By now, mostly everyone who cares about these sorts of things has settled into a hardline conception of Belle and Sebastian, and their latest album, Write About Love, suggests there’s no good reason that people should reevaluate their take on the band. Disparaging as it may sound, Write About Love is the work of a group that has decided what they absolutely are, and has put the idea of being adventurous on the shelf for the foreseeable future. This is especially disappointing, considering that their last outing, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, seemed to cast Belle and Sebastian as recharged, inspired, and as searching as ever. “Another Sunny Day”, for example, may not have been entirely new ground for the group, but the interplay between the instrumentalists and Stuart Murdoch’s winding, skyscraping melody made the song positively sparkle. And “Song For Sunshine” took a potentially catastrophic premise — Belle and Sebastian takes on Sly Stone-esque slow-burning funk — and made an album highlight out of it.
There are truly inspired moments on Write About Love, but they are largely cushioned on both sides by listless wheel spinning. Belle and Sebastian are simply doing what they know works for them which, expectedly, yields results that are simultaneously impossible to dislike but just as unlikely to whip their longtime followers into a lather. Almost certainly, their fans that have heard the album have already decided where it lands on the hierarchy, and I’d venture to guess that place is right under Dear Catastrophe Waitress, and considerably under If You’re Feeling Sinister and Tigermilk.
In theory, Write About Love could have been something special for the band. They’ve pulled in an attractive (in all senses) array of guest vocalists, such as Carey Mulligan and Norah Jones, women who certainly know their way around the sort of delicately rendered material that is Belle and Sebastian’s stock in trade. And the songs themselves are never less than breezily enjoyably, but the opening three tracks sound as though the band sleepwalked through them. The band may have always lacked intensity, but they used to remember to throw a few curveballs in, keeping the listener on his or her toes through what was already pretty instrumentally and emotionally complicated music. “I Didn’t See It Coming” contains no surprising moments, no exceptionally erudite lyrics from Murdoch, and the same goes for “Come On Sister”. “Calculating Bimbo” rounds out the album’s introductory phase with dreary, if pretty, unexceptional balladeering.
Thankfully, “I Want the World To Stop” provides some much needed punch to the album’s overly comfortable mood. This isn’t to suggest that “I Want the World To Stop” is new terrain for the group, but the band does sound invigorated, and the vocal interplay gives the song considerable spring. “Write About Love”, possibly capitalizing on Carey Mulligan’s role in An Education, casts her as a dissatisfied ingénue who is revitalized by a new intellectual beau. That idea has the potential to be trite, but Murdoch and Mulligan both possess enough charm to sell the premise.
From there, the band by and large returns to the contented strains of MOR pop to round out the remainder of the album. Belle and Sebastian has never been a band to strut, unless you consider cavalcades of beautiful and heavily considered lyrics unfurling rapidly over unfailingly competent musicianship to be showing off. So most fans know better than to expect fireworks from Belle and Sebastian, but they absolutely have their specialties, and Write About Love delivers them limply. It’s not enough to write the album off as a dud, but it is a letdown, even if the great moments that intermittently show up should reassure fans that Belle and Sebastian are far from being put out to pasture.