Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress

I did not have high hopes for this, the fifth album from this veteran Scottish folk-pop/fop-pop/twee-pop collective (sixth, if you count the scattered Storytelling soundtrack). It’s been three years since their last real album (their weakest), and seven years since If You’re Feeling Sinister, a record so flawless and beautiful and heartbreaking that it’ll never be topped.

When I first heard that Trevor Horn was set to produce the new record, I winced. Horn has given the world “Video Killed The Radio Star”, the Art of Noise, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Seal’s catalogue, and T.a.T.u. All great pop things, sure, but a theoretically inappropriate match for Stuart Murdoch and co., no? And, on my first listen, I did wince a little at the slick production, ultrabright, omnipresent cheeriness, and AM radio friendly pap, all of it eons away from Sinister’s quiet, deliberate grandeur. I knew about all these things from reviews I’d scanned before the album even came out, and even though I knew what to expect, hearing it still surprised me.

Fortunately, it soon revealed itself as a good surprise. I know I’ve heard “better” records this year, some that could possibly withstand the passing of time more successfully than this seemingly slight collection of pop pleasantries. And I don’t care, for I find myself yearning to return to this album again and again more than to Rufus or Stew or even Jack and Meg White. Of course it's no good as Sinister, but we’ve already established that album can’t be topped. On Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle and Sebastian have stopped trying to recreate Sinister’s ennui (which the last few albums strained to, with diminishing results) and instead, with Horn’s understated guidance, they've plowed ahead into new territories that may seem jarring and unsuitable at first. With time, however, they blossom.

“Step Into My Office Baby” announces itself with a B&S signature instrument, the flute. It’s played over a spry hop/stomp which gives way to a sweeter, piano-plunking chorus flowering with a cute chorale, plus odd, ambitious detours into nearly a capella folksiness, slow, sassy, country blues, incidental strings, and the kitchen sink. It’s swift, funny, and rousing—nearly approaching the perfection of the group’s singles. The title track whips up the same sort of heavenly fluff, with the added orchestral tinge of “I’m Waking Up To Us”, but “If She Wants Me” is the album’s first real departure. Straight-up, nearly funky Al Green-type soul should come as no surprise to anyone who’s heard Storytelling’s “Big John Shaft”, but where that track fizzled as a forced genre pastiche, this one has uplift and genuine feeling for the classic sound it’s trying to recreate.

Which makes the next track, “Piazza, New York Catcher”, all the more shocking, as it’s just Stuart singing over an acoustic guitar. An adorable little story-song ditty, it’s the only track here even remotely like anything from Sinister, and for a few minutes, it shows Stuart is still capable of recapturing that magic. A few tracks later, the band shows they’re also up to that challenge on “Lord Anthony”, a tragic lament about a cross-dressing misfit that is this album’s “The Fox In The Snow” or “We Rule The School”. “Asleep On The Sunbeam”, on the other hand, is this album’s requisite girl/boy debut (see “Storytelling” or “Beyond The Sunrise”), and has its most affecting, stirring use of horns. “You Don’t Send Me” dabbles in Sesame Street Motown, while “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love” and “Roy Walker” are both spirited bubblegum, but with a quirky, nearly acidic aftertaste. “Wrapped Up In Books” is clever and catchy enough to make such cheesy touches as cheapo organ and Wings-like horn breaks endearing rather than annoying.

But, this album’s brilliance lies in the way that these good-to-great songs lead up to two magnificent peaks; in pre-CD times, they would’ve been called side-enders. The first, “I’m A Cuckoo”, is an exuberant, sublime Thin Lizzy tribute that sure feels the most infectious song they’ve ever recorded. Guitars, synths and horns bounce all over this one, but the key is in Stuart’s jaunty melody (one of his best ever) and fervent, articulate vocals.

The other key track, “Stay Loose”, ends the album and is nearly seven minutes long. It has as many left turns as “Step Into My Office Baby”, and most B&S fans might think, “What The Fuck?!” when they first hear it, as it’s a million miles away from anything else the band has ever done. Sidestepping their usual Kinks/Beatles/Simon and Garfunkel fixations, here they aim for an odd but inspired blend of Elvis Costello (keyboards), Blur (lyrics and Stuart’s Damon Albarn-esque vocal), and Richard Thompson (literate guitar duels). But, the initial shock soon wears off, and the band’s greatest attributes shine through a setting that, while different, still works; it just never occurred to any of us that it was possible. While far from perfect, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is all about uncovering such unforeseen possibilities and bringing them to life.