Although it’s unlikely that my eyes and ears both deceive me, I could have sworn that Belle and Sebastian Write About Love came out a few years ago. Hell, the first few chords of “I Didn’t See It Coming” is reminiscent of “Another Sunny Day” off The Life Pursuit. While an unexpectedly funky breakdown shakes off the déjà vu halfway through the song, the track still feels too familiar for its own good. And too mannered, too middle-of-the-road.
Familiarity might be Write About Love’s fatal flaw, but is that Belle and Sebastian’s fault? They’ve based their whole career around being mannered, polite — or at least that’s what the standard narrative would have you think. Although they’ve never successfully lost the ‘high school drama club’ referents, Belle and Sebastian’s musical palette has expanded substantially over their 14, post-Tigermilk years. And even on that debut album, those Glaswegian uni students displayed a range greater than their winsome, sweater-y reputation would have led you to believe. It’s a testament to their creative stamina that they’ve outlived many an electric renaissance, but as they themselves have embraced electricity — as well as other trappings of the modern age — they’ve lost some of the homemade feeling that made their old singles so worthy of devotion.
It’s insulting and regressive to criticize a band only on the merits of their early work, but it’s worth mentioning how cult-like a following Belle and Sebastian had amassed in the late 90s. Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell were notoriously shy figures, and their reticence helped preserve the air of mystery that the band had cultivated through sexually ambiguous lyrics and all around sad-sackery. It was Belle and Sebastian that Jack Black said “[sucked] ass” in High Fidelity. They were so meek, so anti-rock ‘n’ roll. Swoon.
But could even their most ardent fans (or detractors) claim to have such strong responses to their newer material? Fan passion might not be such a trustworthy measure of quality, but it speaks to how professional Belle and Sebastian have become over the years. Write About Love sounds great — clean, crisp, sharp — but it’s also mediocre to its core. Stuart Murdoch hasn’t abandoned his usual themes, so it would be unfair to call the record impersonal or generic, and yet, that’s exactly how it feels after the first listen, and even still after the fifteenth. The studio sheen won’t shock anyone who’s heard Dear Catastrophe Waitress or The Life Pursuit, but Write About Love lacks both the variety of the former and the consistency of the latter. Worst of all, the flow of the album is ruined by the guest appearance of Norah Jones on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John.” Jones does well enough, but her countrypolitan crooning doesn’t particularly mesh with either the band’s Scot-pop stylings or Murdoch’s wonderfully soulful vocals.
Religion is the dominant theme on Write About Love, and its prevalence lends a sense of cohesion to the record, but cohesion can’t redeem feelings of utter disappointment. Belle and Sebastian used to write with great specificity and remarkable economy. The same can no longer be said. “I Didn’t See It Coming” notwithstanding, several other songs are pale shadows of former glories. “I’m Not Living In The Real World” and “I Can See Your Future” are enjoyably kitschy, but also bloodless and bland. “Don’t leave me behind/ Stuck in a memory,” Sarah Martin sings on the second of those two songs, but the lyric, unfortunately, is most poignant in the context of Belle and Sebastian’s career.
The future isn’t looking all that bright for Belle and Sebastian, but the same could have been said after Fold Your Hands, Child and Storytelling. If Belle and Sebastian appear to be repeating themselves here, maybe that just means there’s another minor reinvention coming somewhere down the line. As with most other religions, it’s easier to stay optimistic, to keep the faith rather than to lose it. Write About Love has enough to recommend it, but too little to justify its existence. Nevertheless, I — and many other longtime fans — will direct my hopes toward the future.