hard but doesn’t really come off – mainly, it has to be said, because of the guest star. Norah Jones is one of those singers who came to fame in the 1990s despite not playing an instrument or doing much writing or having more than an average voice. I could name plenty more from the same era who all have the same sort of drippy, tranquil voices which are radio-friendly and pleasant but don’t excite or enthuse or energise or entertain the way singers should. Admittedly, I’d much rather Murdoch record with Norah than, say, The Spice Girls, as at least she can sing a bit and her vocals work with Murdoch’s breathy baritone surprisingly well. But the two come from separate worlds and it’s a waste of a good, revealing song having to compensate for Norah’s workmanship vocals which may be technically better than Murdoch’s but can’t convey the same sense of waste and loss. The tune is another of those from this record that sound recycled from something that already exists (though I can’t quite put my finger on what) and the lyrics are again quite simple for B and S, although still with flashes of brilliance such as the comment to the parting lover that ‘you’re just part of this lifetime of dreaming’. I’d have loved to have heard the demo version of this track in fact, with Murdoch vulnerable and alone, trying his best to shrug off the song’s deepest sentiments and pretend everything is OK – trying to sound like Norah, in fact. But having her there just makes this song sound false, like a reject from one of those 1990s albums by breathy singers in fact. In case you’re wondering the curious title refers to three characters the narrator is desperately trying to invent, to cover up the fact that this song is more real and honest than normal and all but writing itself despite Murdoch’s best attempts.
The title track 'Write About Love' is another noisy pop song that tries to look at the act of song-writing more dispassionately. In a close mirror of Paul Simon’s ‘Song About The Moon’ (see review no 85), this is Murdoch’s tip of the week to budding songwriters: if you get writer’s block, write about love because it’s something everybody feels at some point in their lives and can relate to (which is basically what Paul Simon was saying anyway). Ironically, though, this song is arguably less about love than any of Murdoch’s other tracks on this album, being a sterling attempt at writing a catchy pop song. ‘About Love’ is similar to ‘Legal Man’ in the way it features more hooks than a pair of curtains and an innocence and delight, even though the lyrics are again quite bitter. The narrator is stuck in a dead end job, watching the hours tick slowly round, only enjoying escape when he goes up to the office’s roof gardens to dream about the world below. Sarah Martin is on terrific form in the nagging harmonies and B and S actually sound like a band again, rather than just Murdoch’s backing band, making this one of the more successful recordings on the album. I’m confused as to how the verses relate to one another, though: are there two narrators in this song, one stuck in an office and the other being a poet? I’m still moved by the closing lines about ‘seeing the dreams through the windows and trees of your living room’, however, one of the best lines on the album. Confusing, but good. You can't hear her too well, sadly, but according to the sleevenotes that's actress Carey Mulligan (one of Hollywood's biggest 'new' stars of the 2010s, who like all the best actresses started her career on Dr Who) singing along on the chorus - reading around, no one seems to be quite sure why she's there, including the band.
Alas, Jackson’s contribution ‘I’m Not Living In The Real World’ isn’t as successful as his past tracks for the band. Again, it’s the arrangement and production that are to blame: there’s a so-so song at work here about the blurred lines between fantasy and reality, but it’s lost in a mess of heavy drums, echoey vocals that make it hard to hear the words and some more appearances by that irritating 80s synth. There’s a also a twee key change in the middle of the song that strains the already annoying riff to breaking point, causing the vocalists’ vocals to crack. The opening lines of the song seem to link back to the last track, with their comments about how for those born on the supposedly ‘artistic’ day of ‘Sunday’ no day will ever be poetic or artistic enough by comparison and that ‘every day will be Monday’ (in case you’re wondering, yes I was born on a Sunday – something tells me Jackson was too). There’s a fun autobiographical track bat work here, with the narrator too fragile to cope with the noisy mess of the modern world (put into sound rather too convincingly by the horrid production) and wandering while still at school if he’ll ever ‘make it in the real world’. By the close he’s taken his exams, is on a ‘mickey mouse’ college course and stacking shelves part-time, still asking himself the same question, ‘holding back the real world’. Had the band given this song a different arrangement and made it a bit longer then this short sketch of a song might have been one of the album highlights – but alas here it sounds unfinished, erratic and twee.
