Monday, 8 September 2014
Belle and Sebastian "The Life Pursuit" (2006)
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Belle and Sebastian "The Life Pursuit" (2006)
Act Of The Apostle/Another Sunny Day/White Collar Boy/The Blues Are Still Blue/Dress Up In You/Sukie In The Graveyard/We Are The Sleepyheads/Song For Sunshine/Funny Little Frog/To Be Myself Completely/Act Of The Apostle II/For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea/Mornington Crescent
I have an interesting problem with this review, dear readers. You see, if you're a long-term Belle and Sebastian fan like me then 'The Life Pursuit' is all our worst nightmares coming true: the band that liked to say no to everyone who promised to turn them into stars has finally said 'yes' and so this is a watered down version of everything from the previous decade, with nothing here to match the brilliance of earlier years. And yet someone clearly liked this LP and attendant singles (The album charted at #8 and the single 'Funny Little Frog' charted at #13 in the UK, which if you've come to this record from the word-of-mouth early years when nothing charted or was expected to is the equivalent of Carlisle United coming 8th in the premier league, Marussia winning a grand prix or - desperate search on google for an American analogy later - the Arizona Cardinals winning the American Football NFL League). Given what a best-kept secret Belle and Sebastian are, were and will always be and how many copies this much publicised album sold this is the 'first' album for more fans than any other 'band' record and regarded rather fondly. To more modern fans this slightly impersonal, commercial synthesiser-flavoured sound is the default B and S sound and all those years with pianos and guitars and weedy voices were that were simply because the band couldn't afford any decent equipment yet, not because they decided to sound like everyone else. Of course 'The Life Pursuit' was well loved - it's a tremendously well recorded, well written and well performed album and to anyone who hadn't been lucky enough to experience Stuart Murdoch's songwriting genius at its best then it's still more inventive, more emotional, deeper and more intelligent album than almost anything else around in 2006 (as so often with the more modern records on this site, only Oasis can compare). Unfortunately, for old fans it has the effect of getting a freezing cold shower when you're expecting to languish in a nice warm bath. Admittedly cold showers are enjoyed by many and may well be better for you (many of the best AAA albums on our site are similar 'shocks to the system') but isn't really an experience you want to go back to in a hurry when you can just as easily listen to 'Tigermilk' all over again. As good an album as 'The Life Pursuit' is, as rewarding as it is on repeat playings when you've got used to the sudden switch in tone and style and feel, as tight and polished as the band performances are, it's not that good a Belle and Sebastian record in the sense that it doesn't offer much you can't get from elsewhere.
To be fair, that was probably the point. Belle and Sebastian never made that much money from the group (the B and S' website's question-and-answer section features a worrying aside about the band going in debt or considering taking out day-jobs to stay afloat) and with the loss of Isobel Campbell (to a solo career) and tiny record label Jeepster (to financial difficulties) this record and last were as good a time as any for re-invention. In the short-term the idea was successful too: by sounding vaguely like everything else around in 2006 with retro twinges rather than something that sounded vaguely like something from 1966 with contemporary twinges Belle and Sebastian got themselves a whole new audience who loved them. The band even started appearing on TV shows (losing their anonymity along the way), started doing the sort of things 'big' stars did (like performing the 'entire' second album 'If You're Feeling Sinister' which was most critics' favourite in concert) and went comparatively mainstream (well, they re-launched their website, which by B and S standards is the equivalent of appearing on the David Letterman show every week for a year). The band always had the potential to go mainstream and turn into a household name: Warner Brothers co-boss Seymour Stein knew that when he'd flown all the way from America to Glasgow to try to poach the band in the late 1990s. We said in our review of 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' album (which features a song based on that very incident) that the band were brave to say no and that no one else would have been tough enough to have turned down that big an offer with so much money attached to it. I'm still not sure whether the band turning about face some eight years later is a sacrilege of the highest proportion or an even braver thing to have done. In truth, it's probably both: no band can carry on the same way forever and B and S stayed as close and impersonal to their fans for as long as they possibly could (the jury is still out on whether any of this would have happened had Campbell stayed put during a frosty tour for soundtrack album 'Storytelling', the first album not to sound like traditional B and S), but hearing them turn their back even slightly on what they used to be is like an old friend you grew up with suddenly going to bed early and spending time with the kids rather than you: it's good for them, it makes perfect sense and you'd most likely do the same thing in their shoes, but it still hurts slightly that the band you thought were 'yours' and were never going to change is suddenly the property of much wider, impersonal world. We all have to grow up in our pursuit of life, but because Belle and Sebastian had the life we wanted to pursue (and secretly thought we could have) the end of that dream is somehow sadder than if the band had simply folded and called it a day.
