10 Years Ago: Belle and Sebastian Broaden Their Sonic Horizons With ‘The Life Pursuit’
For fans who felt they lost the beloved Tigermilk- and If You’re Feeling Sinister-era Belle and Sebastian at the dawn of the aughts, 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress and, arguably to an even greater extent, 2006’s The Life Pursuit served as the Glaswegian indie-pop outfit’s redemption.
While 1996’s Tigermilk gained a significant cult following (the album was the result of a project for frontman Stuart Murdoch’s college music business course), If You’re Feeling Sinister -- which followed later that year and found Murdoch and Stuart David accompanied by a full band -- solidified the outfit’s critical adoration. The follow-up, The Boy With the Arab Strap, however, showed signs of a change in direction that would distract from the Belle and Sebastian's greatest asset: Murdoch’s hyper-detailed, literate and witty songwriting. Instead, Murdoch opened up the creative process to the entire band over the course of the next two albums (2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant and 2002’s Storytelling), sourcing material from the shifting seven-piece lineup.
So when Dear Catastrophe Waitress arrived in 2003, it caught fans and critics unexpected. Murdoch returned as lead songwriter following the departure of David and singer-cellist Isobel Campbell, but that’s not to say the band revisited comfortable, well-trodden sonic ground. Instead, the intimate, bedroom quality of Tigermilk and Sinister was expanded upon with more polished and adventurous arrangements. Waitress would prove to merely be training ground for the 2006 follow-up The Life Pursuit, released 10 years ago this week.
Producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Phoenix) guides Belle and Sebastian’s seventh album (and second for Rough Trade) as it wanders from the glam-inspired “White Collar Boy” and the soulful mid-album “Song for Sunshine” to guitarist Stevie Jackson’s jangly, string-inflected “To Be Myself Completely” and finally the twangy closer “Mornington Crescent.” The album continues and builds upon the fuller sound brought on by Waitress, notably upbeat in comparison to the band’s early efforts.
The inspired mid-career turnaround paid off. The Life Pursuit remains one of Belle and Sebastian’s best-performing albums, peaking at No. 8 on the U.K. charts and No. 65 in the U.S. Likewise, singles “White Collar Boy,” “The Blues Are Still Blue” (on which Murdoch does his very best Bowie) and “Funny Little Frog” (which wryly squeezes in a “The State I Am In” callback) all charted in the U.K. at Nos. 45, 25 and 13, respectively. “We Are Sleepyheads” even made its way on to a couple MTV2 ads. Just five months after The Life Pursuit’s release, Belle and Sebastian reaped the album’s rewards when they sold out the Hollywood Bowl with openers the Shins – a virtual early '00s indie mecca.
Still, Murdoch’s charmingly oddball songwriting remains the anchor, exploring the stories of his colorful, fully realized cast of characters and addressing themes common to frontman’s output: spiritual disillusionment, soured romances and debilitating illness. (Murdoch’s recurring battle with chronic fatigue has inspired much of the band’s catalog, beginning with Tigermilk.)
“Sukie in the Graveyard”’s titular character is a classic Murdoch outcast: a tough-edged runaway who squats at the art school and is the manic-pixie apple of most men’s eyes. (“She liked to hang out at the art school / She didn’t enroll but she wiped the floor with all the assholes,” Murdoch sings.) Elsewhere, “Act of the Apostle” parts one and two serve as the album’s bookends, following another young prodigy who opts for music as religion: “Oh, If I could make sense of it all / I’d stay in a melody / I would float along in my everlasting song / What would I do to believe?” The refrain returns in part two, when the protagonist is turned away from a church choir practice and she decides, “God was asleep.” In the midst of it all, Belle and Sebastian build ornate foundations (organ, horns, flutes, synths) for Murdoch’s musings.
But for as much ground as Belle and Sebastian made between Sinister and The Life Pursuit, the qualities that made them indie darlings in '96 can still be heard a decade later. The melancholic, lilting “Dress Up in You” recalls the band’s beginnings in Murdoch’s rueful kiss-off that manages the sweetest “f--- you, too” ever. But by the song’s end, the horns are full-breadth, much like the album as a whole -- an indication of where the band intended to go next.