Stuart Murdoch knows from adolescent identity crisis. As the leader of Scottish folk-pop bookworms Belle and Sebastian, he’s lisped the prematurely jaded journal jottings of the precocious characters in his songs for close to a decade. If at times he’s overindulged the brats, well, how better to reveal the insecurities behind their kinky, highfalutin boasts? But the 37-year-old Murdoch has somewhat less perspective on B’n’S’s own identity crisis. After a cumbersome attempt to institute a songwriting democracy in 2000 with Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, band member Isobel Campbell departed, following Stuart David, who had already left. Three years later Murdoch brought on producer Trevor Horn, who dressed up Dear Catastrophe Waitress in a glitzy wardrobe of ’60s pop frippery.
After that hearty, rewarding belly flop, The Life Pursuit is a series of cautious toe-dips. Tony Hoffer preserves Horn’s professional sheen but not his swinging charm, leaving us with all bathwater and no baby. As snappy drums nudge past guitar shimmer, Murdoch falls back on stylistic pastiche: “The Blues Are Still Blue” is note-perfect T. Rex; on “Song for Sunshine,” a Funkadelic clavinet washes out into a wan Roy Ayers–style chorus. Re-creations of classic B’n’S are actually less convincing: Perhaps Murdoch’s self-parodic “I’m a genius / I’m a prodigy” shows heart and humor on “Act of the Apostle Part 2,” but on “Sukie in the Graveyard,” he seems to sandwich teen morbidity into a tuneful jaunt just because that’s what we expect from him As on Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Murdoch deftly tweaks the awkwardness of mid-20s courtship; on “White Collar Boy,” a blue-collar girl sexually out-maneuvers the titular bumbler without robbing him of his comic pathos. Yet the surest move toward maturity is “Funny Little Frog.” A confident hook has always been Murdoch’s most convincing costume, but here he doesn’t hide behind his chord changes. In fact, with a forthright delivery that forgoes self-pity or easy jocularity, he fully inhabits the “I” who lingers over lost love. Maybe that’s because the poor sap in the song could easily be Stuart Murdoch himself.
SEE ALSO: Gentle Waves, The Green Fields of Foreverland. . . (Jeepster, 1999)