THE THING YOU'RE going to hear about the new Belle and Sebastian album, Write About Love, is that it's one of the "good" ones, a welcome return to form for a band whose catalog is—despite a plethora of sublime highs—spotty at best.
This isn't exactly fair. The Scottish septet, now a decade and a half into what still seems like an unlikely career trajectory, has nearly without exception put out consistent product. The fair-weather fans returning to the fold for Write About Love have clearly overlooked the obvious pleasures of their terrific previous two albums, 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress and 2006's The Life Pursuit.
It's understandable that people got frightened away from Belle and Sebastian. When 2000's Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant came out, it was the highest profile record to date for a band that blossomed out of obscurity to become one of the most talked-about bands of the late '90s, yet still one that nobody knew a thing about. And Peasant marks their only significant misstep, an album where the band's trademark wimpiness was a liability instead of an asset, where the melodies trailed off without resolution. It felt far more amateur than their entrancing debut, Tigermilk, and far more inconsequential than any one of the fantastic B-sides that littered their early EPs.
But Peasant also contains one of their finest songs ever: "Women's Realm," a lightly trotting clap-along with a brisk melody that climbs peaks and valleys before its ecstatic, white-busker soul spirals into a whirl of strings. The rest of Peasant has aged well, too, sounding better now than it ever did 10 years ago, even if it lacks the vitality of the band's best moments.
Write About Love opens with its best track, the deliriously good "I Didn't See it Coming." Gentle piano chords anchor a speedy drumbeat, perhaps the closest Belle and Sebastian could ever come to a breakbeat, while a clean guitar plucks out a line that's as ripe and round as an apple. It's a song reminiscent of a more grounded, less sparkly ABBA, perhaps in part due to its female vocals: Sarah Martin takes the reins, with the band's de facto frontman Stuart Murdoch relegated to secondary vocals.
In fact, Murdoch relinquishes the spotlight to women vocalists throughout Write About Love, including a guest appearance from actress Carey Mulligan on the title track for some reason. Mulligan doesn't draw too much attention to herself, thankfully, which is not the case for Norah Jones, who drips her Starbucks-soul candlewax all over "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John." It's what would already be the gloppiest song on the record, a meanderingly slow ballad that's far slicker than what we're used to from Belle and Sebastian. But Jones takes her ubiquitous, breathy, pitch-perfect voice and turns it into something that would comfortably play over the closing credits for a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy. Jones sings well. I'm sure she was fun to have around in the studio. The song is very tasteful. It's also very boring. We're a long way from the unhinged screaming of Monica Queen on 1997's "Lazy Line Painter Jane," still a miraculously and transcendently moving song.
There are some familiar lyrical themes, too: The girl who leaves town and makes good in Hollywood in "Come on Sister" is a direct echo of "Dress up in You." Meanwhile, Murdoch's Christianity lightly but indelibly haunts the architecture of the record, coloring Write About Love the way a cathedral bell colors its surrounding neighborhood. "Read the Blessed Pages," says the title of one song, while the splendid, shimmeringly hopeful "Ghost of Rockschool" opens and concludes with an exultant refrain: "I've seen God in the sun, I've seen God in the street/God before bed and the promises of sleep."
It's been more than four years since Write About Love's predecessor, the still-underrated The Life Pursuit, and about that long since their last Portland date. That show was a rhapsodic, unforgettable evening; Belle and Sebastian had unmistakably and irreversibly grown into their role as a top-notch live band (their early shows were desultory, according to overseas accounts). The show also plainly tore apart a common myth about the group—that, in all their Scottishness, Belle and Sebastian make dreary, devastating laments. In fact, I can't think of a band that makes happier music: It's always delicately poppy and fully exploitative of major chords. There's hope in every last bar.