I can be critical of things, even things I expect to love. But I can’t imagine listening to a new album by a favorite artist without a rooting interest in it being great. And I don’t think critics do that.
On the contrary, I believe a good critic has a “show me” attitude and expects the work he’s reviewing to fall just about halfway between good and bad until he’s convinced to tip that scale one way or the other.
I’m bringing this up because my first listen to Belle and Sebastian’s new album, Write About Love, left me mostly indifferent. And were I a critic, that probably would have been that. Six paragraphs, two and a half stars… next!
But I’m not a critic, I’m a fan. And a fan owes more to a band he loves than indifference. A fan knows that many songs, often the best songs, must be learned to be loved. A fan knows that melodies have a way of hiding in the early going before leaping out at you on the fourth listen.
And that has been my experience with Write About Love. This album doesn’t rank up there with the band’s best output (I’d give that nod to If You’re Feeling Sinister with a strong second-place finish by The Life Pursuit) but it’s a rich and lovely piece of work, a stellar record by a band that’s never put out a bad one.
It’s been five years since Belle and Sebastian’s last album (the aforementioned Life Pursuit) and the band has picked up where it left off. Tony Hoffer is on board as producer again and gives the record a similar jaunty 60s vibe. On their past few albums, Belle and Sebastian have abandoned the forlorn minimalism of their early work for a full, muscular sound that suits them well.
Lead singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch is in fine voice, his Scottish lilt mostly, but not quite, hidden beneath his gentle tenor. But Murdoch shares the vocal workload more on Write About Love than he has on any of the band’s previous output.
Sarah Martin, usually a backup, takes the lead vocal on ‘I Didn’t See it Coming,’ the albums’ opening track, and on the poppy ‘I Can See Your Future.’ Her childlike vocals have always been a nice complement to Murdoch’s and when he jumps in toward the end of ‘I Didn’t See it Coming’ it kicks things into high gear.
More unusual is the guest spot by Norah Jones, who duets with Murdoch on the torch ballad ‘Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John.’ Jones is at her jazzy best (if I were a bigger fan, I could see her making my “female voices” list) and the song is an unexpected delight.
Singing backup on the title track is actress Carey Mulligan, whose presence here seems like more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. She sings well enough but I see no reason Martin couldn’t have taken the part.
Guitarist Stevie Jackson takes his turn singing on ‘I’m Not Living in the Real World,’ a frantic pop symphony that sounds so much like a lost Kinks classic I can already picture the Wes Anderson scene it will inevitably accompany. It’s one of the best songs in the set, and a good example of a track that took me several listens to “get.”
When I hear a new album by a well-established artist, I like to ask myself if anything on it would make it onto a “best of” mixtape in competition with the all the great music that preceded it. In the case of Write About Love, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ — namely ‘Ghost of Rockschool,’ a beautiful track that uses the band’s trademark brass and woodwind sections to sublime effect.
On the other hand, I had high hopes for ‘Calculating Bimbo,’ but that delicate ballad doesn’t quite live up to the brilliance of its title.
‘I Want the World to Stop,’ though, is a marvelously constructed singalong featuring a frantic bass line worthy of McCartney’s best work with The Beatles and a symphony of jangly guitars that builds up to a crescendo of keyboards and horns. Classic Belle and Sebastian.
Over 14 years, 8 albums and 7 EPs, Belle and Sebastian have been a model of consistency, delivering smart chamber pop brimming with wit and pathos. With Write About Love, they’ve done it yet again.
Fans are gonna love it.