To call Dear Catastrophe Waitress a “return to form” is silly; it automatically raises one’s expectations that this will somehow match If You’re Feeling Sinister. Let me squash that now – it doesn’t. That being said, it’s certainly better than the drabness of 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (and the nothingness of 2002’s Storytelling), but not because Stuart Murdoch has re-usurped control of the band, abandoning the belief that democracy is the best policy. It’s because that album was a miscalculation on the band’s strengths; they were never meant to be sad. Emerging in a decade where every major singer/songwriter seemed to be afflicted with depression and made music for you to feel similar, they made wholesome music; the narrator of “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” doesn’t cry because the book he’s reading is sad, he cries because the book he’s reading has a happy ending.
1. “Return to form” also doesn’t describe what happens in some of these tracks, because they have never made some of these songs before. Thanks to new producer Trevor Horn, opener “Step Into My Office, Baby” rolls through different styles from the 60s, the rocking insistence of the Kinks to the harmonic intricacies of the Beach Boys (see the breakdown starting at the 1:30 mark), and some of the queerest sounding horns I’ve ever heard (not a bad thing) and Love-inspired chamber pop instrumentation thrown in for good measure. But its lyrics are 100% Belle and Sebastian, playfully touching on the topic of sex without shoving it down your throat (I get the feeling that Belle and Sebastian would rather cuddle naked than indulge in any sweaty activities anyway). For example, there’s the oral sex implications in “She gave me some dictation / But my strength is in administration / I took down all she said / I even took down her little red dress” and the hilarity of “I’ve got to change my ways / Dress for business every day / A sharp suit and a clip-on tie / A big arrow pointing to my fly.” The bawdy language also gives “I’m been pushing for a raise / I’ve been pushing now for days” a double meaning.
2. The title track doesn’t lose an iota energy the moment it starts and “Step Inside My Office, Baby” ends, keeping with much of the same components (sans the breakdown and bridge). The only reprises are when Murdoch delivers the hook, playing on quiet-loud dynamics that would make “Stars of Track and Field” sound one-tone.
3. Their wholesomeness that I spoke to in the first paragraph is never better seen in “If She Wants Me.” Note the mood shift in the lyrics of the chorus, from “If I could do just one near perfect thing I’d be happy / They’d write it on my grave, or when they scattered my ashes” to “On second thoughts I’d rather hang about / and be there with my best friend / If she wants me” (the last instance of the chorus throws in some “Yeah”’s for good measure). The verses don’t fool around either, “It was hard / Like coming off the pills that you take to stay happy” and “Things fall apart, I don’t know why we bother at all / But life is good / and it’s always worth living, at least for a while,” but it’snot just the lyrics, it’s how tenderly Murdoch sings them, launching into falsettos in one of his best deliveries (ever). Trevor Horn doesn’t leave it to just Murdoch and the guitar though, filling out the track by ordering harmonies here and there and sprinkling piano and violin where necessary.
4. But if you want a “return to form,” go listen to “Piazza, New York Catcher.” It’s just Stuart Murdoch and an acoustic guitar here, recalling his Bob Dylan/Nick Drake style with odd chord progressions a la Velvet Underground. And like “Step Inside My Office, Baby,” while this one might have lyrics about baseball (and whether Piazza was straight or gay), it’s has more pressing concerns. It seems to be about two people in the wrong relationship; spending their nights in hotels talking (instead of whatever couples are supposed to do in hotels), living in a “borrowed bedroom virginal and spare,” and the narrator’s own admonishment that while he’ll take care of her, he’s “not what she deserves.”
5. I think adding horns to “Asleep on a Sunbeam” was a bad idea. Additionally, because the vocal melody here is barely realized (really, the only noticeable part is when both lead vocalist Sarah Martin and Murdoch harmonize to run through “All I need is somewhere I feel the grass beneath my feet”), I think it would’ve been better had they made this one a light dream pop number since Sarah Martin’s voice is more suited to that style.
6. The energy from the first two tracks returns with “I’m a Cuckoo,” which features a great guitar riff, later shaded in by additional fuzz and Murdoch lovably forcing Thin Lizzy to rhyme with Tokyo.
