There is a moment during Write About Love, the eighth studio album from the loose-knit Glasgow outfit Belle and Sebastian, when the stars seem to align. It's the surprise appearance of the recent Oscar hopeful Carey Mulligan, who lends her breathy vocal to the album's title track and alludes to a different life with the lines: "I hate my job / Every day I'm stuck in an office."
The star, who is best known for portraying a frustrated 1960s schoolgirl in An Education, was surely born to record with the group, whose vast catalogue of twee coming-of-age pop contains dozens of songs about such characters, and whose record covers are invariably adorned with black and white images of them. But like the rest of the album, the brief but perfectly played match-up almost never came to be.
Stuart Murdoch, the group's complicated and rather delicate frontman, has spoken at length about how he felt they had drifted apart during the years since their 2006 release, The Life Pursuit, and about his surprise that they found time to record together again. He had been busy with his music and film project, God Help the Girl, while the drummer, Richard Colburn, was most recently heard playing with the alt-country supergroup Tired Pony.
But Write About Love doesn't sound like a last-ditch attempt to preserve a fading dream, or worse, an incoherent collection of recordings that demonstrate what everyone learnt during their time off. Instead, the album sounds as though it could have been made at almost any point during the group's 15-year career. It opens with I Didn't See It Coming which, led by Sarah Martin's gentle vocals, slowly grows into the kind of densely arranged, swinging pop tune that Belle and Sebastian do best. Later on, the brilliantly titled Calculating Bimbo is a reminder of Murdoch's ability to combine charming wordplay and emotionally resonant delivery.
Write About Love (featuring Mulligan) is perhaps the album's high point, featuring a supercool 1960s-style organ sound and guitarist Stevie Jackson's snappiest riff. All the retro elements coalesce perfectly over one of the best choruses the group has ever created and a hilarious call and response lyric between Mulligan and Murdoch. Indie purists will feel less comfortable about the album's other major collaboration, however. The song Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John features the velvety tones of the multimillion seller Norah Jones. Played like a smoky Diana Ross ballad, there's no denying that the song is skilfully executed, but it will sink or swim depending on the listener's preconceptions about Jones.
One of the album's rare upbeat numbers is I'm Not Living in the Real World, a brilliantly ecstatic pop tune sung with all of Jackson's optimistic energy and driven by an "ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh" backing vocal. Even its drastic key changes are hugely enjoyable. Towards the record's end, a succession of pleasant but slightly unremarkable ballads causes the album to drag, but there are some incredible moments tucked-away there too. A reflection on Murdoch's relationships with his bandmates, Read the Blessed Pages features one of his most intimate performances to date, while the synth-drenched Sunday's Pretty Icons manages to pull-off a dark and suspicious tone that feels entirely new for the group.
While their last release was heavy on theatrical rock songs about cartoonish characters, (Funny Little Frog, White Collar Boy, for example), this album - dominated by understated ballads - feels much more personal in nature. But it would be a mistake to assume that Murdoch's love songs are all autobiographical, or equally that his third-person creations aren't actually all about him. The truth is that Belle and Sebastian have returned with no great statement of intent. Instead, they've just done what they always do: lovingly delivered the best pop music they know how to make.
Recommended related albums Belle and Sebastian
If You're Feeling Sinister (1996) With horns, strings, complex arrangements and Stuart Murdoch's wry delivery, B&S's second album brought the band international critical praise and became an instant indie classic. Standout tracks include The Stars of Track and Field and Get Me Away from Here, I'm Dying.
God Help the Girl - God Help the Girl (2009) Stuart Murdoch wrote an album of songs specifically to be sung by female vocalists, then enlisted a bunch of unknowns to record them. He now has plans to turn the project into a musical film, which will begin shooting in 2011.
Norah Jones - Come Away With Me (2002) Dreamy vocals and pop hooks helped the contemporary jazz singer Norah Jones (a guest on Write About Love) to shift more than 20 million copies of her debut. Features the international hits Don't Know Why and Come Away With Me.