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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Belle And Sebastian: Write About Love


1) I Didn't See It Coming; 2) Come On Sister; 3) Calculating Bimbo; 4) I Want The World To Stop; 5) Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John; 6) Write About Love; 7) I'm Not Living In The Real World; 8) The Ghost Of Rockschool; 9) Read The Blessed Pages; 10) I Can See Your Future; 11) Sunday's Pretty Icons.

Like all Belle & Sebastian albums, and especially like those Belle & Sebastian albums where Murdoch's melancholic personality is not so overreaching that it eventually gets on your nerves, Write About Love is immediately likeable; so likeable that most people have probably formed their comfy opinions about it just by looking at the by-now traditional color palette and typescript of the album sleeve. In terms of general curve, though, I find this a relative disappointment after the double sunshine-through-tears pop shot of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pur­suit. It is just as easy to like, yes, but not as easy to get into on a deeper level, and, unlike its pre­decessors, Write About Love seems to suffer quite a bit from indie clichés.

The band has once again enlisted Tony Hoffer as producer, but this time production values are notably different — Murdoch retains the fully-arranged pop gloss of the previous records, yet strives to bring it up to date with more «contemporary» standards. Already the first twenty se­conds of ʽI Didn't See It Comingʼ arouse suspicion: a wispy electronic cloud of noise, expectable, perhaps, from any neo-psychedelic artist, but since when have Belle & Sebastian ever expressed a penchant for trippy electronics? The electronics are then joined by some decidedly modernistic beats (I'd almost say they were pre-programmed, but maybe Colburn had finally graduated from the Human Metronome school); a distant, echoey lead vocal by Sarah Martin; and, eventually, a series of synth loops and solos that have no function, as far as I can tell, other than stating: "No, no, you don't get it — there's nothing we actually have against being hip with today's kids, we just wanted to put it off until everybody were back in the synthesizer business!"

Like Apples In Stereo, for instance. The difference is, somehow, that Apples In Stereo, with the release of New Magnetic Wonder, managed to make their music more interesting by incorpora­ting electronic elements, as this allowed them a sort of «sprawl» they could never afford before. Murdoch, unfortunately, has incorporated those elements without accompanying them by any sig­nificant musical shifts. It used to be Belle & Sebastian, now it's «Belle & Sebastian with synths». The retro vibe is canceled (unless, like some critics, you prefer to think of it as a replacement of the Seventies' retro vibe by the Eighties' retro vibe), and, more importantly and painfully, much of the Belle & Sebastian vibe has been canceled, too. If ever you need to show to some friend what it is that makes Murdoch such a standout artist, please do not even think about enticing the victim with Write About Love — it is about as indicative of Murdoch's personality as Tunnel Of Love is of Bruce Springsteen's, to quote a random example.

Which is not to say the songs are bad or anything. Most of them are okay, the kind of sweet, smooth, edgeless indie pop you hear in mainstream music stores or youth cafés. They have vocal hooks, sometimes they have sympathetic instrumental passages as well. But the essence of the album is exemplified by the ballad ʽLittle Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet Jonesʼ, a duet between Mur­doch and invited guest star Norah Jones: tender, bitter, lite-ly depressed, gallantly dressed in acoustic and electric guitars and several layers of keyboards (organs rather than synths) — and sleepwalking all the way, right down to the final "what a waste, I could've been your friend", de­livered with all the obligatory husky aspiration ("...your frie-HH-ee-HH-ee-HH-ee-HHnd-HH!") you'd expect not just from Norah Jones, but from any song in this particular style. For more of the same, check ʽCalculating Bimboʼ, equally tender and equally yawny.

You know something's wrong when the «standout» track on the album turns out to be something as atypical as a Stevie Jackson lead vocal on ʽI'm Not Living In The Real Worldʼ, which sounds like a tribute to Manfred Mann with its harmonies, singalong choruses, and general exuberance. And even so, it is hardly one of the better tracks on the album — whether it stands out for good or for bad is quite debatable. Then again, I have no idea what those «better» tracks would actually be. ʽI Want The World To Stopʼ? Catchy, but too A-Ha-ish. I'd rather take Morten Harket in per­son than an unintentional Scottish copy. ʽI Can See Your Futureʼ? Those trombones have too much of a generic mariachi flavor, Sarah Martin does a fairly cringeworthy arranging job. Call me too picky, but with the possible exception of that first track, whose chorus hook ("but we don't have the money...") I cannot help but find stirring, there is not a single song on here I'd vote for when it comes to assembling the Golden Fund.

So, if taken on its own, Write About Love is nice enough, but in the overall context, it is nothing short of an embarrassing disaster. Of course, change is always risky. When Murdoch decided it was time for a change on Dear Catastrophe Waitress, he took a gamble and hit the jackpot — the combination of bitter-sneery lyrics with sunshine pop riffs and rhythms worked like a charm. Now the bell of change has struck again, and by deciding to «modernize», the man has simply capsized the ship, drowning the message and blandifying the music to nothingness. As of 2010, this is the last album of original Belle & Sebastian material released so far; we may only hope that the bell of change will ring again for Murdoch before the decade is out. In the meantime, let us hope this thumbs down exerts its rightful voodoo effect on the man.

Check "Write About Love" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Write About Love" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. As I have already had the chance to tell you, George, I find your ratings of B&S albums rather arbitrary--granted, that's the band's fault as much as the reviewer's. In my opinion, Write About Love is actually one of the stronger B&S albums, mainly because I can actually name at least two stand-out songs here ("Sunday's Pretty Icons", "I Want the World to Stop") thanks to clever vocal hooks and interesting arrangements. Which, I believe, is no mean achievement for a B&S album. Also, I really don't think synths are bad for B&S. Au contraire, since Murdoch is such an unremarkable melodicist, every little bit of sound diversity helps the listener a ton. Unless you happen to be of an opinion synths are inherently bad, that is--B&S use them quite tastefully, after all.