Belle & Sebastian | The Life Pursuit (Matador)

The Life Pursuit, Belle & Sebastian’s seventh full-length record, restores the balance, leavening the more punchy tracks with tunes that could’ve easily been outtakes from If You’re Feeling Sinister; “Funny Little Frog,” the album’s first single, even goes so far as to lyrically reference “The State I Am In.”

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Fans of the rabidly passionate stripe don’t forgive change easily.

Those who swoon with the release of every new B-side from the Scottish pop collective Belle & Sebastian are fans of such a persuasion: obsessive, dedicated, and almost palpably addicted to the six records, one DVD, countless concerts, and few dozen singles released by Stuart Murdoch and company. The Belle & Sebastian brand was, until 2003, known for its quiet, fey reliability—ample doses of twee guaranteed.

After stumbling with their fifth album—2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, Murdoch and his crew took stock and decided to alter their approach. Teaming up with über-producer Trevor Horn, Belle & Sebastian dropped Dear Catastrophe Waitress in 2003, stunning the faithful with punchy horns, galloping beats, and—horror of horrors—not too much navel-gazing.

This break with the past earned the previously under-the-radar band a few new fans, as well as a seeming critical re-examination; those who might’ve previously dismissed Belle & Sebastian as lightweight throwaways reevaluated that opinion in light of the startlingly vivid work found on Dear Catastrophe Waitress.

While that record was an (arguably) much-needed shock to the system, longtime fans felt that it strayed too far from what made Belle & Sebastian so compelling in the first place: Murdoch’s devastating wit, laced through dense compositions, making for tight, focused collections of sigh-inducing pop songs. Jagged, robust, and shockingly propulsive, the songs on Dear Catastrophe Waitress were far afield from the tentative days of Tigermilk.

The Life Pursuit, Belle & Sebastian’s seventh full-length record, restores the balance, leavening the more punchy tracks with tunes that could’ve easily been outtakes from If You’re Feeling Sinister; “Funny Little Frog,” the album’s first single, even goes so far as to lyrically reference “The State I Am In.” Clearly, Murdoch’s reached a sort of peace with his creative duality, since not only does he display a dazzling deftness that’s been missing since The Boy With the Arab Strap, but he’s reached out, including other members of the group in the songwriting process. As a result, though there are a few flubs, The Life Pursuit is easily the band’s most cohesive and consistently enjoyable effort since their 1996 debut.

Dabbling in glam (“White Collar Boy”), jangle-pop (“The Blues Are Still Blue”), and moody compositions that musically echo “Rollercoaster” from the Arab Strap album (“Dress Up in You”), Belle & Sebastian sound like a band accepting itself, settling into its own skin. Full of verve and limited by nothing, it’s thrilling to hear a group so beloved as this taking risks, reigniting its passions, and pushing its sound in fresh directions.

The Life Pursuit is the sound of confidence, a brash, diverse effort that may alienate the diehards, but will most certainly accrue scads of new converts.

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