Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle & Sebastian’s 2003 release, was a landmark for the band in a couple of important ways. For starters, it re-established that Stuart Murdoch and company still had some quality albums left to make – something that had been called into question by many after the underwhelming Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like A Peasant (2000) and Storytelling (2002). Just as important, though, Dear Catastrophe Waitress was the final step in the gradual transition the band made from the melancholic, chamber-pop of their nascency to a cheery, polished, bubblegum-pop sound. As good as that record was, though, think of it as the trial run. The Life Pursuit sees the band grow into its new skin with its most confident release to date.
It could be all the sun the band members got while they were recording the album in Los Angeles, or maybe it’s just something in the water there, but it quickly becomes apparent that something’s gotten into Murdoch. If nothing else, Belle & Sebastian has always been thought of as kind of limp-wristed, but many of the songs – most notably “White Collar Boy,” with its fuzzed-out bass line and distortion-filled guitar solo – come off as surprisingly muscular. That’s hardly the only surprise Murdoch has in store for us though: The Life Pursuit sees the band using a significantly broader palette than it previously has, channeling genres as diverse as psychedelic funk (“Song for Sunshine”) and early glam (“The Blues Are Still Blue”). This might all sound a bit disjointed as you read it on your computer screen, but the songs are cohesive, held together by the 1970s aesthetic that envelops the album.
The Belle & Sebastian faithful shouldn’t fret, though; they haven’t been forgotten. Tracks such as “Mornington Crescent” and “Act of the Apostle” veer closer to traditional territory, and “Dressed up in You” is a vintage character sketch that can stand proud next to the likes of “The State I Am In.” Murdoch’s lyrical prowess remains intact as well, with “Another Sunny Day” being but one example: “I heard the Eskimos remove obstructions with tongues dear/ You missed my eye, I wonder why, I didn’t complain/ You missed my eye, I wonder why/ please do it again.”
The fact is, the members of Belle & Sebastian haven’t moved beyond their roots so much as they’ve used them as a base to grow from – the mark of any truly great band. There’s still plenty about the group to satisfy long-time fans, and there’s a wealth of quality and innovation to win them some new ones. Seven albums in, Belle & Sebastian has arguably created the finest album of its career. For this dog on wheels, new tricks don’t seem to be a problem.