Though I do enjoy Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit quite a bit, the truth is after 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, Belle and Sebastian traded intimacy for immediacy, losing a lot of what made them unique for bigger hooks and glossy production. And really, their new sound has as often been at odds with Stuart Murdoch’s anemic aesthetic as it has helped them. Years ago, they might have been able to do “Allie” and “The Power of Three” (a song whose title comes from a (great) Doctor Who episode and namedrops the characters of Sherlock; Steven Moffat must be happy) justice, but here they fall flat. It doesn’t help that Stuart Murdoch sees fit to repeat one of his better lines on the former (in case you missed it or because he didn’t know how else to pad out that verse), “You made a list of all your heroes / And you thought about what they went through / Yeah you thought about what they went through,” or how he creates a line so he can force a rhyme in the latter, “Every time I read a horoscope, I read three / Virgo, Pisces, Aquarius / Nobody can tell what’s down the road for us.” And Stuart Murdoch has developed a taste for politics (as evidence by the cover and title), rambling on about guns and knives nonstop in the first three songs that’s too vague to be helpful (violence is bad, kids). Finally, others have compared this to Arcade Fire’s Reflektor because of its more dance-oriented sound, but it’s also apt because both records are far too long made up of songs that are far too long. Neither “Enter Sylvia Plath” or “Play for Today” deserve their 7 minute runtimes; “Perfect Couples” sounds like Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia”’s rhythm but not as infectious, and without “Cecilia”’s melody and runs twice as long.
The good stuff: single “The Party Line” is effortlessly catchy (though “People like to drive their cars and smoke up / People like to sit inside and toke up / People like to shoot at things with borrowed guns and knives” is the worst verse Stuart Murdoch has ever recorded); “The Everlasting Muse”’s choruses come out of nowhere, like the band getting bored of the light dance number so they switch to a full on Scottish jig; “Today (This Army’s for Peace)” has some nice textures (though again, it’s far too long). But opener “Nobody’s Empire” – released almost two decades after the band released their best album – has every right to make a claim for a high spot on any “Top X Belle and Sebastian Songs” list. It’s the first time they’ve attempted to do the subtle climaxes of “The State I Am In” or “The Stars of Track and Field” with their new sound … and they knock it out of the fucking park. Murdoch sings clearly about his chronic fatigue syndrome with a punctuating cadence that pushes the song forward, while the band slowly comes in, adding horns and choirs and gunshots that culminates in such a grand release (“…leave that vision of hell TO THE DYING! TO THE DYING!”) that it’s worth the 5 minute voyage every time.