In short this is the album we imagined 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' was going to be when we heard major producer Trevor Horn was getting involved (it is, in fact, a continuation of closing number 'Stay Loose' with its production trickery and cold-hearted feel than the earlier 11 songs). Now that we're a few years down the line it appears that 'Waitress' was the band's one last return to the paths they used to tread before they knew they couldn't do that anymore and even that album sounded like a fading memory of a distant past rather than a teenage-hood being lived in scary monochrome detail in front of our ears. Without the love story between Stuart 'Sebastian' Murdoch and Iso'Belle' Campbell which used to be the focal point of B and S, however couched that was in lyrics and disguised by characters, 'The Life Pursuit' is very much an attempt to go somewhere new without throwing away everything about the old B and S sound. Sadly, though, what comes over most about this record isn't the poetic lyrics or the emotional power of Murdoch's writing (with help from Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin) but the oddball wackiness. Whereas all of us at least knew of (and many identified with) the school rebel thrown out of lessons for 'wanting to be remembered for your art' and you can just about still identify with the 'dear catastrophe waitress' filling in time until, the job they really want comes along, it's hard to get excited by the character who gets his washing mixed up in a launderette (who still goes to launderettes anyway?!), the office worker who has a lapse one day and finds himself chained to a sex-bomb all out rebel while on community service (fat chance - statistically most people doing community service seem to be politicians these days 'getting out' of a prison sentence) or the character who uses the put down 'you're a funny little frog' (the band weren't to know but the fact that the release of this album happened to co-incide with the mass lack of public taste that was 'Crazy Frog' didn't help matters one bit). The fact that it's this album that has a song named after someone else's piece of inventive whimsy that they might know ('Mornington Crescent', a made-up rule-less lawless variation on 'Monopoly' heard in Radio 4's 'anti-dote to panel games' 'I'm Sorry I haven't A Clue') rather than one of their own speaks volumes.
The band might have gotten away with it had they stuck with their normal sound, but fan and producer Tony Hoffer (best known for his work with Beck) has decided to give the band a very impersonal, professional feel which is kind of like what Trevor Horn did for the band on the last album but sadly without quite managing to keep any of the usual ramshackle charm. Interestingly Hoffer was enough of a band to approach them, so he clearly had a 'particular' sound for the band in mind and to be fair had Belle and Sebastian never made an earlier record it would have been fine: musically this is the tightest, best drilled the band had ever been - particularly the rhythm section of Richard Colburn and Bobby Kildea. The synthesisers which have been peeping behind the folk-rock of the first few albums finally gets the chance to take centre stage and while oldy fans like me spend their time longing for guitar breaks and piano I have to say that B and S use synths better than most bands do: instead of replacing the band sound it acts as the cold, hard, unbreakable unfathomable 'system' that many of the album's characters bang their head against whilst making the occasional warm moments and 'victories' (such as the second 'Act Of The Apostles' when a transistor radio finally drowns out the world or when 'White Collar Boy' discovers how fun it is to break the law) sound all the warmer. Better yet the more polished harmonies really work across this album; ever since Isobel left the ratio of vocals between Stuart, Stevie and Sarah has been coming together nicely and the band never had or will have a blend this good: the sudden rush of vocals on 'Song For Sunshine' is pure Beach Boys whole the slight switch compared to usual (Stevie singing high and Stuart comparatively low) works nicely on 'The Blues Are Still Blue'. So why do I still find it so difficult to listen to this record?
Usually when musicians finally get it together after a nicely amateurish period (Wings' 'Band On The Run', the Grateful Dead's 'American Beauty', the Stones' 'Beggar Banquet') we're praising them to the hilt - and had this record been a one-off experiment no doubt we'd be praising that too. But unlike all the bands we follow on this site with the possible exception of the Dead, the whole point of B and S were the ragged edges; while every other band played loose and funky because they didn't yet know each other well enough to play tight and polished Belle and Sebastian have always been about the 'everyman'; they still spend most of their concerts inviting the audience up on stage a la The Plastic Ono Band, as if saying that 'we were like you once - and one day you could be us - but there's no real difference anyway, really'. Somehow by tightening up the sound that feeling of excitement that no one is quite in control of what is happening has been replaced by the feeling that 'the system' has won - that B and S now sound loosely the same as everyone else, albeit still funnier and more intelligent. It speaks volumes to me that two songs that stands out on first listening: 'Another Sunny Day', and 'Dress Up In You', two recordings that have no synths, a piano centre stage and even a pleasing trumpet solo from Mick Cooke (who sadly gets very little to do on this record). Not co-incidentally these two returns to the 'old' B and S sound deal with the 'old' B and S theme of the Murdoch-Campbell relationship - a bitter response to the increasingly catty lyrics Campbell has been passing Murdoch's way in her solo albums that, like 'You Make Me Forget My Dream's, are actually really nasty and tough-as-nails song dressed up to sound pretty and vulnerable.
My theory about why 'The Life Pursuit' ended up the way it did isn't simply because a new and commercially-minded producer got involved. Murdoch's songs in the past tended to centre on some sort of variation of himself and Campbell (i.e. nervy, reckless and gaffe-prone but sincere and lovable boys wondering why strong, rebellious, tough girls with a secretly needy streak spent their time with humble them) and so always sounded sincere and 'firsthand' when put into music. Murdoch doesn't play much of a role in 'Storytelling' (leaving Stevie and Sarah to take the lead) and manages to get through 'Waitress' by using up his last batch of 'Campbell' centred songs with a couple of songs that veer on parody of the 'old' sound (but with just enough heart to get away with it; for example see 'Lord Anthony' about a bullied messed up gay teen, which is just close enough to B and S territory to work and yet is also the sort of thing another band might conceivably might write; 'Lazy Line Painter Jane', on the other hand, about a girl wondering how to get an abortion and running amok Minnie the Minx style is a song no other band would have ever have dreamt up and/or observed so spot on). 'The Life Pursuit' is the most impersonal sounding Belle and Sebastian album because it features the most impersonal set of Murdoch songs for the band yet. Almost everyone on this album is a fictional 'character' (with the exception of 'Dress Up In You', which is the bitter song of betrayal 'I'm Waking Up To Us' part two) - by contrast every other B and S album (even the similar 'Write About Love' to come) has some sort of link to the heart rather than the head (thankfully Stuart is in love again by 2010 and has been able to place the Campbell years in context, which bodes well for the next B and S album; his future wife Marisa Privitera is the model on the right on the 'Life Pursuit' album sleeve). The cold impersonal synthesisers and rattling percussion used here seem almost like a smokescreen to draw our attention away from the lyrics (great as the vocals are across this album they're all mixed curiously low, but unlike similar effects on - say - 'Tigermilk' where this makes the listener metaphorically 'lean in' to hear what's going on the blaring synths make us lean away). As we've already said, a lot of fans who didn't know what came before like this - it is the 'default' sound for pretty much any band who started since around 1980 - and Murdoch's lyrics are still as clever as ever. It's just that there isn't that same level of emotional attachment as in the days of old and the backing somehow makes everything sound trivial and shallower as a result.
