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It's neither surprising nor encouraging that after just two lines have passed from the latest Belle and Sebastian album, we've already met a Catholic schoolgirl who's running late for class and in some sort of distress. The mostly Scottish soft rockers have won their literary reputation not just with pretty language and sensitive haircuts and Dostoyevsky references, but by creating a world, a realistic yet decidedly make-believe place that one finds reasonably intact from album to album. Or unreasonably intact--either leader Stuart Murdoch has spent a decade developing pet themes with precision or he's repeated himself a lot and also done the same thing over and over. I take the optimistic side of that debate when the song is good, which keeps me generally optimistic. Especially when I'm playing the band's past two albums: 2003's underappreciated Dear Catastrophe Waitress, their best since 1996's correctly revered If You're Feeling Sinister; and this year's excellent The Life Pursuit.
But back to that schoolgirl. Since they began in the mid-'90s as a larkish collegiate project, Belle and Sebastian have written about a milieu heavily populated--logically at first and then disproportionately--by adolescents and post-adolescents. Their heroes were mousy, horse-toothed poets and sullen tree-trunk leaners, boys and girls "too frumpy for the teenage population of [their] time." Perhaps my mind's eye has duped me, but these kids tend not to resemble the three coquettish, kilt-wearing models photographed extensively for the Life Pursuit sleeve art. Murdoch, the photographer, has become something like the lecherous Matthew McConaughey character in Dazed and Confused: He keeps getting older but his subjects stay the same age.
For fun--no, out of dilatory curiosity--I scanned the lyric sheets to the seven-piece group's six proper albums, plus their two-CD collection of singles and bric-a-brac, and counted the uses of the words "boy" and "girl" (including plurals and compounds such as "boyfriend"). I found 85 "boys" and 62 "girls," with quite a few "kids" tagging along gloomily. By comparison, I came across 28 appearances by a man or men, usually baddies with notable exceptions such as the Christian divinity, and 5 lonely cameos from "women." I didn't double-check these tabulations (too busy attempting to apply the Dewey Decimal System to my T-shirt collection--it doesn't work), but I think the numbers are pretty accurate.
Of course, Belle and Sebastian are pop formalists sometimes, and the Chuck Berry-authorized form is to write about teenagers even if you've got a mortgage and an aching back. And that's fine, up to a point. Also "girl" is monosyllabic and thus malleable, and if you're going to occasionally call grown women girls it's considerate to label grown men accordingly. It's still annoying, though. Don't do it for either sex. Those 85 boys will assure you that Belle and Sebastian's youth-drunk dreaminess is more knowing than arrested, but the band has typified and helped perpetuate indie rock's Peter Pan complex, nurturing an irritating subculture of privileged, apolitical young adults prematurely nostalgic for teenage despair and discovery and all its attendant romance. "The wider issues of the day don't interest you," Murdoch sang in "Put the Book Back on the Shelf," gently (of course) chastising one of his characters, possibly himself. This sort of apathetic insularity and 20 bucks gets you a near-mint Left Banke 45 and another war in Iraq.
And yet only a fool would object with jerking knees to adults writing routinely about teenagers. Teenagers are interesting. Besides, the band is writing less routinely about teenagers these days--they're growing up, just slowly. And that new song about the Catholic schoolgirl, "Act of the Apostle," a sprightly two-part suite in which the character, unlike Peter Pan, ages, contains the following line: "The choirmaster, usually a bastard, knows her mother's sick/He'll be nice to her." That's the song's only reference to the ailing mother--talk about artful, evocative exposition! For the chorus Murdoch employs his falsetto, formerly unreliable, now assured thanks to practice and/or producer fairy dust. "Oh, if I could make sense of it all!" the vocally unblessed choirgirl exclaims, "I wish that I could sing/I'd stay in a melody." At their best, that's what Belle and Sebastian do: They make music that you can inhabit, and obviously that's escapist and childlike but it's also beautiful and ageless.
Belle and Sebastian are popular kids now, but they're still out of step. In the frivolous '90s their music was mostly sad, and in the fraught past couple of years their music has been mostly happy. The old sadness was often romantic, pleasurable sadness, and their happiness is of the pensive sort, on paper at least. But as on Catastrophe, brilliantly produced by Trevor "Frankie Goes to Hollywood" Horn, the sound is alive, rejuvenated. They have rocked, vaguely, before, but on the new album there's oozing "Spirit in the Sky" fuzz bass, non-fossilized T. Rex, sporty call-and-response passages, clavinet-enhanced almost-funk, falsettos angelic not wispy, melodies nicked from "Jive Talkin'."
In the early '00s the band lost original bassist Stuart David and, later, cellist/singer Isobel Campbell, but that was for the best because David's replacement, bassist/guitarist Bobby Kildea plays so well--check out his hot-licks guitar solo on "We Are the Sleepyheads"--and Campbell sang terribly and like a child. Good riddance! Murdoch is the group's lone genius, and his earlier concessions to democracy were well-meaning but problematic. Now, though he still gets some writing help, his version of democracy seems more of traditional leader/backup variety. As a result, the band sounds more led than they have since Sinister and also more like a band than ever. "If you gotta grow up sometime," Murdoch sings as the schoolgirl on "Act of the Apostle II," "you've got to do it on your own." Or perhaps better yet with six accommodating friends and three charming hangers-on in short tartan skirts.
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