First impressions lingering as they do, Belle and Sebastian have spent the better part of the past decade trying to squirm out from under the label of “precious,” which has made the band something of a punchline in that they’re the go-to act for anyone looking to claim that the emaciated femmeboys on the Saddle Creek roster might be able to take another band in a knifefight. It’s a label that the band has successfully challenged only sporadically over the course of four full albums and several EPs. Their best single, 1997’s glorious “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” soars in a way that even the best indie-pop acts rarely do, and it might actually be the best pop single of the last 10 years. Much of the rest of their output, which ranges from the exceptional (1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister) to the considerably less so (their soundtrack to Todd Solondz’s half-good Storytelling), sounds featherweight, even delicate in comparison. Still, for all of frontman Stuart Murdoch’s twee wordplays and Morrissey-like swooning, Belle and Sebastian have always suggested that they had an album of greater heft in them.
The rumblings that they were finally onto something bigger could be felt on their 2003 album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, on which producer Trevor Horn compensated for Murdoch’s occasional lapse in lyricism by emphasizing the nearly unrivaled tunefulness of the seven-piece band’s compositions. After performing the material at Glastonbury, the late John Peel even commented on their “surprising muscularity.” The Life Pursuit, then, finds Belle and Sebastian competing in a whole new weight class. Incorporating a diverse range of new influences—vintage Bowie glam on “Sukie In The Graveyard,” a little lite-funk on “Song For Sunshine,” the Stones’ strut on “The Blues Are Still Blue”—into their ‘60s-style brand of pop in a manner that sounds like a natural evolution for the band, Belle and Sebastian have recorded an album that immediately ranks among the most accomplished pop records in recent memory, an album on which every track is as catchy as “Lazy Line Painter Jane.”
The melodic hooks are huge, but what makes The Life Pursuit a legitimately great album is that Murdoch’s lyrics are at turns witty, insightful, assertive, and sardonic: “If I could have a second skin/I’d probably dress up in you,” he sings, knowing that it would sound like a threat coming from pretty much anyone else. He makes use of distinct narrative voices in ways that recall John Vanderslice’s Pixel Revolt and, like Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry, actively resist a strict autobiographical read, even as the songs cohere into something of a mission statement on approaching adulthood with confidence, humor, and self-awareness. The Life Pursuit is not only a career-defining album for Belle and Sebastian, it’s the first essential album of 2006.