The Life Pursuit

Belle And Sebastian

Rough Trade Records/Matador Records, 2006

http://www.belleandsebastian.com

REVIEW BY: Gus Rocha

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/18/2021

By the start of 2006, Stuart Murdoch was at a crossroads. At 37, the off-center and nostalgic Scottish guitarist and singer had spent most of the last decade riding the critical and commercial roller coaster that had started back in 1996 when his seven-piece indie pop band, Belle and Sebastian, released their first full-length album, Tigermilk. During that time, the band had managed to cultivate a small but fiercely loyal fan base whose size had grown commensurate with the group’s quickly expanding catalog. What had started as a small acoustic class project at Stow College in Glasgow promptly turned into an aspirational working band with a distinctive and easily recognizable pathos. Following Murdoch and company’s penchant for writing pastoral sounding songs that explored the lives of emotionally complex, quirky, and artsy young people – more specifically young women – Belle And Sebastian released a total of four albums through the remainder of the decade, garnering acclaim from both critics and the musical establishment along the way. 

But by the turn of the new millennium, following several line-up changes that came on the heels of the band severing ties with their record label, the group’s creative well suddenly appeared to have run dry. After releasing two poorly received albums back-to-back, the newly-reformed septet enlisted the help of producer and former Bugle member Trevor Horn for their next record, Dear Catastrophe Waitress. The result was mixed. 

On the one hand, many of the same compositional roadblocks were still in place: the group still struggled to find ways to explore new genres without the end-product sounding like a cheap pastiche; their early preference for lush and exuberant folk ballads had led them to a cul-de-sac of predictable and often-recycled banalities; there was also an apparent leadership vacuum and a lack of vision that resulted in their last three albums sounding like disorganized affectations spouted by a group of self-conscious adolescents. But on the other hand, under Horn’s guidance, the band had begun experimenting with what was undoubtedly a more poptimistic and radio-friendly sound. By the time the group returned to the studio in 2005, Murdoch had come to realize that if the band was to find any semblance of success, he needed to step up and fulfill the role of undisputed leader. Fortunately for the group, the rest is history. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Released on February 7th, 2006, The Life Pursuit is the result of a year-long process of soul-searching and experimentation that saw the band collaborating with notable pop producer Tony Hoffer. Originally intended as a double album, it is a loose collection of stories and vignettes that predictably follow several school-aged women as they navigate the complexities of adolescent life while questioning the value and meaning of religious experiences, institutions, friendships, and popular music. Bookended by the story of a young catholic school girl undergoing a series of simultaneously epiphanous and existential moments, both at school and while on a walk around town, the album’s magic lies less in the lyrical ground it never breaks than in the way in which the band demonstrates that it’s finally arrived at a point where they can trace multiple musical paths without finding themselves back on square one. 

In The Life Pursuit, Belle and Sebastian give up on the perfunctory parroting of mid-century musical traditions they grew up around, choosing instead to start crafting the dreamlike and whimsical brand of Scottish indie-pop that would eventually come to define their sound. Through the use of their airy and trademark three-and-four-part harmonies, the band doesn’t shy away from trying out their luck with genres as varied as glam rock, funk, blues, and alternative pop. Tracks like the upbeat and synth-heavy “Sukie In The Graveyard” and “Song For Sunshine” see the band dipping their toes into a kind of retro-forward funk-pop that recall the sultry and danceable grooves of prominent ‘70s groups like Parliament-Funkadelic or Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. Similarly, singles like the bluesy and distorted  “Blues Are Still Blue,” or the ebullient “White Collar Boy” harken back to the glitzy atavism of early garage or proto-punk pioneers like T. Rex or the New York Dolls. 

Yet it’s in the wistfully peppy and unmistakably British pop numbers like “Another Sunny Day,” “To Be Myself Completely,” and “Mornington Crescent” that the band come into their own with a sound that’s both effusive and lush while simultaneously distinctly theirs. Because it’s here that we get a first-hand look at Murdoch’s studious appreciation for the importance of solid and singable melodies capable of creating the baroque feeling of grandeur and the gothic sense of whimsy and wonder that characterize the British music since the halcyon days of Syd Barrett, early Bowie, or Rubber Soul-era Lennon-McCartney. It’s ultimately in those songs that he successfully manages to deliver pop alchemy by fusing the musical elements of Celtic folk, which defined so much of the band’s early sound with the aesthetic aims of popular music. 

By no means a perfect record, The Life Pursuit stands as taunting proof of the ontological dichotomy at the heart of modern music as it makes patently clear that an album can and should be judged mainly by the purity and ingenuity of its musical design rather than by its lyrical content. But, conversely, it also exposes the artistic limitations inherent in the type of songwriting that’s thematically generic and repetitive. For Murdoch and company, their ability to walk this aesthetic tight rope, even if as a result of their shortcomings, ultimately comprises their most significant artistic achievement. Because, in the end, they succeeded in crafting a record that made aspiring to perfection look as doable and easy as pretending it was attainable in the first place. 

Rating: B

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