Intriguingly two of these songs were re-cut by the band in 2012 as part of the 'God Help The Girl' troupe (which is basically three female singers being backed by the band), suggesting that they really were written for 'characters' rather than B and S. Both 'Funny Little Frog' and 'Act Of The Apostle I' sound much more B and S style on that later record than they do when sung by the band and that project actually sounds more like what old fans might have been 'expecting' all round. Frog', particularly, sounds like Kasabian or Keane when done by the band and more like Norah Jones when done by 'God Help The Girl', complete with the strings conspicuously absent from the entire 'Life Pursuit' album. (To 'be themselves completely' B and S had to give their songs over to genuine teenage girls to sing Murdoch's words somehow seem to have more in common than with his increasingly middle-aged band. B and S are now at the 15 year age when other AAA bands had similar difficulties such as The Who spending entire concept albums in reply to their earlier taunt 'hope I die before I get old', The Rolling Stones raiding the vaults and their offspring's record collections to sound 'younger' on 'Some Girls' and The Kinks getting an all-girl troupe and acting out rock operas. In retrospect, hiring a younger bunch of singers and backing them might be about the best solution to the problem of aging any of our 30 AAA bands have yet come up with. The -regeneration' as a 'teenage band' is a particularly apt one for this of all bands. In case anyone missed the point in earlier reviews the fact that Murdoch became ill with me and confined to bed for seven years in his late teens probably had a lot to do with 'locking' him into this part in his life when his contemporaries were growing up, getting families and jobs and treating their teenage years as treasured memories; as a fellow sufferer I've certainly found that your past seems that much nearer when you have no future and not much of a present). It's almost as if the band have to 'act their age' in their present but can return to the past as often as they like with musicians the same age as most of their 'characters'.
While I'm still in this territory, the 'theme' of this album seems to be of a good thing gone bad. Assuming for the moment that these characters are still various everyman 'Belles' and 'Sebastians' its notable how many of them are jolted out of their comfortable lives by something unpredictable and devastating. Stationary-nicker 'White Collar Boy' (the most relentlessly 'modern' B and S song yet) is thrown into a world far from his understanding when he gets handcuffed to a female criminal who would 'kill you with a look', finding his pretty suit and neat hair getting ruffled up as they first escape and then bet up a policeman to get away. Interestingly, the narrator - usually sympathetic and understanding in these sorts of situations, eggs him on demanding 'she's a Venus in flares - why'd you want to split hairs?!' 'Another Sunny Day' is anything but - it's the day when the narrator knows, even if he doesn't act on it, that he is no longer in love - that he doesn't feel the same thing for his partner he used to when walking through old haunts, that 'a lie has crumbled apart'. The narrator of the two 'Acts Of The Apostles' is a teenager still at school, but one who has to grow up quickly, jarringly, telling us a stream of consciousness tale of mundane events happening in her life with the between-the-words writing that things are about to change, that her mother is dying and that most likely her days living where she is are numbered. Even by the end of the second part the narrator hasn't got used to the fact yet; so much so you half expect to hear a 'part 3' 'part 4' or 'part 5' hidden away at the end as a 'bonus track' in the same way the early B and S EPs tended to end with some unlisted extra. Even 'Sukie In The Graveyard' - the one character who sounds as if she comes from the same universe as earlier B and S songs about misunderstood rebels - grows up way too quickly for a B and S song, starting the song as a schoolgirl but ending up an adult in a lonely flat that somehow seems colder and damper than the graveyard backdrop of her wayward teenage years and having an affair with a married man which is never reciprocated. Looking at these lyrics back to back with those on 'Tigermilk' and 'Sinister' shows one major difference between 'then' and now'. The old days were more painful, with more confusion and more distractions but at least the characters were young enough to experience 'hope' as their primary feeling, with the narrator urging each of them to keep going because the next corner could hold the solution to all their problems. The 'new' days date from a time when the characters (or at least, perhaps, the writer) has already enjoyed everything he could dream of and more but finds that time in paradise has grown stale after spending so long searching for it and can no longer experience 'hope' the same way - because at best he'll simply end up back where he's already been once. The narrators in these songs almost sound like they're laughing at the poor pathetic characters who still long for life to be 'better' - the narrator has experienced 'better' already and would rather have the thrill of the 'pursuit', of the thought that life can be better just around the corner rather than recently in the past.