7. “You Don’t Send Me” is a lovely kiss off, demonstrating the band as a band. It’s not just the fact that it comes equipped with the album’s best bass line, but the harmonies that back every one of Murdoch’s punch lines in the verses, the backing vocals that come in on the second verse (the 1:00 mark), and the ones that add extra meat with each chorus, “Listen, honey, there is nothing you can say to surprise me (THERE’S NOTHING! THERE’S NOTHING! THERE’S NOTHING!)”
8. The title of “Wrapped Up in Books” recalls some of the best moments of If You’re Feeling Sinister. That’s all I have to say about it, unfortunately.
9. With “Piazza, New York Catcher,” fan-favorite “Lord Anthony” is the only song here that most resembles Belle and Sebastian’s early works; I wouldn’t be surprised if the title character is the same who committed suicide in “If You’re Feeling Sinister.” At first, it’s a touching song about a victim of bullying (“When will you realize that it never pays / To be smarter than teachers / Smarter than most boys?”), but it’s the third verse that matters most, where Tony’s crossdressing is revealed, “Tony, you’re a bit of a mess / Melted Toblerone under your dress / And if the boys could see you they would pass you right by / Blue mascara running over your eye.” But as I wrote previously, it’s the glimmer of hope in the song’s hook, “You’ll soon be old enough to leave them / And without a notion of a care / You’ll lift two fingers in the air to linger there,” each occurrence backed by the briefest and brightest of extra instrumentation.
10. “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love” starts off as cheesily as the title suggests, with lines like “If you find yourself caught in love / Say a prayer to the man above” following a piano ballad opener. But as on “Lord Anthony,” it’s the final verse that matters most, where the gospel-tinged track takes a dark turn, but I’m not convinced it was worth 4 minutes to get there. My favorite part though is when Murdoch goes full soul mode at the 1:32 mark, “If you’re single, but looking out / You must raise your prayer to a shout,” made perfect by the glissando that follows.
11. I had originally wrote “Roy Walker” off as a track that was more novelty than it was good, but the truth is somewhere in the middle. Sonically, this is far and removed from Belle and Sebastian’s palette, from the bluesy guitar that carries the chorus to the whimsical instruments (steel drums!) that flourish under the finger-snaps of the verse. Even the speedy way Murdoch runs through the verses isn’t something he’s done before, and it makes a less than 3-minute race by. But the real treat is how the band layers the two different sounds—blues on one hand, experimental quirks on the other—and slams them together for the instrumental bridge before the last verse and chorus.
12. Likewise, closer “Stay Loose” shies away from what we know of Belle and Sebastian; replacing trademark acoustic guitars for new wave keyboards and replacing Stuart Murdoch with Gary Numan (until the outro).
As mentioned in my first paragraph, it’s not If You’re Feeling Sinister and I’m not daft enough to suggest that it is. As an idea, “Lord Anthony” is touching, certainly, but I can’t agree with the cheesiness of the last couplet of the hook; I’m pretty sure the peace sign was a dated reference in 2003, let alone what it sounds a decade after that (Murdoch should’ve left it alone with “You’ll soon be old enough to leave them”). As an idea, “Stay Loose” is interesting, certainly, but the impressive guitar parts in its bridge or outro and Murdoch’s sprinting through the chorus don’t justify Belle and Sebastian trying a progressive new wave track. All that being said, what Dear Catastrophe Waitress has, that If You’re Feeling Sinister doesn’t, is more variety. Whereas If You’re Feeling Sinister fits better in certain moods over others, Dear Catastrophe Waitress retains what makes Belle and Sebastian fundamentally Belle and Sebastian over a wider sonic palette, and can be enjoyed in a larger variety of moods. I try not to bitch about the tiny things, but I’ll bitch anyway: this is underrated, underrated by Belle and Sebastian purists who don’t think they should’ve bothered with production values and underrated by Belle and Sebastian fans who don’t think anything post If You’re Feeling Sinister is worth listening to.
I guess I’m growing deaf, you’re growing melancholy. Things fall apart, I don’t know why we bother at all.
But life is good.