A full decade into their career, Belle & Sebastian are certainly among the geezers of indie rock, and they show no signs of letting up. “The Life Pursuit” is testament to this. By no means among the best of the year’s releases, the album nevertheless demonstrates exactly the exuberance and playfulness that has kept the band going strong, and its fans caring, since their 1996 debut “Tigermilk.” At the same time, it provides plenty of room for songwriter Stuart Murdoch to experiment with refreshing stylistic changes to the tried-and-true formula established on “Tigermilk” and the band’s breakthrough followup, 1996’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister.” All this, plus Murdoch’s intelligent, sardonic-yet-endearing lyrics in full force, make “The Life Pursuit” one of the band’s stronger releases of late.
Belle & Sebastian’s signature sound is hardly absent from “The Life Pursuit.” The sweetly melodic female-singer rivalry tale of “Dress Up In You” and the bright springtime ode “Another Sunny Day” follow this path — though favoring the updated, brassy style of 2003’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” to the we-invented-Glaswegian-twee of their ’90s work. The latter song begins to hint at Murdoch’s playful exploration, suggesting a better version of The Shins. Who knew Murdoch sounds like James Mercer when he strains his voice?
The most successful demonstration of songwriting chops is “White Collar Boy,” the New Pornographers song A.C. Newman never wrote. Despite the title, the song’s hero is, as often is the case with Belle & Sebastian, a bold girl (both “a Venus in flares” and “a screaming suffragette”) who ditches a chain gang with the titular boy. A different girl provides the material for the bass-driven, schoolgirl picaresque “Sukie in the Graveyard,” an upbeat track inspired by Hunky Dory-era Bowie.
Besides the “plucky young heroine” motif common to all of Belle & Sebastian’s work, “The Life Pursuit” uniquely displays a lyrical preoccupation with religion, a sunny disposition to match, and a thin layer of fuzz in the production level. This offers an otherwise indescribably “Sunday morning” feel, which allows all the songs to succeed (at least partially) simply by being fun, but also excuses the less accomplished tracks.
Chief among these are the T. Rex-aping “The Blues Are Still Blue,” an extended laundry metaphor sung over what would have been, by far, Marc Bolan’s most boring song, and the failed-funk “Song for Sunshine.” Particularly for those fans still blindly holding out for another “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” the band’s poorly conceived jaunt into Sly and the Family Stone territory is the most grievous of several happily forgettable spots in the meaty center of “The Life Pursuit.”
Yet the album resolves itself so beautifully that it’s hard not to forgive the band these missteps. “Act of the Apostle II” opens with an organ before slipping into a few loungey minutes. Stunningly, the track then, with the help of high-pitched synthesizers that oddly evoke Prodigy, comes together beautifully into a reprise of the Shins-like theme of “Act of the Apostle.” With this recapitulation — perhaps unmatched since the conclusion of Arcade Fire’s “Crown of Love” — the band proves that despite its sense of whimsy, its talent is undeniable.
As it bursts into “For the Price of a Cup of Tea” before soothingly concluding with “Mornington Crescent,” the album proves surprisingly coherent given the disparate influences from which Murdoch obviously drew in writing these songs. Ultimately, Belle & Sebastian prove themselves capable of incorporating vastly expanded instrumentation and genre influence without losing their basic identity. While hardly stunning, “The Life Pursuit” will overwhelmingly satisfy both new listeners and old fans.