Overall, then, 'The Life Pursuit' doesn't come with a recommendation the same way that all other Belle and Sebastian albums come with our whole-hearted recommendation. The whole texture of this album seems 'off' somehow and the fact that so many of the songs seem cold-hearted and designed to keep the listener 'out' makes 'The Life Pursuit' the least cosy and least lovable of all of B and S' albums to date. However that's not to say it's a bad album, just an unusual one, as there are several touches of genius dropped casually across this record: the lyrics to 'Act Of The Apostle' are the closest yet to a short story rather than a song with Murdoch's typical observation for detail and straightforward depiction of a character going through a time in their life that's anything but straightforward; 'White Collar Boy' is a pretty good attempt at funk with a catchy chorus and an impressively 'tough' backing; 'The Blues Are Still Blue' is a laugh-out-loud funny (the first time, anyway) song that uses the metaphor of dirty laundry for all sorts of things; 'Dress Up In You' features a melody as rounded and gorgeous as any in Murdoch's long long list of rounded and gorgeous songs; 'Song For Sunshine' features a truly remarkable vocal work, with B and S using their harmonies to punctuate the backing instead of simply going along with it; 'Funny Little Frog' is a funny little song that no one else could possibly have made; 'To Be Myself Completely' is one of Stevie's loveliest songs and 'Mornington Crescent' a neat attempt at setting poetry to a laidback blues. All of these songs have something about them to recommend and of the others nothing here is truly bad. And yet none of these songs quite manages to get it together for a full song/recording: this consistency is the one thing that's been holding B and S back from the beginning (even the otherwise-perfect 'Tigermilk' contained the unremarkable 'Electric Renaissance') and yet now that they've cracked it the band seem to have lost all the 'excitement' from their records too. With the exception of 'Dress Up In You' there's a feeling that all the surprises have gone: that you know exactly where the next song is going to go because the last song kind of went there too. The fact that the two songs most fans of this album talk about are the two big singles which happen to be the two silliest novelty songs B and S ever made simply reinforces what a characterless album 'The Life Pursuit' is by B and S standards. Calling this the nadir of Belle and Sebastian's catalogue seems harsh: there's only eight records after all and even though the others are all better this isn't terrible by any means. Let's just call it an experiment that half-worked (bringing in lots of new fans, while making lots of older ones scratch their heads in confusion) and leave it at that. Or, to quote a line from 'White Collar Boy', 'Baby you're special - but you know you're not quite right'.
'Act Of The Apostle I' is probably my favourite track on the album s its the one that best mixes the B and S sounds of old and new. Stuart Murdoch has made no secret of the role Christianity plays in his life (he and Richard lived above a church and worked as its caretakers during the band's early years) but that theme rarely comes out in his songs. When the track listing for this album was first published fans assumed from the title that this would be Murdoch's first 'religious' song - but no, it's a typically Murdoch tale of a lost and confused girl trying to make sense of her life while a religious studies teacher lectures in the background. Late for class and unable to take it in anyway, she falls asleep at her desk, dreaming of the Bible reading from 'The Act Of The Apostles' (the one where Simon, Peter and Paul discuss Jesus' resurrection after the fact) and imagining them as 'those crazy hippies' before singing 'Morning Has Broken' in the school choir in a croaky voice that 'slows everybody down'. The 'real' heart of the song beats in verse three where the choir master ('Usually a bastard') knows that 'her mother's sick' and 'lets her off': suddenly the backdrop of Bible stories of miracles and resurrections makes sense - her teacher couldn't have chosen a worse topic for her and instead of setting her free or soothing the un-named girl all the talk of religion and spirituality rings hollow because there are no miracles in her life - only in a story. The key line of this song is the bitter chorus 'Oh if I could make sense of it all!' and Murdoch and co cleverly replicate this feeling with the backing, which is unusually rhythm heavy for B and S and may well be drummer Richard Colburn's finest hour with the band, the clatter of heavy percussion see-sawing his way and that reflecting the schoolgirls' confused state of mind. The vocals are exquisite too: Murdoch excels at playing these sort of mixed up teenagers and his vocal is the best on the album, the sound of a trapped animal that doesn't know where to run. The harmonies behind him from Stevie and Sarah are also spot on, hinting at the religious fervour going on in the bible class but slightly removed and from a distance, as if it's something that happens to somebody else. The sheer change in sound and style is a shock to anyone whose come to this album in the correct order and takes some getting into, but the two 'Acts Of The Apostles' on this album are the two songs on this album worth making the effort for, the recordings where the slightly impersonal, hazy quality only adds to the sense of incomprehension and doom in the song's clever lyrics.
'Another Sunny Day' is a slightly more familiar sounding song with piano and guitar back centre-stage that, like many Murdoch songs of late, is a tale of love gone wrong (Isobel's split four years before is clearly still affecting him). Most 'Isobel' songs tend to be snapshots of nothing events in the pair's lives - this song is a memory of those random events, with the backdrop of each one changing between 'sunny' and 'rainy' with each verse (the hint being that this should have been a relationship built to last, able to weather all storms). Most of the lyrics are typically weird and about as unlikely for song lyrics as any in Murdoch's canon ('I heard the eskimos removed obstructions with tongues, dear') but again the truth of the song is 'hidden' away in the final verse. 'The lovin' is a mess, what happened to all the feeling? I thought it was for real - babies, rings and kneeling' sings a hurt Murdoch, shocked that his dreams haven't come true. We even get the most bitter lines yet about the pair's split: 'It was a lie - it crumbled apart', the narrator ending by finding himself haunted not only by 'ghosts of past' but 'present and future', imagining not only memories of what was but hopes of what might have been. That's a great premise for a song and in the context of ten decidedly non B and S sounding songs it's nice to hear, but somehow 'Another Sunny Day' never quite takes off. The melody isn't one of Murdoch's best and while Stevie's overdubbed collection of guitars is fun (there's even a boom-chicka Johnny Cash lilt to the solo) the backing sounds weedy and thin even by B and S' old standards. The vocals are also ducked ridiculously low so that you can't really make them out without the lyric sheet: perhaps that's the idea, with Murdoch reluctant to face facts that the lyric is true but equally unable not to write from the heart after so many years of being open and honest across at least the first four B and S albums. Still, another strong song overall, with the best songs on this album noticeably weighted towards the beginning and end.
