BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: THE LIFE PURSUIT (2006)
1) Act Of The Apostle; 2) Another Sunny Day; 3) White Collar Boy; 4) The Blues Are Still Blue; 5) Dress Up In You; 6) Sukie In The Graveyard; 7) We Are The Sleepyheads; 8) Song For Sunshine; 9) Funny Little Frog; 10) To Be Myself Completely; 11) Act Of The Apostle II; 12) For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea; 13) Mornington Crescent.
Dear Catastrophe Waitress was so unexpectedly fresh, attractive, and intelligent, that it was only too natural to try the same formula at least one more time. For production, Murdoch turned from Trevor Horn to Tony Hoffer, previously known for producing Supergrass and working as mixing engineer on several of Beck's records — but the particular choice probably does not matter as much as the fact that Trevor Horn's shadow still lurks behind, encouraging Murdoch to add more colors and rhythmic drive to the songs.
To the melodies, that is, but not to the lyrics. Murdoch's agenda is now perfectly clear: his worldview has not changed a single bit, but now he is delivering his bitter lambasting of random stereotypes to «happy» melodies rather than «sad» ones, and, whaddaya know, this turns out to be even more effective, or, at least, less predictable and therefore more impressive than it used to. Begin with the beginning: The Life Pursuit — great title for an optimistic, hope-inspiring, life-asserting record. Then it turns out that the three faces on the album sleeve look a little suspicious: lack of smiles and an overall worried / puzzled facial expression from all three does not exactly agree with the idea of «pursuing life».
Then you hear the songs, and waves of bright-pop joyfulness start splashing all around, and sure enough, this is the mellow, but energetic sound of a genuine life pursuit. How could anyone feel anything but warmth and happiness when the Kinks-style riffage of ʽThe Blues Will Be Blueʼ invades the room, and your foot starts a-tappin' and your lips start a-chantin'? Then, after a while, only after you have already fallen in love with the song's lilting melody, you actually start a-thinkin' about what it is that you're chanting — and what you're chanting is a song about how everybody that surrounds you is either a poseur, a hypocrite, or an idiot, how the realization of this simple truth succeeds in driving you crazy, and how the only thing that is permanent is a sense of deep shit. Happy singalong, brother.
Naturally, Murdoch did not invent this style of doing business and, in fact, the Kinks connection is now stronger than ever in this respect as well: I do not know how well acquainted Ray Davies is with the oeuvres of Belle & Sebastian, but I am fairly sure that The Life Pursuit is the one album in their catalog with which he might feel a special bond. Nevertheless, Murdoch is doing this in a manner that is fairly appropriate for 2006, much as Ray sang his happy songs about misery in a manner that was all the rage in 1966, and, most importantly, he is doing this better than anybody else in 2006. Years of experience wear out some artists, but Stuart's microgenius has aged well, and now he is cutting cool tune after cool tune — ʽThe Bluesʼ is an obvious highlight ("I left my lady in the launderette..." might just be this band's catchiest single chorus ever), but so is the funky, organ / fuzz bass-driven ʽSukie In The Graveyardʼ, or the lightly psychedelic, cloud-hopping ʽWe Are The Sleepyheadsʼ with its echoey «child angel choir» harmonies, or the brass-heavy ʽFunny Little Frogʼ, a sarcastic sendup of unconditional love whose main hook consists of wondering how the hell can Stuart forcefully make "know it", "poet", "court", and "throat" rhyme with each other, all four of them, and get away with it.
The most «anthemic» song is saved for next-to-last: ʽFor The Price Of A Cup Of Teaʼ has a murkier, less easily decodable, but just as worriesome message as the rest of them, and it is an absolute blast of syncopated pop perfection — the contrast between the choral declamation of the first line and Murdoch's thin, subtle counterstrike of the second does not just stick in the head, it is almost inspirational, despite the fact that what you are actually getting for the price of a cup of tea is "a line of coke", and that's just the beginning of the story. But it does not finish off the album: the softer, longer, more pensive ʽMornington Crescentʼ does, a mildly haunting ballad that ends with faintly pronounced words that are all too easy to neglect but are, in fact, horrifying: "The possibilities suggest themselves to me... we're a little too free". Bingo, the kid finally hits upon the correct diagnosis. No wonder this music is so damn good — when you know what the problem is, it's all too easy to convert it into solid art.
I have not mentioned neither the ballads nor the hard rockers so far, of which there are several (ʽAct Of The Apostleʼ and ʽWhite Collar Boyʼ respectively illustrating both categories), but this is not where its major musical muscle seems to reside — the major muscle are the upbeat pop songs, since it is them that provide the maximum contrast between the words and the music, and where there's more contrast, there's more strife, more thrill, more Life Pursuit. Is this an improvement over Dear Catastrophe Waitress? Not necessarily: although the high points may be a little bit higher, the overall consistency is about the same level. But it seems to show more confidence and self-assurance, and, above all, understanding of the fact that when you whine through laughter, it is sometimes liable to produce more effect than when you whine through whining. In any case, this is clearly yet another thumbs up; and particular kudos for the boldness with which Stuart comes out to say what he has to say, much of which would be ideologically unacceptable for the average indie kid — which just goes to show that Murdoch, of all people, has managed to outgrow the indie kid complex, and step into a more exquisite, if also provocative, pair of shoes.
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