Belle and Sebastian has entered maturity; feverish early acclaim has cooled to comfortable critical appreciation and their fan base remains so unshakeable that they can debut in the top ten on the charts of their native UK despite a nearly five year hiatus.
Their new album, “Write About Love” is a thoroughly charming, if slightly predictable, follow-up to 2005’s “The Life Pursuit” and 2003’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” albums that saw Belle and Sebastian break with their trademark lo-fi sound in favor of funky bass lines and a radio-friendly sheen. “Write About Love” balances the classic and contemporary Belle and Sebastian—while frequently danceable, they’re still the earnest and dreamy indie-pop nerds whose thick-framed glasses have actual prescription lenses in them.
Belle and Sebastian have never been innovators. Theirs has been a career spent skipping down trails blazed by the likes of Nick Drake and the Smiths. Twee pop is nothing new, but they deserve credit for perfecting it.
Bandleader Stuart Murdoch, who wrote and sang every song on Belle and Sebastian’s first two releases, has loosened the reins considerably. Violinist Sarah Martin coos “Make me dance, I want to surrender” on opener I Didn’t See it Coming. Still, Murdoch is never far away, and he sings back-up on this sweetly psychedelic-lite track that’s the perfect start to the album.
“Write About Love” rarely strays far from the sixties; mod influences abound, and could almost sound cloying and derivative, though the band wisely never crosses that line.
Though Belle and Sebastian made their name on contemplative, stripped-down folk, it’s the upbeat and danceable tracks like I’m Not Living in the Real World, Come on Sister, and Sunday’s Pretty Icons that make “Write About Love” great. But the ballad Calculating Bimbo is lovely in its melancholy, and the album’s quieter moments are just as compelling, if far less catchy.
“Write About Love” features a couple of surprising celebrity appearances. Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John is a Murdoch/Norah Jones duet—and the only track on which the album falters—while the decidedly riskier Carey Mulligan cameo on the single Write About Love is pulled off without a hitch, perhaps because Mulligan’s twig-thin soprano perfectly matches Belle and Sebastian’s sound, while Norah Jones just sounds like Norah Jones.
Altogether, “Write About Love” demonstrates great progress for Belle and Sebastian. While it never reaches the highs of the “Life Pursuit” or 1996’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” it sits perfectly between the two albums. Murdoch and crew are still the bookworm-ish wallflowers of fifteen years ago, but they’ve perfectly blended the pop-funk influences of their new direction. They’ve courted mainstream success but maintained their integrity, hit the charts but kept their cred. On their latest release, Belle and Sebastian make maturity sound oh-so good.