I’m bowled over. After the radical – and triumphal – departure from the much-loved fey indie pop that characterised early albums to the Trevor Horn-produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress, one wondered where Belle and Sebastian would go next. The answer is everywhere, but the amazing thing is that The Life Pursuit, a diverse showcase of brilliance, is still unmistakably Belle and Sebastian. Simply couldn’t be anyone else, in fact.
From the opening piano chords of Act Of The Apostle – wonderfully cheesy, and with the organ cutting in, a cross between a ’70s music track for the Avengers and Pearl & Dean ads at the flicks – you know this is album going to surprise and delight. The reprise is cabaret-strip club sleaze, until it transforms itself into a wistful ballad instead. Another Sunny Day has unmistakably British lyrics but a pure Californian feel (great backing vocals) overlaid with country rhythms and a touch of slide guitar. Are you getting the picture?
White Collar Boy kicks off like T Rex crossed with Goldfrapp in their funkiest electronic persona – irresistible. The influences are fascinating to hear, and you hear new ones with every listen. Will I be forgiven for thinking that Blues Are Still Blue owes a debt to the long-departed (and not much missed) Mungo Jerry? But a whole lot more interesting – this is one of too many stand-out tracks to mention.
Some of these songs are even poppier than anything on Dear Catastrophe Waitress; some are jazzy, some are classic B&S ballads, only on speed (Sukie In The Graveyard)… there’s even one (To Be Myself Completely) that gives a nod in the direction of folk music, complete with nasal vocals.
Dress Up In You is deceptively quiet but packs a punch in the lyrics to match anything Belle and Sebastian have thrown us before. What a line – “If I could have a second skin I’d probably dress up in you”. It’s an exquisitely beautiful song and also hosts the obligatory trumpet solo, possibly the best one ever…
The backing vocals on We Are The Sleepyheads take us back to Pearl & Dean cheese, while Song For Sunshine is pure California breeze (where the album was recorded). These songs, along with the first single Funny Little Frog, are less interesting – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. They’re just lacking in the inspiration of some of the others.
The Life Pursuit is like a classy box of chocolates where every centre is not just a different flavour but a different texture, colour, shape… Who but Belle and Sebastian could write a song called For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea that sounds like Scissor Sisters and contains lines like “for the price of a cup of tea you get a line of coke”?
Absolutely essential listening. If they weren’t in the big time before, they sure are now. It’s only January, but could this be the album of the year?