My sister listens to two kinds of radio these days: hip-hop and pop-country,
typical listening for many college students in Greeley, Colorado. My
dad, on the other hand, listens to the AAA station out of Boulder. Mom
has always been the X-factor open to giving most anything a listen.
With such varied musical tastes, it's a crapshoot as to how my family
will react when I put a new record on at home. A few weekends back, I
flew through the front door, waving a CD excitedly in my hand. "I've
got the new Belle & Sebastian," I said enthusiastically. My sister rolled
her eyes. My father only groaned. You can imagine my surprise when everyone
enjoyed The Life Pursuit. Immensely.
It's hard not to be smitten with the album's overflowing jubilance. Sure, Belle & Sebastian
are still at their old tricks: cloaking melancholy in happy melodies, penning
lyrics about Catholic-school girls' existential dilemmas, sexual ambiguity and
wistful love. They've just never had so much fun doing it.
The Life Pursuit is full of call-and-response vocals, bouncing bass lines, and innumerable hooks. The instrumentation remains fairly consistent throughout. Electric guitar, bass and drums form the backbone on most of the songs, while keyboard/organ/piano, horns and strings add embellishment. The pastoral acoustic sounds and chamber orchestrations of the band's previous efforts have been set aside in favor of electrified punch and a cheeky resourcefulness. In fact, "Mornington Crescent" and "Dress Up in You" are the only two songs on the album with a slow groove. They serve as moments of exhalation amidst the onslaught of otherwise breathless glee. And they're delivered without the sly wink of most of the other tracks.
Belle & Sebastian begin their album with "Morning prayer took the girl unaware; she was late for class and she knew itů" As far back as "The State I Am In" off their 1996 debut, Tigermilk, questions of faith have been a hallmark of Belle & Sebastian leader Stuart Murdoch's lyrics. Throughout the band's recordings there have been fatalistic songs in which the least likely character contemplates religion. Certainly, the use of the aforementioned Catholic-school girl in this capacity is a time-honored tradition. Hecků even Billy Joel put it to good use with "Only the Good Die Young."
Now normally, I walk a circuitous path home from work. It leads me through downtown Fort Collins. (As incongruous as this digression may seem, bear with me.) One night last week, The Life Pursuit was on my headphones. I rounded a corner as "We Are the Sleepyheads" began its frenetic guitar and descending "ba-da-ba" vocal lines. "Tired like the beggar with the cold inside his bones. Looking for the pleasure that he knew was so far gone." And, surprise, there to my left, sitting in a planter, was a man asking me for some change. I had none, so I replied in kind and walked on humming along to the ripping fuzzed-out guitar-solo courtesy of Stevie Jackson. The beggar muttered his thanks to me for sharing the melody.
The album closes with two exceptionally strong offerings. "For the Price of a
Cup of Tea" is the feel-good highlight complete with disco-era falsetto
and a Sufjan-esque trumpet/flute harmony line at the end. Then comes "Mornington
Crescent," a country-tinged affair that brings things back down to a melancholy
pace. "We'll all be lined up. Irrelevant fame. Next to the broker, the nurse
and the drunků"
I could go on discussing the album's remaining songs, but to what purpose? They don't beg for analysis, they beg for a smile and an afternoon spent wandering around town listening to them on headphones. The Life Pursuit is an immaculate album; Belle & Sebastian craft pure pop perfection better than just about anybody.
As for my family digging The Life Pursuit, I really should have seen it coming. My mom's favorite song from the past couple years is "Piazza, New York Catcher." My sister likes anything she can dance to. And my dad ů well, I guess there was no way to see that one coming.