Album Review: Belle and Sebastian Write About Love


Belle and Sebastian Write About Love
Belle and Sebastian Write About Love (Album Art)

Disclaimer: I am a terribly huge fan of Belle & Sebastian. Every second of every song they have written is subject to multiple interpretations. This review attempts to address a few such interpretations. Belle & Sebastian are an easy band to lose yourself in.

At first, the title of Belle & Sebastian's new album seems awkward: Belle & Sebastian Write About Love. The addition of the band name to the title initially feels superfluous, almost like a band pulling the time-honored trick of releasing a self-titled album several records into their career in a painfully transparent attempt at reinvention. But careful analysis reveals what we should have known all along: Belle & Sebastian know exactly what they're doing. You see, Belle & Sebastian have always felt like part of their own mythos, often writing songs about the transformative nature of, well, writing songs. (see "Judy and the Dream of Horses" or "This Is Just a Modern Rock Song"). When we see the band name in the title, we as listeners should expect that Belle & Sebastian are here to write about love in their own signature way: strong melodies, alternating moods of sadness and cheer, and a wavering nature of what is real... and what may not be.

The centerpiece of Belle & Sebastian Write About Love is its title track (sidenote: really, shouldn't any album with a title track have it be the centerpiece?). "Write About Love" is a marvel, a flawlessly constructed song that stands with the very best the band has ever done. Never mind the fact that any other band would kill for just one of the four separate melodic sections (intro, verse, chorus pt. I, chorus pt. II), never mind the way each instrument carves out its own hook. I want to focus on the song's layers. Lead vocalist Stuart Murdoch handles the verses, imploring the as-yet-unknown protagonist to escape their situation by writing about love. Sounds straightforward enough. The choruses are handled by actress Carey Mulligan, singing of her humdrum existence as a bored office worker who takes extended lunch breaks to write fanfic about an imaginary boyfriend.

Straightforward enough? Look closer. Murdoch's lines would indicate that the protagonist is "sick" and unwell. Maybe he's imploring her to escape her own reality through the act of writing. Better yet, what if Mulligan's chorus sounds so joyous because it's merely escapist fantasy? To summarize: Carey Mulligan is a woman, who -- is an actress by trade, who -- plays the role of singer in a rock band, who -- sings as a sickly invalid, who -- writes about love to emulate a bored office worker, who -- "escapes" her own job to the roof where she writes about a man, who -- may very well be either Jesus, Stuart Murdoch, or a separate character entirely (who knows, maybe other songs on the album are sung from his perspective?). And here you thought Inception was multi-layered. All of this mirrors the experience of a music listener, who is listening to the song with the intention of escaping their own reality for two minutes, 49 seconds.

Belle & Sebastian Write About Love seems fascinated with this idea of unreality, the idea that all of the songs' protagonists--and all of us--are writing out their/our own histories and fantasies as they go along. Warped memories and perceptions abound: the titular characters of the Norah Jones duet "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John" are revealed at songs' end to be **SPOILER ALERT** inventions in Norah's head to distract her from the guy she wishes she'd have dated longer. The narrator of "Come on Sister" can't decide whether to imagine his mate as a movie star or... as she actually was. While one would think "I'm Not Living in the Real World" to be part of this trend, in true Belle & Sebastian irony, its narrator is arguably the most grounded character on the album.

There's a track on the album near the end that is easy to overlook, yet lyrically, it's as vital as any to the overall concept. It's called "Read the Blessed Pages," and I'll try to be as concise as possible. Stuart Murdoch sings of an old flame from years ago-- it's one of those songs that seems so obviously to be about Isobel Campbell, it almost can't be about her, which of course means it actually is-- describing his own personal experiences with the overlap between love, literature, and songwriting. "Moan about the present/venerate the past," he sings, and I notice a great obsession (and yes, I think that's the right word) with events and figures from the past, starting with the first lines of the album. There's a great deal of venerating the past, and Murdoch even finds time to castigate the "calculating bimbo" for doing just that, imploring her, "I wish you'd let the past go." However, as "Write About Love" instructs us, the artistic creations here "can be in any tense, but it must make sense," so we also see instances of clairvoyance, supernature, even (gasp!) appreciating the present. The final song, "Sunday's Pretty Icons" is a timeless reverie that may or may not be taking place in heaven.

Oh yeah, fun fact: as with just about everything else Belle & Sebastian have recorded, it's possible to read each song as a parable for various aspects of Christian soteriology. Have fun with that.

Like I said earlier, Belle & Sebastian are easy to lose yourself in. But I feel I haven't yet answered what you're probably wondering: is it any good? Well yes, it is. This is a pleasant and engaging record that isn't as immediate as their last few albums, and yet not as understated as their early work. Until you start to pick up on the themes and concepts, things can feel a little disjointed or even sluggish; they could have done a better job at spacing out the slower tracks to avoid "sagging." This is an album that will entertain immediately and still provide ample rewards over time. Every Belle & Sebastian album is an entry point to the band's mythos in its own distinct way, allowing Belle & Sebastian Write About Love to be accessible for newcomers, while remaining essential for the fans. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go pore over "The Ghost of Rockschool" a few more times to figure out if it is, indeed, a metaphor for the history of the band and of all rock and roll. When Murdoch mentions "Lawrence and Phil," do you think he's talking about Taylor and Simms? I mean, he has written an entire song about the baseball Giants before ("Piazza, New York Catcher"), so isn't it conceivable that he would tackle the football Giants? But how does that tie into God?