When you take a nearly five-year break between records, you’re inadvertently but undeniably setting expectations extremely high for whatever comes next. Belle and Sebastian released The Life Pursuit in 2006, and it was met with almost universal praise, hailed as a great step forward for a band that, according to many, had faltered in their original attempt (Dear Catastrophe Waitress) at distancing themselves from their earlier work. Now that they’ve finally gotten around to releasing its follow-up, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, it seems likely there will be a whole lot of people wondering if maybe the band didn’t make the best of those five years.
It won’t exactly be fair, but it will be understandable: Write About Love is, overall, probably the quietest record Belle and Sebastian have ever made, which comes as a surprise considering where they left off. Once the appropriate adjustments to your expectations are made, though, you’ll be free to realize that, jeez, this is an awfully pretty record. Opener "I Didn’t See It Coming,"featuring prominent vocals by multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin, sets things up perfectly. "Make me dance, I want to surrender,"she sings, as a gently swirling keyboard and drum pattern almost meets her demand. It, and they, sound tired, though, and it all sort of dissolves. It fails to rise to the occasion, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John,"the much talked about duet with Norah Jones, is supremely effective 70s-style soft-rock that has Jones sounding sultrier and more powerful than ever. "The Ghost of Rockschool"is an understated standout, with acoustic guitars and horns providing an almost laughably pleasant backdrop for a refrain of "I’ve seen god in the sun/I’ve seen god in the street/God before bed and the promise of sleep."
Engaging as they are, it’s hard to imagine many of these songs becoming staples of their increasingly ebullient live shows, which will no doubt cloud some people’s judgment. Even some of the more upbeat songs, like the title track and "I Want the World to Stop,"are extremely reserved—they’ll allow for dancing, and encourage it even, but it’s not celebratory so much as it is steely-eyed and defiant. If Write About Love is a disappointment, it’s only because while those last two records seemed to be building up to something, there was just no way for us to know that somewhere in there, they’d gone as far as they were willing to go, at least in terms of addressing common misconceptions about their disposition. In a lot of ways, it’s back to business as usual here, but where they’ve really succeeded is in taking elements of those recent albums—high-gloss production and high-impact arrangements—and imparting them on material that less obviously calls out for such things. The result, though not what we expected or even wanted, is stellar.