TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 12 July 2017
Stuart Murdoch's Belle And Sebastian were formed in Glasgow in 1996, releasing intelligent indie music that has been too widely enjoyed and commercially successful to describe them as a cult band, but not successful enough to call them a mainstream act, either. They share a similar characteristic to Neil Hannon's The Divine Comedy in that, without delving deeper into their music, it would be easy to dismiss them as light and twee, but people who have actually bought the albums and been to the gigs know exactly how intense, dark, funny and beautiful their music is. The Life Pursuit is Belle And Sebastian's seventh studio album, but it was my gateway album into their musical world via the single The Blues Are Still Blue, which I first saw when I was watching music television (either VH1 or M2 at the time; back when you could still hear some great material by putting a music channel on). It remains, to this day, my favourite Belle And Sebastian album, despite the fact that some of their other albums are rated higher by long-standing fans. There is something hugely appealing about The Life Pursuit that, as good as some of their other albums are, I've never quite gained from their earlier material. Perhaps it is that “first album” feeling, but I don't think it is; for me, it is the perfect blend of melodies and lyrics that all seem to come together on this album. Fans may disagree, but I believe The Life Pursuit is the high point in Murdoch's career so far.
Opening track Act Of The Apostle is enjoyable; a gentle introduction to the album which opens with a Beautiful South-esque piano line and takes a lyrical snapshot of a life a girl is clearly aching to escape, beautifully blending the mundane and profound. Another Sunny Day is the first song on the album that completely knocked my socks off; richly melodic, infinitely catchy and with poetic lyrics that I can only describe as genius-level. The mixture of romantic imagery, the way the harmony line sweetly repeats the profanity (never fails to make me smile) and the sad final verse that pollutes the waters (“The lovin' is a mess what happened to all the feeling?/I thought it was for real; babies, rings and fools kneeling/And words of pledging trust and lifetimes stretching forever/So what went wrong? It was a lie, it crumbled apart/Ghost figures of past, present, future haunting the heart.”). The White Collar Boy is an irresistible glam rock stomper, detailing a fractured possibly never-going-to-happen romance between a petty criminal and his squeeze, the story playing out like a small-time Bonnie and Clyde tale. The Blues Are Still Blue is the song that pulled me into Belle And Sebastian fandom, and it still sounds as terrific as the day I first heard it, with humorous lyrics, verses that are as catchy as choruses and a foot-tapping rock shuffle beat; it's beautifully simplistic, but I defy anyone to listen to it and not be completely won over by its charm. It's the kind of song that really should have, in a just world, been hugely successful.
Dress Up In You is a gentle, romantic composition with pithy, amusing lyrics and a deft, appealing trumpet solo, whereas Sukie In The Graveyard is an extremely likeable, uptempo tune, featuring a combination of a catchy, nimble drum beat, organ punctuation, a fast-paced vocal line and an excellent electric guitar solo. An Aztec Camera-like guitar permeates the genial We Are The Sleepyheads and a funky electric piano and laid back beats are prominent on the verse of Song For Sunshine, before the blissed-out chorus treats us to a harmony-rich aural massage. Funny Little Frog is one of the highlights of The Life Pursuit; it's a wonderfully catchy, slightly skewed love song with the kind of melody that sticks in your mind for days after you hear it. To Be Myself Completely, written by lead guitarist Stephen Jackson, with its Motown beat and accentuating guitar, Beautiful South piano and Dexy's Midnight Runners violin solo, is a very enjoyable, listenable song and the excellent Act Of The Apostle II sees another narrator describe a slice of their life, possibly from the same settings as the original Act Of The Apostle; two sides of the same coin, if you like. In fact, it is two wonderful songs in one, as it segues into a reworking of the track that opens the album and back to the voice of the first character we were introduced to. It's a brilliant touch.
The album concludes with the jolly, irreverent For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea and the tender but world-weary ode to Camden: Mornington Crescent. It's the perfect come down after such a collection of magnificently, beautifully written songs; a little postscript to the album, the kind of release of breath that Bar Italia provided on Pulp's seminal Different Class. Generally speaking, this is a severely underrated album, both amongst Belle And Sebastian fans and the wider music-listening public. Although it is one of the most commercially successful titles, it met with a mixed response from the music press and there are few who would place this album amongst the best of the decade (although Pitchfork did; quite deservedly so). Personally speaking, this is the brightest that Stuart Murdoch has shined for me and the band are absolutely red hot on this release, especially guitarist Stevie Jackson, keyboard player Chris Geddes and drummer Richard Colburn; it's partly down to the superb production by Tony Hoffer, but rarely have Belle And Sebastian sounded so vital and alive as they do on this record. I'm going to stick my neck out and say that The Life Pursuit is a modern day classic and this magnificent helping of perfect pop is the ideal record to introduce anybody to the work of Stuart Murdoch. It is and will probably remain my favourite Belle And Sebastian album and, even more than that, one of my favourite records of all time.