Belle And Sebastian's Dear Catastrophe Waitress isn't the best album the band ever released, but it may have been its most important. All over the map stylistically, thanks in part to the enlistment of definitive '80s producer Trevor Horn, Waitress had a spottier hit-to-miss ratio than past B&S releases, but it definitively proved that the band could thrive outside the "muscularly strummed pop about sensitive high-school girls" niche it had carved for itself. From that point, Stuart Murdoch and the rest could go anywhere.
And where does The Life Pursuit's opening track, "Act Of The Apostle, Part One," take them? Back to muscularly strummed pop about sensitive high-school girls. But this time, there's a difference. The band sounds reinvigorated even when returning to well-trodden turf, and even livelier when moving away from it. "The Blues Are Still Blue" sounds positively glam, with Murdoch putting as much swagger into the delivery as his voice will allow. (Which isn't much, but he still gets points for effort.) Elsewhere, the band brings in the we'll-try-anything spirit of Waitress and the band's between-album singles, spinning off songs in unexpected directions.
That approach works better here than it ever has. The danceable beat of "White Collar Boy" and funky keyboard of "Sukie In The Graveyard" don't sound like what fans have come to expect from Belle And Sebastian, but the lyrics' finely honed character sketches certainly are. On Waitress, the band sometimes sounded like it was trying too hard, but with The Life Pursuit, Belle And Sebastian regain the confidence evident on their remarkable earliest releases. Only this time, the newfound sense of adventure has turned them into a much more exciting band than they would have been if they'd continued turning out Tigermilk sequels, or glommed onto the trends of the moment. It's as if they finally stopped plotting the next step and just took it.