There is a Norah Jones duet on the new Belle & Sebastian album, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love. A duet with Norah "I Can't Even Think of the Name of Any of Her Songs Because I Just Fell A-ZZZzzzzzz" Jones. Norah Jones sings on the new Belle & Sebastian album. Is any of this getting through to you?
True story: The first time I ever heard Belle & Sebastian was on an in-store mixtape at a suburban Starbucks circa 1998. I was 18 years old, about to enter (community) college. This one tape was the only good one out of the dozen or so premade, corporate-approved mixes we had to choose from (the damn assistant manager was always putting on big band or doo-wop tapes). It was called Contemporary Grind #4 (ugh), and it also contained Elliott Smith, Tom Waits, Wilco, some of Beck's mellow stuff, and, I think, the Cardigans. The Belle & Sebastian songs were "The Boy with the Arab Strap" and "Sleep the Clock Around." I fell in love. I turned the tape up higher than we were supposed to when those songs came around on the four-hour-long rotation. Standing there, on the rubber floor mats, in black Payless work shoes, in little puddles of warm milk and wet brown coffee grounds, you could escape in Belle & Sebastian. "Sleep the Clock Around," with its brisk pulse, its wobbling keys and guitars, its climactic trumpet call, and its gently reassuring vocals, was a promise (even if it was just the promise of sleeping in rather than waking at 5:30 a.m. to open the shop): You will "go to the place where you've finally found/You can look at yourself sleep the clock around." Dreamy, right?
Years later, in the basement apartment of a then notorious split-level party house on 13th off of Pine Street, we listened to "String Bean Jean" (off the Dog on Wheels EP), a bittersweet ode to days of postcollegiate squalor and aimlessness, "houses like a caravan," bills to pay, shit jobs at the cafe to work. It was glorification, sure, and more romantic in song than it sometimes was to live, but it also felt right. It's bad and you're broke, but it's not without its charms, and it's the only youth you've got, anyway. You would miss these days, were in fact already looking forward to missing them—an anticipation of future nostalgias (see "the memory will shine").
So Belle & Sebastian led to a world away from the Starbucks (while putting a nice gloss on whatever time you wasted there), like some underground railroad of indie twee. I followed them to Olympia and K Records, to Slumberland and the Aislers Set; I followed them through the '60s mod pastiche of "Legal Man" to globe-trotting adventure of the Avalanches. It's a shame, then, that all that seems to have led—via the likes of late-period B&S producer Trevor Horn and duets with Norah Jones and all that gaudy '70s choral pop business—right back into a world of adult-contemporary slush.
Of course, it would be foolish to argue that Belle & Sebastian lost their edge exactly. Even at their peak, they were clearly suitable for corporate-coffee-shop soundtracking. But back then, even on the "cool" tape, they stood out somehow—their sound, their attitude, the aesthetic audible in their songs: wimpy yet witty and cool. Something changed over the years—they lost a specific kind of non-edge, maybe, traded one sort of softness for another. If you heard some songs from Write About Love in the mix in a retail environment now, you might not even notice.
Their first three or so albums and accompanying EPs were full of wispy songs that sounded as though they were home recorded by a talented but rather shy band. In the 2000s, though, the band increasingly favored relatively slick, glossy, bright and brassy numbers that sounded like they were recorded by a (gasp) confident band in a professional studio. Admittedly, this is the oldest charge in indie rock, but in this case it really sticks, and, for some longtime fans, it stings.
Sure, there are still some good songs on their latter albums and even on new one Write About Love. Whatever their stylistic whims, Belle & Sebastian, and especially bandleader Stuart Murdoch, have always comprised about an entire Brill Building's worth of pop song-crafting skill. But the ratio of essential to unessential songs has gone from something like 10:1 on their early albums to maybe 2:10. And even then, those new songs sound best if you imagine them stripped down to the style of the band's earlier arrangements.
The band's overall posture has changed over the years, as well. Their early records could make the drudgery of dull work and the baseline craziness of college sound romantic, the messiness of a flophouse wistful, the worry of not knowing where or if you would ever land on your feet feel less like a free fall than like some kind of floating. They made all the dumb trouble and timid thrills of youth sound hopelessly romantic. The best of their latter songs merely do a good job of making success, age, and its attendant affairs sound tiresome. "Step into My Office, Baby" means pulling your head out of the library stacks; it means having a messy grown-up getting it on instead of hand-holding crushes. They've even given up the twee baby talk and started enunciating properly.
If you fell in love with the old Belle & Sebastian, the one that was all "boys" and "girls," cuddling and kissing just for practice, then maybe it's inevitable that you'd feel a little bit listless about their later work. If you listen to song after song about fleeting youth and beauty, about doing something pretty while you can (don't be a fool), about one day feeling nostalgia for it all—well, you're bound to get a little hung up on that idealized past, even at the expense of what might be a perfectly passable present.
And, really, the Norah Jones song isn't so bad. It's even one of the better tracks on Write About Love—ever-so-softly-twangy, with the killer opening lament, "What a waste, I could have been your lover/What a waste, I could have been your friend." Better, though, is "Ghost of Rockschool" (whose title recalls the "school of rock" from "String Bean Jean"): The trumpet is far-off and shining, there's a subtle synth arpeggio on the later choruses, there's an appealingly hollow flute motif, and the organ and guitars and drums are all perfectly restrained. Murdoch is singing about seeing God everywhere and in everything, but it sounds more like he's singing about how you can't go back again. They didn't teach you that one at school.