‘The Ghost Of Rockschool’ has much more of the traditional B and S sound and may well be trying to fool us into thinking it’s just another typical B and S song when, actually, it’s one of Murdoch’s most revealing songs to date. The narrator begins the first part of the song dreaming, seeing how wonderful the world could be in his dreams and then watching the image fades as he wakes up and gets on with the business of being alive. This is a man on auto-pilot, with a ‘demon’ waiting at his garden gate to distract him with ideas of jobs and business that are actually not what he should be doing with his life at all, not with a world full of poetry, art and the act of creation. A figure – presumably Campbell again – is in her ivory tower, apart from the real world and everything the narrator wants in his life (although it may be an idealised image he knows he’ll never meet in real life). But even though the narrator considers her a ‘temptation’ he should avoid, the very thought of her causes his life to get out the doldrums and the song enters a really beautiful coda. This time the idea that ‘I’ve seen God in the sun, I’ve seen God in the street’ is no longer a wondrous image he only sees in his dreams but in the real world, with her ‘heaven in her reflection’. This is a gorgeous piece of song-writing, right up there with Murdoch’s best and a characteristic bit of short-term loss and long-term optimism from a band that excels in poetic, subtle songs like these. The arrangement isn’t quite up to the song, though, sounding a bit too much like B and S by numbers, although to be frank I’d rather hear the band sticking to a tried and tested formula than the monstrosity of the early parts of the record. The tune is also quite simplistic, even for this record, although arguably that’s what this song about finding inspiration in even the most mundane of places needs most.
‘Read The Blessed Pages’ is more revealing still. A beautiful haunting breathy ballad, this is the barest B and S song we’ve had since the demos that used to be sent out to the world as B-sides and EP tracks. Murdoch sings alone with just his guitar for the most part, until the band’s harmonies and – irritatingly – a panpipe kick in near to the end of the song, and the emphasis this places on the lyrics makes this probably the highlight of the whole record. This song is effectively a history of the band from inception to the present, though typically poetic rather than a true slab of autobiography a la Cat Stevens’ career overview ‘I Never Wanted To Be A Star’ or The Kinks’ ‘The Road’. The narrator is back again in a ‘small town’, which reminds him of where he used to live and what he used to be like, triggering off a rambling monologue about his influences and memories which is highly touching. Belle and Sebastian have stayed together so many years because of ‘love and pain and sorrow’ we are told in the opening line, before Murdoch tells us of a ‘soul mate, whispering in my ear’ which is almost definitely Campbell. There’s another figure, too, who used to call up about the band in the middle of the night but has long ago stopped calling. I’m tempted to see this as Stuart David, the other member to have left the band during its 16 years together, who contributed the spacey, electronic collage sections to B and S records. If so, the line about him ‘calling out in the crowd’, making a connection with Murdoch that helps start him on a journey, is really moving for fans of this band.We also hear a bit of Murdoch, the songwriter, at work, ‘pulling songs from thin air, pulling songs from bridges’ as he keeps an eye on the world and its troubles. ‘Making plastic records of our history’ is a another memorable line which is almost the band’s theme song, recording moments in time like an aural diary and – while you always have to do a bit of digging – it is true that Murdoch has always worn his heart on his sleeve more than most songwriters, growing up album by album before our ears. He also bids his muse a fond farewell in the last two verses, admitting that their time together is over and that he too can move on to new directions, with the ‘pain in my memory a cherished story’ that he will look back on in the future as he does now with days gone by. Murdoch ends by telling someone (presumably Campbell) that ‘ever will I love you’ and ‘did I do my best, dear?’ in his 16 years spreading music to the world. Now, reading this cold on paper that probably sounds excruciatingly self-indulgent, but if you’re a fan who’ve followed this band through thick and thin and have only ever mentioned themselves in two songs before (‘Seymour Stein’ and ‘Belle and Sebastian’ itself) then this is a moving moment indeed. I could have done without the irritating panpipes and I’d have loved for the melody of this song to have been as inventive and melodic as the words, but this is still a terribly strong song and as a fan you have to answer, yes Sebastian, you truly did do your best and we’re oh so grateful you did. Play this song back to back with the idealistic ‘Belle and Sebastian’ track from the ‘Push The Barman’ EP collection and it’s hard not to shed a tear, the early beginning to the pair’s relationship, which seems to end here.