'White Collar Boy' (a British term for 'professional office worker' even though most of them don't worry collars these days), however, is a step too far into the unknown. With a similar parping-frog synthesiser backing to 'Stay Loose' from the last album and a vocal best described as deranged, 'White Collar Boy' is a decidedly more 'grown up' song and character than most B and S creations. The un-named title character even has a job - which is a first for Murdoch's student-heavy creations - but isn't very good at it, getting sentenced to community service for the heinous crime of nicking stationary. Murdoch's imagination seems to get carried away next: as far as I know no one doing community service gets hand-cuffed and certainly not to pretty teenager tearaways and the result of the boy's downfall (sung to the descending motif 'You fell! You fell! You fell!' sung with what almost sounds like a cackle) seems more like something outrageous with 1950s twinges 10cc would write than the carefully observed songs of the B and S creator. Murdoch sticks in enough clever rhyming couplets ('You're banging rocks at the old city docks!' 'She belted the sarge and jumped on a barge'!) to show that he has a real knack for writing these kind of cartoon-strip songs and in some parallel universe is doing well as 10cc's fifth member. However there's not enough of the B and S traits to help us navigate all this: the synth heavy sound is unlike all but one song from B and S' past, Murdoch's strangulated vocal is truly unique and the quickstepping lyrics are far removed from the laidback poetry of normal. What's even more odd after studying the lyrics (relatively) properly is the fact that the white collar boy gets no resolution or understanding from his predicament - something that practically every other Murdoch character receives at the end, even if it's only in something the narrator says to us about their future. Instead Murdoch seems to be delighting in his character's ruffled social standing and appearance ('White collar boy you get dirt in your pants, you got egg in your hair, you got spit on your chin'). It's worth noting, too, that this is the first time a B and S male character experiences life with a tough, feisty heroine and comes off decidedly worse with no chance of understanding or forgiveness (again there might well be something of Isobel Campbell in this song, although if that's the case then it's odd that Murdoch's latest 'Sebastian' character is a white collar boy of some repute and falling hard, rather than another mixed up student with a troubled background). The result is a good idea that's taken a bit too far, with at least one too many unusual things here for fans to adjust to. Released as the third single from the album 'White Collar Boy' peaked at a lowly #45 - the band's lowest since 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' nine years earlier and perhaps a sign that even fans who loved this 'new' sound didn't quite know what to make of this song, which starts off as a joke and ends on a surprisingly note, the not-much-of-a-criminal-really being dragged along to his doom with no articulated cry except the rather lame chorus 'you're a pain, a pain, a pain, a pain!' The hint is that the white collar boy deserves his fall, which flies in the face of everything Murdoch's big heart has offered to fans till now.
'The Blues Are Still Blue' is equally odd but somehow more palatable and reached a respectable #25 in the UK singles chart. The synths are relegated to the solo break this time but the backing is noticeably heavier and punchier than usual, with some criss-crossing guitars and Murdoch's double-tracked vocals again sounding like a tough guy rather than B and S' usually likeable nerd. The character in the song is the usual kind of B and S creation ('He dances in secret, he's a part-time punk...shop lifting, just drifting') but this time around the narrator sound omniscient, removed from the scene and commenting on events with a chuckle rather than crying big tears over the dead ends and hopelessness of growing up. The part of the song that everyone remembers is the latest tragedy in the young lad's life: no matter how he sorts his washing down at the launderettes everything will swap colours except his blue-coloured clothes (which colour everything). For those who don't want to hear songs about laundry, you could also see this as a clever metaphor for the boy's conflicting emotions and the idea that no matter his emotions feeling 'blue' is the one that outweighs them all, although Murdoch doesn't exactly go out of his way to emphasis this over the course of the song. The backing is the most 1950s yet, charging along with a real Chuck Berry style drive (most B and S songs tend to sound mid-1960s rather than 1950s, so this is also a change) and another great fiery guitar solo from Jackson who also adds some clever harmony work along with Sarah. The catchiest song on the album by some margin, you can see why this song did so well as a single, but it undoubtedly worked better as a one-off cheery song heard on the radio rather than in the context of this album where it doesn't feel like it quite fits; a clever catchy delightfully silly novelty song, but a novelty song nonetheless in contrast to B and S' usual depth.
