WRITE ABOUT LOVE – Belle & Sebastian

Belle & Sebastian do not disappoint with “Belle and Sebastian Write About Love.” In fact, they deliver exactly what fans have come to expect. Each of the dozen-odd songs come together to form an album that bears the unmistakeable trademarks of B&S. For one thing, the whole of “Write About Love” is liable to stick in your ear for days after listening. The entire album is both thoughtfully and playfully arranged, from the jaunty electrified pop tunes and equally familiar smooth, modest croons.

B&S don’t explore any new musical ground in “Write About Love.” All of the sonic elements here can be found in the existing B&S repertoire. Don’t get me wrong now; this is not a bad thing. Firstly, experimentation is not imperative in music. Secondly, though every track betrays the identity of its creators within the first three or four seconds, it sounds neither formulaic nor trite. B&S might be treading old ground, but this is OK. This is good. They know what they do best, and they do it.

In fact, with “Write About Love,” they (and by that I mean Stuart Murdoch, mostly) trim some unseemly growths from the B&S sound. One misstep in the past was overdoing the B&Sness and lapsing into the realm of self-parody, both in sound and lyrical content. Another was being overly sappy. Murdoch has always been sentimental (an endearing quality, to be sure, that is abundant on “Write About Love”), but sometimes he took it too far. B&S commit neither crime on “Write About Love.” Instead they  and come through with a more solid sound and a more even palette.

But with all this refining of the B&S sound, there has been a casualty; gone on “Write About Love” is a sorely missed element that has featured much in previous B&S albums, prominent even in the last album, “The Life Pursuit.” I’m talking about those strongly narrative, detail-laden songs about quirky characters in Murdoch’s head, like “The State I Am In” and “Sukie in the Graveyard” and “White Collar Boy.” Instead, the songs on “Write About Love” focus on capturing a general feeling or the circumstances of a certain period in the life of a realistic character, most of them probably versions of Murdoch himself. Hand in hand with this, the lyrics are bit more abstract, and the meaning behind a song sometimes takes a few moments to discern, and while each song still tells a story itself, the whole album itself now lightly outlines a portrait of Murdoch’s mind. Perhaps this is just the place that aging Stuart Murdoch is in, not one to tell stories about Sukie hanging out in the graveyard doing brass rubbings of gravestones or String Bean Jean, who, though wearing jeans that have a label saying “seven to eight years old,” asks if she needs to lose weight. Rather, he seems to be in a place in which he feels like divulging his feelings. This makes “Write About Love” a more reflective, more introspective, more personal album, and it feels much more mature.

And maturing itself is a thematic thread woven through the album, underneath the central theme of dealing with past relationships. “Write About Love,” true to its full title, is largely about wanting to put these past relationships out of mind but ending up dwelling on them. The album itself is Stuart Murdoch dwelling on past relationships. In “Calculating Bimbo,” Stuart reflects at length on his romantic relationship with a girl who left him for another guy and went away, yet still calls him late at night when she is troubled. He tells her, “I wish you’d let the past go.” Then there’s the confrontational duet between Stuart Murdoch and guest Norah Jones, “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John.” “What a waste, I could’ve been your lover / What a waste, I could’ve been your friend,” sings Murdoch. “Yeah you’re great, you’re just part of this lifetime of dreaming,” responds Jones. The most personal song on the album is “Read the Blessed Pages,” in which Murdoch sings over a simple guitar melody. It opens, “Love and pain and sorrow / keep the band together. / She was like a soulmate / whispered in my ear.” I wager the song is about Isobel Campbell, the band’s former cellist who is rumoured to be Murdoch’s ex-lover. In fact, I think most of the songs on this album were written with her in mind. Murdoch makes a heartfelt admission near the end of the song that encapsulates the feeling of the whole album: “Ever will I love you / Now your chapter’s over / Ever will I love you / You were good to me.”

Belle & Sebastian hit the mark with studio album eight (or seven, if you don’t want to count “Storytelling”). They may not be testing new musical waters, but they deliver the sound fans will be familiar with, and they do it much tightlier than they have before. The songs on this album might not tell of extraordinary characters, but in their stead, Murdoch shows to us honestly and gracefully his thoughts and feelings. “Write About Love” is a heartfelt success from a band we’ve grown to love.