From here on in the record sinks to the level of the opening pair of songs. ‘I Can See Your Future’ is Sarah Martin’s other song on the album and its only marginally better than her first. Mick Cooke’s trumpet section bleat as loudly as ever, the guitars chime nicely and the lyrics are intriguing, if a bit impenetrable. Alas, though, the melody of this song seems only the minutest about of DNA apart from 2002’s ‘Storyteller’ song (from the film soundtrack of the same name) with an a capella/string section in the middle which rates as the lowest point of the whole record, having lost the tune, any momentum the song has built up and any interest there has been in the lyrics. Lyrically this is another song about the past, with the narrator seeing an old friend and trying to remember how their friendship started and the overwhelming feeling she felt the first time she realised that she was not alone in the world and that other people were as lost and directionless as she was. I’m tempted after the last track to see this as Sarah’s reaction to Stuart’s song and her memories of joining the band, but that may well be an interpretation too far and its simply a quirk of the record that the two songs are here together. However, her rejoinders to her partner ‘don’t leave me behind’ do sound like a band being abandoned for a solo record?!...Whatever the message behind the song, its one of those tracks that kind of 50/50 works really well and 50/50 doesn’t work at all. The melody is nothing special, the string section is excruciating and the backing is right back in a 1980s groove I could have done without. But some of these lyrics are clever and Sarah’s delivery of them is as great as ever – I keep going on about Murdoch’s wise-beyond-his-time presence on these records but Sarah is the unsung heroine of the band, the perfect poppier foil to Murdoch’s more wistful songs.
Final song ‘Sunday’s Pretty Icons’ is a curious place to end the album – the three vocalists are all singing out of their normal range which gives this song quite a sinister feel and the lyrics deal with a search for perfection which the narrator(s) know they will never achieve. This song is similar in feel to Badfinger’s song ‘Perfection’ and are similarly pessimistic in their acknowledgement that even their best ideas will come to naught. Alas, Murdoch has already come up with possibly the best song on that theme with ‘If She Wants Me’, a track from 2005’s ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’, which has the sensible coda that, on reflection, the narrator would rather give up trying and spend his time playing with his best friend instead. Alas, there’s no such twist in the tale on this rather pedestrian and uninvolving track, which ends the song on a bed of 1980s synths and a curious fade which seems to come from nowhere, in the middle of a keyboard solo. Like much of the album, it’s infuriating because there is a good song lying at the bottom of this sea of noise, having read the lyric sheet, with classic lines about passing time like ‘whiskey from the year you were born tastes like kidnap and ransom and exile’, your memories of how you wanted to be in the future a prison because of what you are today. ‘Sunday’ isn’t really an enjoyable song, admirable though the lyrics are, and it leaves a curious taste in the mouth once the album has ended. We’re used to curious goodbyes from Belle and Sebastian, from Judy’s dream about wild horses through to a whole song based on the ‘Mornington Crescent’ game from the radio four comedy ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’, but never has there been one as uninvolving and cold as this one.
So that’s that. A pretty bad record overall, then, but with two or three truly delightful moments that still give me hope for the future of this much-loved band, if only they can ditch the synthesisers, and I still miss the ramshackle Belle and Sebastian of old even if their new direction does, at times, flower into something wondrous. Individual moments are as strong as ever – and Murdoch’s songwriting hasn’t been this revealing about his relationships for a long time – but there’s also something tired about this album, which is surprising for a band that’s been four years away (and unlike Dire Straits or Pink Floyd who always do take a long time between albums, B and S were making a record every 10 months at one stage and this is double the gap of any we’ve had before now). For all our insights within the lyrics, perhaps the most revealing thing of all is Murdoch’s sleevenotes where he admits that returning to the studio ‘is not what I want to do, but what I have to do’ – his first solo album of 2009 didn’t hang around long enough for even me to pick up a copy so was this band album simply a substitute for a Murdoch album that didn’t make it? The revealingness of the lyrics suggests it and yet if anything there are too many band performances on this record, without the humble simplicity of Murdoch on his own for a song or two as before. Jackson and Martin also sound strangely muted, as if their contributions have been added at the last minute even though their songs have been the highlights of the last couple of B and S records, by and large. It’s worth emphasising again, though, that this record really isn’t all that bad on its own terms and at least there are tracks that stand out amongst the crowd this time around, unlike 2006’s ‘Life Pursuit’ which sounded pretty much all the same. But perhaps next time – if there is a next time – Belle and Sebastian should stop writing about love and getting back to what they do best – intelligent, thoughtful songs played with a poetic passion and an observant eye that makes even their humblest of characters sound like a hero in waiting.