'Dress Up In You' is the most recognisably B and S song here and features one of those oh so gorgeous Murdoch melodies conspicuous by their absence on the rest of this album. Murdoch even plays the simple piano riff like the days of old and sings in his 'old' vulnerable voice. The musical highlight is the long awaited return of Mick Cooke on the trumpet, whose solo is one of his best - tender and sincere, filled with longing and heartbreak. To date its the last return to this style, possibly because its the ultimate 'goodbye' song to the 'first' B and S era and characters. This latest song about the years with Isobel is deeply personal and cuts a layer deeper than anything else on this album: it even starts with the line 'I'm the singer in a band' just to make sure we know it's about 'him; rather than a character. However this is a surprisingly bitter set of lyrics even for the end of a relationship - while understandable, it's uncomfortable for fans who've lived through the 'good years' to hear one of the 20th century's greatest muses reduced to the put-down: 'You got lucky, you ain't' talking to me now, little miss Plucky'. Murdoch even turns on his old partner's acting conceits (as seen in many B and S videos) by saying 'you couldn't act your way out of a paper bag!' which seems a bit harsh (Campbell is a good actress) but then these songs shouldn't be taken literally - this is more a big bag of unprocessed hurt and lashing out than a carefully constructed song. Murdoch often writes about heartbreak but the lines in the middle of this song are some of his most moving yet: 'We had a deal there, we nearly signed it with our blood' he sings, wounded, before adding 'I thought that you would keep your word, I'm disappointed, aggravated'. Only the line 'I always loved you - you had a lot of style' comes anywhere close to recognising just how important both halves of the story were for each other - and even this seems a backward compliment (there was way more to Campbell than mere 'style' as listening to almost any earlier B and S song will tell you). Reduced to swearing to get his point across, he talks about how 'shocked; everyone is at his normally placid self using such language before adding 'they're hypocrites - so fuck them too!', a line that couldn't sound more wrong when heard against such a gorgeous melody line. Like many of Murdoch's finest songs it's a real lesson in contrasts, with one of his most beautiful melodies attached to his bitterest set of lyrics (see EP track 'You Make Me Forget My Dreams', a song of cold blooded murder accompanied by one of the loveliest melodies ever written). However this song is so bitter and nasty that even a melody that pretty can't dilute this song enough to taste: while I fully understand where this song was coming from (Campbell wasn't exactly shy in coming forward with her own opinions of Murdoch on the two 'Gentle Waves' albums released before this) this isn't some distant relationship we fans never involved with - it was played out before our eyes and ears, almost always with love, across a ten year period and it's so sad to hear it end this way. Returning to the old sound one last time in order to bid a less than fond farewell is a mighty clever idea on paper - but on record it somehow makes it worse, like two of your favourite people falling out and disappearing from your life forever, with the listener trapped in the middle wondering where on earth something so right could have gone so wrong.
'Sukie In The Graveyard' is perhaps the album's weakest song. Pretty much all of Murdoch's characters have had emotional problems but describing a full-blown goth who likes hanging around spooky places seems like too obvious a step somehow. Like Lisa before her, the only thing Sukie likes about school is art and the fact that she can express all those feelings never understood by anyone else but the song turns ugly after her parents kick her out of her childhood home and she ends up 'in a bijou flat with the fraternity cat', reduced to modelling nude for art classes and leaning against the wall of the college canteen for warmth (modelling and art have appeared in so many Murdoch songs to date that you wonder if Campbell experienced these things for real). Like most of this album, though, this time there's no happy ending and indeed no 'hope': Sukie ends it as trapped as she ever was, described as a 'kid' but coping with very adult feelings of loneliness, despair and controlling boys for sex (again a rather less than innocent take on the sort of character who always used to be praised in previous Murdoch songs). Again the key line of the song is hidden at the end: 'The shadows played tricks on the girl in the dark' - with the narrator not necessarily on Sukie's side as per usual and almost dismissing her out of hand for trying too hard to cause trouble and want attention (compare with the likes of similar songs 'Expectations' and 'She's Losing It' and the differences are huge: Sukie has caused her own unhappiness, rather than having it created for her by misunderstanding mean-spirited others). Changing the progression in the song we all expect is a clever idea - and yet it doesn't really work. The synth and drum heavy backing isn't just a new backdrop but simply a noise, without any of the subtleties of old and Murdoch's latest deranged vocal suits him even less than 'White Collar Boy'. A song with this many lines and clever rhymes needs to be heard properly, but instead everything is garbled, as if to get it out the way and dismiss 'Sukie' (and by relation all Murdoch's similarly lost teenage characters) out of hand. She deserved better and an earlier, happier Murdoch would have given that to her.
'We Are The Sleepyheads' is a slight improvement and if I've got my interpretation right (caveat: I might not) might well be the most revealing song on the album. We've already mentioned that Murdoch 'became' a songwriter after being trapped to bed for seven years, with the world passing by outside a room he could never leave. With this song he seems to be returning to the scene, his meeting with Campbell and his early experiences with Belle and Sebastian. 'Tired like the beggar with the cold in his bones' is a spot-on analogy of me/chronic fatigue syndrome, while the next line 'looking for the pleasure that was so far gone' is a pretty fitting analogy of the mental aspect of loneliness and alienation that comes with the illness. Without Campbell in his life and the whole point of Belle and Sebastian seemingly over unless they can re-invent themselves, Murdoch must have been naturally reminded of this other dark period in his life. As a result this is another bittersweet song, reflecting on happier times discussing the bible over 'tea and gin' and the solidarity of being 'in a town so long you may as well be dead'. However this nice idea for a song never quite takes off: there's a curious 'badapbadappabadappabadappabadun' scat vocal ' from Sarah that keeps cropping up throughout and disrupting the song, while the backing is one of the loopiest on the album: drummer Richard sounds as if he's suffering from ADHD and Stevie's guitar solo is caught somewhere between prog rock and punk - the sort of full, heavy sound David Gilmour gets on his guitar, but played in short stabbing blasts like the Sex Pistols. The result is a song that yet again seems to be forever mis-directing us, with all that 'ta-daah!' production getting in the way of what should by rights have been another typically sweet understated B and S song about observation and human relationships. A missed opportunity.
