A decade ago, if you’d described Belle and Sebastian as “swaggering”, you’d have been laughed out of town, and rightly so. But since the turn of the century, things have changed for the Glaswegians. Firstly, in 2002, Isobel Campbell left the group and has since made a name for herself as both a solo artist and playing “Beauty” to Mark Lanegan’s “Beast“. Secondly, they roped in Trevor Horn to produce their 2003 album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Horn is a former member of musical pioneers, Buggles, as well as being known for his work with some leading lights of the 1980s pop scene, including Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Dear Catastrophe Waitress heralded a marked change in sound for Belle and Sebastian. However, though it may have seemed like an anomaly at the time, in retrospect it was simply the beginning of a new chapter of their career. Follow-up, The Life Pursuit, built on this new-found approach and the trend has continued with Write About Love. Belle and Sebastian have certainly developed since they first appeared onto the scene almost fifteen years ago: the percussion is more dynamic, the basslines are funkier and more solid, the guitars are choppier and more prominent, and the lyrics… well, they’re the same as they've always been; what were you expecting?
Belle and Sebastian trade in the music of confounding expectations and the interplay of opposites. While the casual listener may dismiss their songs as throwaway, repeated listens reveal much more at work beneath the surface. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch is one of the best character creators in music today, with his tales of boys and girls in love, being thwarted and finding it hard to fit in. The music of Belle and Sebastian is witty, dark, engrossing and - whisper it quietly - sexy.
Write About Love opens confidently with a strong drum pattern, simple piano chords and Sarah Martin gently cooing, “Make me dance, I want to surrender”. That track is I Didn’t See It Coming, and it sets the tone for the first half of the record with its synths, wandering bassline, airy feel and careful layering. The tracks begin fairly sparsely, but build into something fully immersive and represent some of the most professional and well-crafted work the group have produced. Even songs that don’t immediately jump out on first listen have plenty to recommend them, like the gorgeous chord change to introduce the chorus of the languid ballad, Calculating Bimbo.
Side One (Belle and Sebastian consciously divide their records into two halves, so it seems to make sense to do the same) concludes with Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John; a track most notable for its guest vocalist: Norah Jones. It may be the result of the meeting of two strong-willed parties, but the track doesn’t particularly sound like the work of either artist, instead falling halfway between Belle and Sebastian’s indie stylings and Jones’s easy jazz. It’s difficult to tell if the experiment works, but it does enough to justify its presence on the album and be seen as more than simply a curio.
Almost as a response to the cautious, uncertain ending of Side One, Side Two really gets off to a flying start. Current single, Write About Love, is an irresistible slice of sunshine pop featuring vocals from BAFTA-winning actress, Carey Mulligan. In typical Belle and Sebastian style, everything is not quite as it first seems, and the track centres around a girl trapped in a dull office job who writes as a means to escape her dreary existence. This theme is further explored on next track and album highlight, I’m Not Living In The Real World. Over an abundance of drum fills and keyboards that sound like steel drums, Stevie Jackson sings of a boy who grows up on the periphery, never accepted by his peers and never really participating fully in everyday life. It may not seem the chirpiest subject matter for a song, but Belle and Sebastian pack so much joie de vivre into its three minutes, social alienation’s never sounded so fun. The track also features a brilliantly wrong-footing key change, and a repeated “ooh” melody so catchy you’ll need to be vaccinated to resist it.
Write About Love may not be a great leap forward for Belle and Sebastian, but it’s such an enjoyable record it’s difficult to hold it against them. Plus, there are signs they’re honing their craft and growing into the band they’ve always been capable of being. Trevor Horn may have produced perhaps the definitive pop record of the 1980s with ABC’s The Lexicon of Love, but on Write About Love, Belle and Sebastian display more than enough to suggest that one day they’ll be able to eclipse their former colleague, and they’ll do so with a swagger.