Belle and Sebastian inhabits a particular niche in the canon of popular music, situated perfectly between mainstream accessibility and artistic independence. Hailing from Glasgow, Scotland, Belle and Sebastian is the brainchild of Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David, whose variety of lulled, nostalgic smile-pop almost instantly established the band as the sweetheart of the indie community. Belle and Sebastian projects a gentle, visceral pop sound, layering minimal, hushed instrumentation with subtly captivating melodies that always seem to cohere with charming precision.
The band’s sophomore album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, remains a staple of late-90s indie folk music, weaving tales of wistful young adults wrapped up in their own worlds of unrequited love, introverted insecurities, and repressed embarrassment but still managing to maintain a weary but endearing sense of hope. The follow-up, The Boy with the Arab Strap, propelled the band into the mainstream, reaching #12 on the UK charts and garnering almost universal critical acclaim as well as a devoted cult following.
Through several album releases into the new millennium, Belle and Sebastian juggled radio accessibility and experimental production while managing to remain faithful to its trademark sound. As a result, the band dominates its corner of the indie music scene, continually retouching and refining its brand of pastoral twee-pop to stay two steps ahead of countless imitators.
Belle and Sebastian’s latest release, Write About Love, follows in the footsteps of the band’s earlier work while incorporating a collective approach to songwriting that thankfully steers its new material away from a Stuart Murdoch-dominated sound. While his incessantly talented stamp still appears throughout the album’s 11 songs, Murdoch has importantly tempered his input to allow for a greater range of sound. As a result, the album feels like the comforted catharsis of a true ensemble, as lush instrumentation complements the playful vocal exchanges between Murdoch, guitarist/vocalist Stevie Jackson, and violinist/vocalist Sarah Martin.
In fact, Martin takes the reigns on the album’s opener, “I Didn’t See It Coming,” which effectively trades shimmering male-female harmonies before escalating into a synth-heavy bridge resounding with humored nods to The Cure and New Order. “Come on Sister” expands on these 80s electro-wave influences, revolving around ascending and descending keyboard tones as Murdoch muses about his difficulties connecting to religion. The album’s standout track, “I Want the World to Stop,” sails nimbly around a disco-flavored bass line as flourishes of guitar and lulling harmonies lay a perfect foundation for Murdoch’s call-and-response melodies.
While “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John” suffers a little too heavily from Norah Jones’ tired wail, and Stevie Jackson’s clownish tenor pushes “I’m Not Living in the Real World” a little too close to parody, Write About Love never quite loses its nascent charisma. The fact remains that, on its eighth studio album, Belle and Sebastian is not trying to offend anyone in the process of polishing its strengths. Whether casually peppering prog-pop with Latin-funk on “Write About Love” or allowing floating horns to barely rescue “The Ghost of Rockschool” from defeated melancholy, the band crafts hook after hook with a frustrating ease.
As with all of Belle and Sebastian’s output, the melodies on Write About Love feel at first derivative and suspiciously catchy. However, one eventually realizes that only a band as consummately talented as Belle and Sebastian is able to produce tunes that simultaneously sound familiar while comfortably presenting new, cultivated ideas. It speaks to the band’s mastery of its art that it can breathe such a range of deep emotion and tug on listeners’ heartstrings with unmatched humility and sweet poise.