On “Nobody’s Empire,” which opens Belle & Sebastian‘s ninth album, an energized Stuart Murdoch chronicles his recent bout with chronic fatigue syndrome and poses a question his fans will relate to: “If we live by books, and we live by hope, does that make us targets of gunfire?” He knows the answer — hence the rat-tat-tat sound effect — but after 19 years fronting a delicate indie-pop band beloved by smart, sensitive “twee” types like him, he’s comfortable in society’s cross hairs.
Not so comfortable that he’s coasting, though. On this adventurous LP, the critically lauded Scottish sextet waits until track nine, “Ever Had a Little Faith?,” to offer one of its patented gently strummed character studies. Like much of the album, it’s notably optimistic and lacking in Murdoch’s usual biting wit. “Something good will come from nothing,” he tells a girl in need of a boost, echoing the pep talk he himself gets on “The Everlasting Muse.”
That tune, a sexy bossa nova with klezmer choruses, celebrates the healing power of art, a theme that comes up several times. And fittingly so: Aided by producer Ben H. Allen III (Gnarls Barkley, Animal Collective), Belle & Sebastian deliver their most textured, eclectic collection yet. “The Party Line” is Franz Ferdinand‘s dance-punk hit “Take Me Out” with synths and added anxiety. “Allie” is a sturdy rocker about finding peace in wartime. New-wave-disco groover “Perfect Couples” stars guitarist Stevie Jackson as a third wheel with annoying friends. The sparkly “Enter Sylvia Plath” plays like a Eurovision Song Contest entry from some nation of bookworms obsessed with ABBA. Were it a real place, thoughtful softies like Murdoch might finally cast off those bull’s-eyes.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of Billboard.