Stalwart practitioners of indie's most delicate subgenre, Belle and Sebastian finally traded sepia for Technicolor and turned up the volume on their last album, 2006's The Life Pursuit. Exploring brassy Northern soul, glam rock, and Motown with surprisingly credible abandon, Stuart Murdoch's troupe sounded full-blooded and fun like never before. All that extroversion must have been exhausting for the typically demure Scots, because their follow-up has taken a good while to gestate and, four years later, they still sound a bit hungover.
Write About Love is the introverted pop record that its title implies; the cover art, which shows a young woman gazing out a window like wistfulness incarnate, is nothing if not a statement of reticent intent. The title track, which turns out to be the album's most galvanizing tune, is an anthem about beating the nine-to-five grind with a rebellious, though still punctual, lunch break on the roof. Enlivened with brisk Brit-pop guitar and doo-wop vocals, "Write About Love" is one of the tracks on the album that aims to please both diarists and dancers, and taken with other stabs at compromise between the band's intimate and exclamatory tendencies, it suggests that Belle and Sebastian's intent here was something other than a wholesale abandonment of their rollicking reinvention. If only it were more successful.
The canned strings on "Sunday's Pretty Icons" and the blippy-bloopy synths on "Come On, Sister" sound more like the score to an especially soulful Atari game than anything one would expect from a veteran pop act with some aspiration to pull asses out of chairs in concert. When Murdoch and co-vocalist Sarah Martin take turns shouting "Make me dance/I want to surrender!" on the album's opener, it's hard to take them seriously.
As it turns out, the robust arrangements that Murdoch and company felt out on The Life Pursuit blend poorly, sometimes disastrously (hat-tip to "I'm Not Living in the Real World") with the sedated pop sensibilities of Belle and Sebastian's early output. One sad result is that Write About Love sounds best when it also sounds most familiar. "Calculating Bimbo" and "I Can See Your Future" are fine songs that, between the two, the band has done about a dozen times before. At least "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John," featuring Norah Jones, is differently reductive, failing to distinguish itself from the many solid pop ballads that Ms. Jones has already written and performed on her own.
Adding another disappointment to an already inconsistent catalogue, Write About Love confirms that Belle and Sebastian is the type of band that's fully capable of genius, just not reliably or often. It looks less bleak if you consider that the stumbles may well be part of their creative process.