February 14, 2006

Belle and Sebastian continue their Life Pursuit of idiosyncratic songcraft

Sponges tend to sop up whatever covers their surroundings. The character of a sponge is understood by what it absorbs and then by what it releases. Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian is the perfect sponge. The lead singer and guitarist of the Scottish band finds influences from every genre imaginable. The material on the group’s new album, The Life Pursuit—their sixth overall—takes an element from every page of the musical bible.

On The Life Pursuit, each track emits something different, unique, and significant. The sound of The Life Pursuit is composed of ’40s blues, ’50s country, ’60s soul, ’70s glam rock, and ’80s pop, and ends with ’90s indie and beyond. The band picks up and leads the reins into the uncharted musical territory of this new century. From a wealth of influences, Belle and Sebastian have found their sound. And in doing so, they have produced the best album of 2006 so far.

The Life Pursuit is a cohesive album, in the mold of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. It is not a collection of loosely related songs with no underlying connection. While each track touches on different music from different eras, in the end, the listener comes away with a unique mood that could not have been presented by simple monotony. By incorporating so much, this record has surpassed the band’s previous high note of If You’re Feeling Sinister. If any album of this early year deserves such praise, it is most certainly Belle and Sebastian’s The Life Pursuit—a soundtrack for life and an album for the ages.

By picking and choosing from a musical cornucopia, the band’s sound remains original, despite such an obvious array of influences. The opening track, “Act of the Apostle,” grabs your ear with its vocals and its catchy bass line. “The Blues are Still Blue” demonstrates Murdoch’s ability to channel both Lou Reed and David Bowie without sounding derivative.

With each new song, a different strength of the band takes front and center. “Song For Sunshine” hearkens back to Stevie Wonder and early rhythm and blues. The melodies change, but the band’s core sound remains. In my assessment, the best song on the album is “For the Price of a Cup of Tea.” The melody hypnotizes you instantly, and only someone completely devoid of soul could avoid bobbing along with the beat.

After playing “Act of the Apostle,” you’ll want to listen to the album in its entirety. The Life Pursuit only adds to the mystique of this already idiosyncratic Scottish group. From melancholy to pensive, the band truly spans the spectrum of emotion. The use of piano on the final tune, “Mornington Crescent,” resembles an emotional roller coaster.

Attempting to categorize Belle and Sebastian makes the futility of such an attempt instantly apparent. They are only an indie band if by “indie,” you mean “indefinable.” What this album illustrates is that Belle and Sebastian cannot be pigeonholed by a specific label or genre. This album has redefined a band beyond definition. They are deserving of a new genre, denoting their inexplicable sound that immediately captivates the listener. The Life Pursuit, eclectic to the end, has its mark firmly stamped on the canon of contemporary music.