Album Review: Belle and Sebastian returns with 'Write About Love'
What does a four year wait, cameos from Carey Mulligan and Norah Jones and a 'Bimbo' get you?
For its eighth album, after a four-plus year wait, Belle and Sebastian have opted out of complete evolution or recreation, but instead honed on its strengths and – thankfully – come up with some nice stories to tell.
In those years, the Scottish band has allowed adventures beyond the road and outside of the studio to flourish: some folks got married, some started families, others dabbled in extra musical projects. But a palate cleanse doesn’t mean the mouth forgets what it likes. “Write About Love” excels, again, in nuanced pop, with exhalations of love, explorations of “what if,” journal-like explanations of good and bad behavior.
… All of which would be less than exhilarating if the melodies weren’t equally refined, fashioned from the same anything-goes cadre of delicate musical instruments, from Casio keys to acute amplifiers to shape-shifting guitars. The band confidently burst in with “I Didn’t See It Coming,” with a memorable tune that you could put your own little lyrics to and it’d still make sense, if it weren’t already so beautifully inked by the pen of Sarah Martin. She also makes a solid showing on “I Can See Your Future,” which has a pop of the older B&S recordings and the strings like those of Sgt. Pepper’s famous band.
That track cleans up the little mess that is “Read the Blessed Pages” a gentle piece of journal paper smacking of synthetic pan pipes (quit f*cking with me, Murdoch). By the time of closer “Sunday’s Pretty Icons,” all’s forgiven: it’s simply one of the strongest songs, lyrically, that frontman Stuart Murdoch has ever penned, in that it says so much without saying much at all. “Every girl you ever admired / every boy you’ve ever desired / every love you’ve ever forgot / every person that you despised is forgiven” sings the sentiment, a reason to hit “repeat” – on the whole album.
Which is reason to pick up on the impeccable track ordering on “Write About Love.” Shuffling would be like ignoring the syntax of a sentence because you like certain words together. It’s not like there’s One Meaningful Concept to draw from the set, but it maneuvers from quiet to loud, witty to vulnerable -- sometimes all within a single song – so well.
In “Come on Sister,” Stuart’s usual breathy, plain voice dabbles with a little machismo, inviting his subject to the bar (despite a keyboard’s 8-bit warning that, sorry, the princess is in another castle). But then “Calculating Bimbo” features him and his backers simply, dreamily reciting the song’s title in song, calmly reporting on the bimbo in question.
Solid “I Want the World to Stop” is fleshy and mysterious-sounding, with a echoing call-and-reponse and warm treatment of sad matter. It’s followed by unfortunate, snoozy Norah Jones vehicle “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John”; it’s bothersome in that it simply does not belong on this collection and that it's most exciting feature is its title.
The cameo is made up for with from actress Carey Mulligan guesting on the title track. The Rhodes and electric guitar opening revs like a Kinks cover as working class minutae and bereaving of a boring job gets the most cheerful treatment on the set. “Get on your skinny knees and pray,” Murdoch encourages, “You gotta see the dreams through the windows and the trees of your living room.”
The lyric expresses is a fine feeling of forward motion, for its listener and for the band. “Write About Love” is a charge without being high voltage. It fulfills what fans have come to expect from the band without overwhelming. It’s just enough to fall in “Love.”