Every religion began as a cult. In their early years, Belle and Sebastian possessed near-totemic powers for their small but impassioned band of disciples, as fervent as the followers of similarly wistful, self-deprecating, and sometimes sexually conflicted artists like The Smiths, Felt, and Orange Juice a decade prior. The common sacrament was pop, with true believers bearing witness in their communal alienation, badges, battered cassettes, and fanclub memberships. The Scottish group only heightened that devotion by shrouding themselves in mystery — not answering questions, not appearing in proper photographs, not available in stores.
…this record is a deceptively wry, wickedly tuneful testament to the fragile beauty of faith
On sixth proper album The Life Pursuit, Belle and Sebastian want to teach the world to sing, in however imperfect harmony. Where the recent live re-recording of 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister draped their most appealing songs in apposite finery, the band’s latest extends their newfound confidence to content as well as delivery, and stands as the finest full-length by Stuart Murdoch and his shifting collaborators since that distant pinnacle. About his early-90s recovery from chronic fatigue, Murdoch told a recent interviewer, “Spirituality and songwriting were my crutches.” Spanning glam, soul, country, and 70s AM rock, this record is a deceptively wry, wickedly tuneful testament to the fragile beauty of faith, in deities as well as in pop.
Belle and Sebastian seem to have found new life in their evolution from shy bedsit savants to showy pop adepts. The Life Pursuit’s lavishness renders the burgeoning bubblegum of 2003’s Trevor Horn-produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress merely transitional, rewarding the Job-like righteous after the trials of the band’s mid-career disappointments. Recorded in Los Angeles with Tony Hoffer, who oversaw Beck’s divisive Midnite Vultures, the album runs over with flute, horns, call-and-response vocals, and even a funky clavinet (on soul survivor “Song for Sunshine”). The playing, meanwhile, is surprisingly chopsy, down to the breezy guitars and Hammond organs — a far cry from the days when indie meant never having to say you tried.
…Ostinato bass, splashy piano, and Sarah Martin’s gentle harmonies point the way
Faith, after all, takes work, and if in one sense The Life Pursuit is about belief in the redemptive power of music, it’s also a manifestation thereof. On opener “Act of the Apostle, Part One”, a girl with a seriously ill mother imagines an escape, plays the Cat Stevens hymn “Morning Has Broken”, and contemplates an endless melody before stumbling upon the album’s central question: “What would I do to believe?” Ostinato bass, splashy piano, and Sarah Martin’s gentle harmonies point the way. Toward the end of the album’s loose storyline, on “For the Price of a Cup of Tea”, the heroine seeks solace in “soul black vinyl”, as Murdoch channels an irrepressible Bee Gees falsetto.
In between the opener and “Act of the Apostle, Part Two”, nine tracks later, The Life Pursuit sets aside the nascent narrative to offer several of Belle and Sebastian’s catchiest pop songs yet. “The Blues Are Still Blue” and “White Collar Boy” both incorporate glossy T. Rex boogie, Murdoch delivering one of his most indelible hooks on the former and uttering an uncharacteristically soulful “huh!” on the latter. Early mp3 preview “Another Sunny Day” sounds more like earlier Belle and Sebastian, setting country/western guitar licks to a sunny but sad love song that ambles past soccer, midges, Eskimos, and haunted hearts. First single “Funny Little Frog” slyly relates a love that turns out to be from afar, tellingly comparing the feeling to a sound from the narrator’s “thro-at.” Sharing its efficient Motown guitar style is the lone Stevie Jackson contribution, “To Be Myself Completely”, which happily holds its own, observing, “To be myself completely/ I’ve just got to let you down.”
…seems to be describing an encounter with a groupie
Still, there’s little to fault about this album’s songcraft, and Murdoch is also at his best detailing some of his famously quirky characters. “Sukie in the Graveyard” makes room for a pristine guitar solo, organs, and horns in a loose, animated tale of a runaway. On melancholic centerpiece “Dress Up in You”, Murdoch at first seems to be describing an encounter with a groupie, but ultimately is revealed to be singing from the point of view of a woman to a former rival-turned-star.
Of course, the album also wrestles with the struggle to have faith in God. To be sure, Murdoch’s Christian beliefs have been central to his songs since long before you could say “Sufjan.” The religious references here have more in common on their face with the Godspell gab of Waitress’s “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love” than the sardonically wrought church scenes of “The State That I Am In” or “If You’re Feeling Sinister”. Amid atypically fancy guitarwork and Martin’s breathless scat on “We Are the Sleepyheads”, Murdoch recalls, “We talked about the things we read in Luke and John.” With the feel of Paul McCartney doing Tin Pan Alley, “Act of the Apostles, Part Two” finds Murdoch returning to the girl from the introduction. “The bible’s my tool / There’s no mention of school,” he sighs, then merges the album’s twin motifs: “My Damascan Road’s my transistor radio.” Converted to pop, she was converted to Jesus.
…Synths flutter like stomach butterflies
Though the music may be even shinier and happier than on Waitress, the girl’s religious impulses don’t resolve themselves nearly so blithely. Midway through “Part Two”, the album climaxes when she determines to find “the face behind the voice”: Synths flutter like stomach butterflies as the melody from “Part One” returns and the young protagonist attempts to attend a church service, only to be told to “bugger off.” Next she places her hopes in music alone, spending the night with a man who makes her “the village joke.” Closer “Mornington Crescent” — named for a London Underground stop and a laughably complex strategy game — sketches a final fall from grace, giving itself to sin and countrified guitars out of “Wild Horses”.
Only a few bands have managed to successfully reinvent themselves a half-dozen or so albums into their careers. Granted, Murdoch’s is a very different group today than the one that caught the ears and hearts of pop-music zealots a decade ago, with different members and a newly unrestrained sound. “Make a new cult every day,” Murdoch once sang, but of course, Heaven’s Gate and Waco compounds aren’t for everyone. The Life Pursuit is a baroque pop cathedral, welcoming the faithful and newly converted alike.