'Song For Sunshine' is one of the album highlights, though, another song where the production actually works for rather than against the song. Stevie and Stuart sing in tandem throughout - something I wish they would do more of, they have such a strong blend - with Sarah joining in for the choruses. While musically the song is still dominated by drums 'n' synths this fits for once, on a song where the verses are as despondent as anything Murdoch has ever written ('Honeyed sweet apples, they're rotting away!' is the opening line) but the choruses (with those harmonies accompanied by 'old style' B and S piano) really does sound like the sun coming out to wash all that impersonal cold world away. The weather is often a part of B and S songs, but usually as an extra detail that often sits at odds to the actual song content (perhaps because it's always raining in Glasgow whether happy or sad - only Carlisle can compete in terms of daily rainfall). This is, to date, the only time the weather is the whole point of a Murdoch song: that no matter how hopeless life seems the sun can shine out of nowhere (although the chorus adds another layer of meaning on top: 'Sunshine, we all see the same sky, looking, learning, asking the same why' - hinting that the figure 'Belle' has been replaced by any curious B and S fan and maybe even Stuart's future wife Marisa, who I'll try and resist from calling 'Belle II' because we're in danger of making something great sound like a bad Disney sequel). There's a terrific middle eight here - not something we've had on many songs on this album so far - one where 'The wheel of fortune spins, but the wheels on fire come crashing down on you', accompanied by a terrific counter melody that, despite the sad words, sounds like the verse melody sung in reverse, reaching up in hope for the sky rather than the ground. There might be less words here than on any of this album's other songs, but they say a lot and together with a catchy synthesiser part (which might well be Chris Geddes' greatest moment in the band) and some of the best harmony work of any B and S recording they make for the second (or is that third if the two Apostles are treated separately?) album highlight.
'Funny Little Frog' is the best known song on the album - Belle and Sebastian's only top 20 single to date, no less - and is certainly a more palatable mixture of the old and new B and S sounds than most tracks on this album. Murdoch sings 'straight' here without any of the tongue-in-cheek or sarcastic voices of some of this album (accompanied by another terrific Stevie Jackson harmony part) and is back to writing some great self-deprecating lines again ('You're my girl and you don't even know it, I am living out the life of a poet'). There's even a fan-pleasing reference back to the very B and S song that started it all along with the best lines yet about how B and S couldn't be further from your traditional rock stars ('My eyesight's fading, my ears are dim, I can't get insured for 'The State I Am In'). Best of all, the B and S love story seems to be back on the cards and is again a source of joy and confidence: 'Honey, loving you is the greatest thing - I get to be myself and I get to sing'. However the song slowly unravels again to the point where it becomes yet more Campbell-baiting: after the first verse's declaration of love the girl who is everything to the narrator is reduced to a 'funny little frog in the throat' that prevents him from singing and - in a shock revelation - in the last verse - doesn't exist in the 'real world' anyway ('You are the cover of my magazine', this revelation following lines about a 'one-sided conversation' and how 'I don't dare to think of you in a physical way'). Was this song started back in the 'old days' and finished post-split? (note the line about placing what we later find out is a magazine in front of a 'ghost that was there before you came'). Or is it a comment on how the only way Stuart can have her in his life is by staring at her picture on a magazine? (In this context the lines about getting older, going deaf and short-sighted while she peers back at him, younger glossier than she's ever looked, is inordinately sad, as if putting a wedge between them that can never be overcome). The result is a song that rather trips us up - the old B and S love story turned on his head to the point where it's a sad song about a narrator whose so heartbroken he's taken to inventing soul-mates to get through a bad time, the song ending on a sudden mournful shift to a minor key on the line 'Maybe I'll tell you about it someday...'. Still, I'd rather than a song that 'sounded' like the old B and S than some of the experiments on this album and if that means having a twist like this every song then so be it. Stuart Murdoch says on the B and S website's question and answers slot that he's 'gone off' this song - that's a shame because it's one of his best, certainly from this period and seems more like the direction B and S should have been going in than almost anything else here (instead next album 'Write About Love' is more like 'White Collar Boy', unfortunately). The fact that probably more people own a copy of this than any other B and S song (on both single and album) is a testament into how well this recording straddles the innocence and joy of the old band with the commercialism of the new. Funny Little Frog' is a funny little song but its well loved for a reason - it's catchy and heartfelt and yet still manages to be 'honest' about the 'love story' in the band even if that means a painful twist at the end. The only thing that doesn't quite work is the title phrase of a 'frog in the throat' which might have been better left as part of another song. Still, another album highlight.
'To Be Myself Completely' is the one song on the album not written by Stuart but by Stevie and is another of his charming 1960s pop concoctions. Like many a B and S lyric recently this is another difficult goodbye, with Stevie's narrator admitting that a full relationship should be based on honesty but that because of his character 'to be myself completely means I have to let you down'. There is a string part at long last and some more terrific harmony work (especially Stuart's counter-melody which winds itself round Jackson's, sometime singing with and sometime in competition with Jackson's own Beatley lead) which makes this song sound more like B and S than most things on the album. There's even a typically B and S postmodern dropping of the fourth wall, telling us that recently 'I toured the land, you could call it work if you count the band'. However like many of Jackson's songs there's something missing from this simple and straightforward song to make it 'great' rather than simply 'good' - at just one verse and one chorus (with a few repeats) this is more of a snack than a meal and - unusually for a song written by a guitarist - no space for an instrumental break or solo. Still, I wish all filler could be this pretty or be played this well.
