Belle and Sebastian are now 10 years into what has proven a fairly brilliant career, and they still have to put up with writers calling their music twee. Granted, their records typically have been hushed and retiring, their arrangements gauzy and finely wrought. But over the course of seven albums and God knows how many singles, the Glaswegians’ sound has grown increasingly expansive, even to the point, on their new CD The Life Pursuit, of incorporating elements of funk, disco and samba. It might be a stretch to call the album voluptuous, but it’s analogous in any case to the Beach Boys’ Wild Honey—a sumptuous, groove- and harmony-splashed set of soul-steeped pop only hinted at by the group’s previous work.
The Life Pursuit is an avidly referential and recombinant record. Glam makeovers abound, but there are also the Sly-style incantations and clavinet on “Song for Sunshine,” the chank-a-lank Dayton-funk guitar intro to “We Are the Sleepyheads,” and the cascading piano and surging horn lines—lifted straight from the Grass Roots’ “Midnight Confessions”—on “Funny Little Frog.” You can even do the Hustle to “For the Price of a Cup of Tea.” These bold, dappled gestures might be a departure from the muted drawing-room reveries of early Belle and Sebastian touchstones like Are You Feeling Sinister and The Boy With the Arab Strap, but they’re no less enthralling. Treat these flourishes as if they were samples, as allusions that linger just long enough to hook a passage before the music darts off in a bracing new direction, and they become addictive. With arrangements fattened by producer Tony Hoffer, a veteran of sessions with Beck and the French duo Air, the punchy, swinging tracks on The Life Pursuit are anything but twee.
The record qualifies as a sort of soul music, though not just because of the way that it sounds. The songs of principal singer and writer Stuart Murdoch have long been preoccupied with coming of age—with finding one’s place in the world, be it at school, in the bedroom or on the pop charts. Perennially consumed with what he might become—not just socially or professionally, but emotionally and spiritually as well—Murdoch has always been obsessed with how, in the end, to cultivate a soul. This is the guy who on his band’s 1996 debut confessed, “I gave myself to God / There was a pregnant pause before He said OK.”
A fair amount of the group’s 2003 album Dear Catastrophe Waitress engaged spiritual concerns explicitly. But Murdoch’s latest clutch of miniatures signal a sort of arrival, an acknowledgment that this business of forging a soul is, as the title The Life Pursuit suggests, the stuff of vocation. Song titles like “Act of the Apostle” alone would have given Murdoch away. “If you gotta grow up sometime / You’ve to do it on your own,” he admits over a raggy music hall shuffle in “Act of the Apostle II.” “I don’t think I could stand to be stuck / That’s the way that things were going.”
Murdoch’s aspirated, often diffident delivery has never ranked him among the most muscular or assertive of vocalists; yet there’s an urgency to his performances on The Life Pursuit in keeping with the pressing rhythms of the album’s music. “Honey’d sweet apples, they’re rotting away / Millions of people never start in the race,” he reckons, awash in the roiling funk undertow of “Song for Sunshine.” By way of parting—and as a statement of purpose—in “To Be Myself Completely,” he tells his lover, “Forever and for no one I will let it all go by / And to be myself completely I’ve just got to say goodbye.”
Avowals like these are interspersed throughout The Life Pursuit, underscoring Murdoch’s need, to paraphrase a passage from Keats, to become “personally himself.” This process of what Keats called “soul-making” has led Murdoch down a persistently penumbral path, one riddled with questions both metaphysical and existential. “Oh, if I could make sense of it all!” he yearns in “Act of the Apostle II.” “I wish that I could sing / I’d stay in a melody / I would float along in my everlasting song / What would I do to believe?” Blissful strings and winds lift his supplication, giving something of a lie to his profession of uncertainty, or at least suggesting that he’s more attuned to the mysteries in question than his lyrics let on.
The chorus of “Song for Sunshine” goes a ways toward confirming this suspicion. Here, admonishing Murdoch during a rhapsodic piano-and-synth interlude, a chorus of kindly voices chants, “Sunshine, we all see the same sky / Looking, learning, asking the same ‘Why?’ ” Ultimately, it’s this implication of community that lights Murdoch’s way, and that maybe accounts for all the familiar musical allusions on The Life Pursuit. Perhaps he’s discovered that it’s only when immersed in the familiar, only when under the sky and the spell of the sounds that people share, that any of us can forge an identity and become uniquely ourselves. That only through the immanence of the everyday can any of us hope to experience transcendence.