Belle & Sebastian deliver mixed bag as they 'Write About Love' on new album

Some would say Belle & Sebastian have always written about love, ostensibly the theme of this, the Scottish septet’s first new album in five years. They’d be partially right.

On the band’s early records, singer Stuart Murdoch lisped and whispered his way through songs about lonely young folks, treating his subjects with a mix of condescension and compassion. He could be arch and sarcastic, but all anyone focused on were the downy melodies and delicate ’60s-pop orchestrations — hallmarks that earned the group its “sad bastard” label.

That tag has persisted, even as more recent albums “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” and “The Life Pursuit” have seen the band expand and brighten its sound, incorporating elements of glam and dance rock, much to the dismay of twee-pop purists.

“Write About Love” (Matador) falls somewhere between old- and new-school Belle and Sebastian. The slow-going “Calculating Bimbo,” “The Ghost of Rockschool,” “Read the Blessed Pages” and “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John” recall the band’s low-key early days, even if Murdoch’s lyrics lack the cleverness and cutting wit that made those ’90s records so great.

Further proof the band may be losing its edge: “Little Lou” features guest vocals from Norah Jones. She’s a fine singer who’s hipper than her reputation suggests, but indie fans are fickle, and her performance on this Starbucks-ready snoozer doesn’t quite justify the credibility gamble.

The band is better when it continues its progression toward bigger productions, as on the Who-like “I’m Not Living in the Real World,” guitarist Stevie Jackson’s standout contribution, and “I Want the World to Stop,” one of several nods to the Zombies.

Viewed as an attempt to please longtime fans and newcomers alike, “Write About Love” is about as successful as it could have been. It may go down as a minor entry in the Belle and Sebastian catalog, but it’s certainly nothing to pout about.

— Text by Kenneth Partridge, photo by Reuben Cox

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