On "The Life Pursuit"
Updated: Jul 21, 2019
As a high school student in the late 2000’s, my life was soundtracked by the internet’s coming of age and the sudden emergence of streaming, perhaps first heralded for income-less teenagers by Pandora Internet Radio. While I did homework, generally unobtrusive alt-rock pulsed in my headphones. As I clicked the little thumbs up icon, I taught the algorithm what to play. As the algorithm played, it taught me what to like. This circular relationship somehow fostered my introduction to some truly great music—and it is how I came to love Belle and Sebastian. They were, in all sorts of ways, a revelation for me. Their congruence with my musical and personal predilections was not so contingent upon one sound as it was upon a whole range of them—glittery rock and roll, winding orchestrations, and intimate, airy ballads ran my adolescent emotional gamut and signaled solidarity. I would eventually seek them out, privileged to listen from the late-middle portion of their long career, starting with the essentials and later diving deeper into their discography. I suppose I became a fan of Belle and Sebastian by accident.
This was not only impossible a decade prior, it was discouraged. Belle and Sebastian, now a European music festival staple and frequent world tour act, were once de facto cult leaders. Their prolific 1996-2000 period saw what many consider to be their finest, most original releases (including their magnum opus If You’re Feeling Sinister) all while the band was embodying an intentionally mystifying and esoteric public persona, refusing interviews and photo-ops and U.S. music releases. As their commercial success grew more prominent, Belle and Sebastian hit an uneasy puberty—shifting roles and tastes among personnel resulted in two lackluster albums, departing musicians, and a label change. Then came 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the rosy-cheeked freneticism of which was met with both endearing praise and utter confusion from critics. Doubling down on the feel of Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ more glamorous pop-rock tunes, Belle and Sebastian released The Life Pursuit in 2006 to widespread acclaim. TLP occupies an odd place in the Belle and Sebastian canon—a kind of affirmation that, yes, they were ready to be more visible and available and sunny. Simultaneously, however, the band preserved core narrative and thematic elements that lent continuity to the evolution. This shifting of identity, leaving behind the old and welcoming what comes next while holding fast to what is essential, makes TLP as impactful and enjoyable a listen now as it was when it was released thirteen years ago.
Like most other collections of Stuart Murdoch songs, The Life Pursuit is structured loosely around a character’s search for meaning in mundane spaces, this time it is a young woman caring for a sick mother and trying craft identity and direction out of the double-edged swords of music and church. Music and personal faith are paralleled as meaning makers and safe havens throughout TLP (“My Damascan road’s a transistor radio”). These dual virtues are set against the consistent fragility and flakiness of TLP’s characters. Tricky social dynamics and unwelcoming organized religion interrupt human relation. Lovers fall in and out of idealism and affection. Dilettantes and elitists lose and find themselves. Friendships dissolve into venom. Music and faith not a cure for these afflictions but rather a safe base to which the record’s characters might return if they need respite. They are steadfast in the chaos.
In a welcome turn from the simplicity of Murdoch’s more gentle albums, The Life Pursuit allows Belle and Sebastian’s many members to display their musicianship. The record is teeming with showy solos and rich, layered instrumentation. It is this album that truly sees Murdoch’s intimate whispers step outwards into a surprisingly suitable strut, and it is here that present day Belle and Sebastian (perhaps less relevant although not necessarily less good) really come into being. With this in mind, TLP actually includes some of the most notable songs in Murdoch’s catalogue. The clever, sweet lead single “Funny Little Frog” is as much an accomplishment in avoiding the creepiness of distant, unrequited love as it is a tribute to soul. The floaty, divine “Another Sunny Day” sonically captures the lofty highs and sudden dissipation of a relationship with gleaming, contrapuntal electric guitars and poetic lyrics with profound specificity. Standout album track “Blues Are Still Blue” is funny and danceable rock and roll. Murdoch’s trademark ironic melancholy is on full display, too, as the hilariously brutal yet placid “Dress Up in You” clothes unhealthy attraction, infidelity, and rage in mellow horns and bandmate Sarah Martin’s delicate harmony.
The Life Pursuit finds its relevance to modern listeners not in its singles, however, but rather in its quiet interrogation of the dialogue between person, music, and ultimate concern, and it relishes not in providing cheap answers but in exploring the experience of not having them (the closer “Mornington Crescent” ends the record with the words “Life became fruitless / Egotistic swine to all your friends / All the ladies and the men / The possibilities suggest themselves to me / We’re a little too free”). A poignant expression of this existential conversation appears in “For the Price of a Cup of Tea,” as Murdoch sings: “For the price of a cup of tea / You'd get a seven inches / Soul black vinyl to stop your tears / You can use my stereo / You might be the village joke but / Don't listen to the gossip of the other folk.” Who we are, how we associate with one another, our hopes and beliefs about the greatest matters, and how we express that through music are all inextricably connected.
Listening to this record in 2019 compels the listener to ask how we explore that connection now. In an age of ephemeral data, a time when a “masterpiece” is a masterpiece because it remains in public discourse for two weeks rather than one, it can feel as if we have undercut our ability to have music “stop our tears.” Rather than acquire something corporately produced and through ownership and community make it personal, the streaming market has allowed corporate ownership of songs to extend into the listener’s bedroom, as more and more we replace intentionally sought out music for official playlists and radio stations compiled by someone somewhere else or by no one at all. Our relationship to it may be consequently weakening and, frankly, who is a fan of anyone anymore? Many folks now identify with genres or subgenres as much or more than artists. The breakneck pace at which we consume songs (especially top 40 hits) forces the landscape to shift and change constantly, and savvy pop musicians are adjusting to this tectonic shift with increasingly fleeting songs. Belle and Sebastian, too, have dramatically shifted their public presentation with the industry’s metamorphosis. They went from refusing to talk to anyone about their searching and vulnerable songs to working up “warm summer jam” versions of old albums. Even universally recognized icons do not feel as if they have fans due to their ubiquitous embeddedness in our culture (who isn’t a fan of Kendrick Lamar or Beyonce—and if everyone is, then is anyone?). Fatalism is not called for here, culture works on pushes and pulls and a broad cultural reaction to streaming is likely to take root at some point, but we as communicators with art are more than consumers, we are participants in the artistic process. This participation has consequences for each of us that are as ultimate as they are varied, and if music is not engaged critically and consciously it will lose its immense power to our apathy. The Life Pursuit illustrates this for us with grace, and its spiritual intelligence in this regard more than justifies an ongoing audience in this decade and into the next.