Write above love, eh? Writing about love is all Belle & Sebastian have been doing since releasing their debut, Tigermilk, 1996 — giving generations of indie kids a soundtrack to slap on mix CDs, a lyric to stencil in the margins of notebooks, a discography to fall in love to. There was always a lot to swallow with a band that titled themselves after a French children’s book and TV series from the 1960s and bled themselves dry in song titles like “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” and “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love.” But once you bought into them, freed yourself to buy into their vision of love, it was a real treat to get inside the head and heart of someone as self-awarely passionate as Stuart Murdoch is.
Starting with 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle & Sebastian, from Glasgow, traded hushed bedroom acoustics for swinging blues numbers and clean pop hooks, and they did it without sacrificing any emotional heft. Every band changes its sound as it goes along, but Belle & Sebastian remained rooted in the literary tenderness of Murdoch’s lyrics while becoming a band you might actually dance to. Part of it had to do with the band’s growing musical skill: In his excellent 33 1/3 book, Scott Plagenhoef noted that at its onset, the band was loose and lackadaisical in concert, making up for a lack of technical cohesion with a breezy, casual air to the performances. But over the years Belle & Sebastian has morphed into a focused outfit, one that headlined the Saturday stage of Matador’s 21st anniversary with 12 members in tow, fully evolved from Murdoch’s lonely vision.
The album’s opener, “I Didn’t See It Coming,” spells a wistful refrain about coming back to an old love — “Make me dance, I want to surrender/ Your familiar arms, I remember” — with a chiming guitar line that sets the tone for the record: the lover coming back, the band coming back to its fans. There’s a lot of sonic holdover from Waitress and 2006’s The Life Pursuit, a bit softer but filled with quaint charm and sharp production. On a technical level, Belle & Sebastian is skin-tight and locked into a groove: the crisp drum fills of the breezy “Come On Sister,” the driving call-and-response indie pop of “Write About Love” (featuring actress Carey Mulligan, a girl who’s probably gotten her fair share of B&S mix CDs, on vocals), the languid, dreamy “Calculating Bimbo” (a song about a calculating bimbo, and one the band settles into excellently).
And to be sure, the album lives up to its title. There’s all kinds of love here, from the unrequited to the angry to the long-gone to the never-was. The musicians even find time to be happy (albeit close to maudlin) when Murdoch sings “I’ve seen God shining up from her reflection” on “The Ghost of Rockschool,” and there’s no surprise twist at the end when you find out that nothing worked out. What could’ve been a sly self-deprecation regarding their typical song material — love — ends up being a genuine, straightforward approach. It’s not surprising, considering the earnest air that most of the band’s music breathes in.
Of course, eight albums into writing about love, this album doesn’t explore much new ground. Lyrically, Murdoch seems to have backed off from the intense wordage that’s become his trademark. Simpler rhymes and sentence structures make up the bulk of Write About Love’s songs. This is a guy who took photographs in herbaceous gardens and wrote a song about a dream of horses come to life — like Morrissey, Murdoch would almost dare us to laugh at his lyrics for being too overwrought — as though heading down the path of excess would lead him to emotional depths most lyricists would float above. It is reductive to break down the songs lyric by lyric, but with the delicacy of “Read the Blessed Pages” building up to the prosaic insight of “Love is like a novel” and with Murdoch rhyming “lazy” with “lazy” in “Calculating Bimbo,” Write About Love feels like a more complacent record, one with lesser rewards (and lesser risks) than previous releases.
Some indie bands are so consistent at putting out music that remains true to their aesthetic without feeling old hat (see Spoon, the New Pornographers and Yo La Tengo) that the familiarity almost seems boring. Write About Love is a Belle & Sebastian record that doesn’t reinvent anything; the musicians have embraced a warm vibe that feels like sitting down with an old friend, one that hasn’t embarrassed himself. It’s not surprising but it is fine, reminding us of the small lyrical and melodic joys Murdoch and company are still capable of. It’s all there in those opening lines: Your familiar arms, I remember.