'Act Of The Apostles II' sounds like it should be right at the end of the album, as a final 'goodbye' to B and S' usual characters. The song even starts with a cheeky quote from 'A Century Of Fakers' (a track on one of B and S' first EPs) before Murdoch picks up the tale of the confused teen with the dying parent whose bunked off school for a walk down a country lane she probably won't ever see again. Alas Murdoch decides to reinvent this song as a 'rat pack crooner' song which takes away a lot of the character and sympathy in the song. If only part II had been treated like part I because the lyrics are as strong as ever, clearly set after the first song with the troubled teen having set off on her own for the city. This time around she's been nominated for a prize she doesn't care about (she was only showing off her talent to get attention, not because she's interested), 'tunes out' her parents by turning up her headphones and longing to join a church choir like the one she used to know in her school days (she thinks she's found one but its only some workmen playing the radio). The song's best line: after going all that way to set off on her own and leave the world behind 'God was asleep, he was back in her village, in the fields' and not in the city she fled to to be alone after all. The only thing to link the two songs is the chorus ('Oh! If I could make sense of it all!') Like Act I, this track makes more sense if you see it as a separate play rather than as part of the album or the B and S story - as its use in the 'God Help The Girl' spin-off project makes clear, one that makes the link between religion and community even clearer and features the character truly growing up, reaching out to others for help and returning home rather than running away. It would have made a fine end to an album all about trying to grow up and do the decent thing, although it would have been better still if it had been treated in the same way rather than as a cod-crooning experience.
Instead there are two more tracks to go, including 'For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea'. This song sounds like an outtake from 'Catastrophe' - it has the same bright shiny pop chorus, mammoth production (with Sarah back on recorder at long last!) and not a lot else really. By Murdoch's standards this is a one-layered song, that gets dangerously close to Ray Davies' love songs for tea, explaining all the other things you could get for the same price that aren't anywhere near as good (although frankly the tea-shop is charging too much if their tea really does cost the same as a new 7" vinyl single or - alarmingly - a 'line of coke'. Of course, what it's really saying is that it's the conversation that takes place over the said tea that's invaluable and belatedly inspired the sympathetic Murdoch narrator of 'old' ('That was people that she knew, or thought that she did - go easy on the kid!') Murdoch's first novel/memoir/monologue/diary entry/whatever the hell it is was named 'Celestial Cafe' and like this song was a reflection of random thoughts and ideas shared with the reader as if meeting up for a simple drink like this one. In that context is this song - which dates from four years before that book's publication - about the listener and Murdoch trying to engage with them again after the loss of Campbell meant he lost their 'everywoman' figure? Bouncy, joyful, catchy but not all that important, 'For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea' is more catchy filler and while welcome seems like an odd addition to an album that was once considered a double, the band had so much material for it (most of which will end up as copious B sides on B and S' typically generous singles).
The album then ends with 'Mornington Crescent', a fictional song about a fictional romance taking place in perhaps the best known fictional town (it 'fits' that Murdoch is a fan of 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue' what with his love of wordplay and sly humour and all, although I'm still waiting for a song featuring a list of entries to a ball held by one boy and his dog). By being so obviously 'unreal', Murdoch has finally freed himself of the need to be 'honest' in his work and conjures up a world that's at least as well drawn and chaotic as the 'real' world, passing 'Men in bowler hats, kids in their spatz, ladies with chauffeurs and dogs wearing hats'. Along the way there's a 'camp' camp parade, an affair with a 'Senagalese rich arbitrator' (!) and a final verse that suggests that the Belle and Sebastian story might be over for good ('I had a good time, but life became fruitless'). The effect here, is as if Murdoch has returned to the 'real world' after some big adventure that lasted the whole of the band's career and has no taken his place in society once more with the benefit of knowing who he 'is' - something he clearly didn't when he first started the band - although typically Murdoch is far too hard on himself with his description ('Next to the broker the nurse and the drunk I was a joker, the wannabe punk that got lucky'). We're clearly at the 'end of the road' as it were (give or take a reunion album) just as 'Mornington Crescent' is always shouted to finish off the game, the last destination on a fictional map shared between friends full of in-jokes and made up rules. It's a fitting way to end and even though this song might have benefitted from returning to the B and S sound one last time the band play well here on a slow blues that unfurls the way an umbrella does in bad weather or the steam from a cup of tea unfurls into the sky. While 'Mornington Crescent' is about as un-B and S like as you can get it's still a fitting end, the film school equivalent of the pan back from a story we've been following into the sky, revealing all sorts of other stories taking place until the camera gets further and further back into the sky revealing that this isn't just one story but all our stories and that there really is no end (as a band partly made up of film studies students it could be that B and S planned it as this, or am I simply getting carried away here?) A fitting end, then, even with an encore to come...
Overall, then, maybe I've been a bit too hard on an album that had an awful lot of things to work against: after an album of delaying the issue Murdoch had to approach the loss of Campbell and what that meant to the band story head-on and as a result the band sound had to change as well to keep the same 'honesty' the band always had while appealing to the 'new' paymasters and increasingly need for band funds (the band might have known this would be their last project for a while - four years as it turns out). What's odd is how often the band mess up their new sound: 'White Collar Boy' and 'Sukie In The Graveyard' especially seem like blaring 'nos', odd considering how well the band had done to combine their 'old' sound and 'new' sound across almost all of 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress'. However when this album gets it right it shows why Belle and Sebastian are one of the most loved acts of the 1990s and 2000s: 'Act Of The Apostle I' 'Song For Sunshine' 'Funny Little Frog' and in context 'Mornington Crescent' are all top notch songs and while four songs out of 13 is bad odds by Belle and Sebastian standards the rest isn't that bad - it's just slightly off and takes so much getting used to without necessarily being better than you wonder why they bothered, like a friend's new haircut or a new flavour of coca-cola. There's still just enough of our 'old' friend there to make the effort of adjusting worthwhile, however and even if this is the worst record by Belle and Sebastian it's still a pretty good worst record to have.