Belle & Sebastian
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
(Rough Trade 83216)

Rocky Balboa had to beat Ivan Drago. Rocky's own personal redemption, and international politics, and indeed the entire future of the world, absolutely depended on it. And Dear Catastrophe Waitress is the record Belle & Sebastian had to make at this point, for lesser reasons perhaps. One more shit album and they'd have been down for the count.

Their seemingly intentional waywardness from '98 to '02 wasn't doing anything to offer faith that anything like the quiet beauty of Tigermilk or Sinister would ever come again. Don't get me wrong, I am all for artists pursuing bold and unpopular new directions, but in poor Belle & Sebastian's case, it seemed like their commitment to trumping expectations mainly resulted in a lot of – yes – really bad music.

The departures of Stuart David (for Looper) and Isobel Campbell (for, hopefully, corrective asthma surgery and/or voice lessons) help enormously. Gone is the democratic idea that threatened to sink what should always have been an outlet solely for Stuart Murdoch's consistently pristine songwriting … normally I favor partnerships, but with songs like his, Murdoch simply needs no help.

Also of enormous benefit is the band's hookup with Trevor Horn to produce. Belle & Sebastian long ago outgrew their ability to turn out small, private music on their own terms, and needed someone good to keep things clean and coherent. Horn has worked with as diverse an assortment of artists as anyone I can think of, and with B&S's wide-ranging survey of retro kitsch, he's about the only person around who could endeavor to make sense of it.

Dear Catastrophe Waitress isn't the Buggles-esque Belle & Sebastian album I wanted it to be, but it's a good deal better than I thought possible, and I choose to see it as the band's third long-player. Let's forget about all that ugliness from Arab Strap through Storytelling, yes?

The biggest relief is the near-total absence of the arch inside-jokery that marked the previous records, which certainly didn't give the listener much to love. Only "Step Into My Office, Baby" gets into "Hm, what are they up to with this one?" territory; the new songs are almost entirely damn refreshing, some of them right up there with the good old days.

"Piazza, New York Catcher," besides having the best song title I've run across in a good while, is prime Stuart-and-guitar brilliance, clever without being smug, sensitive without being insecure. "Wrapped Up in Books" is a fine classic-B&S entry along the lines of "Dog on Wheels," though much better produced. Instantly familiar, but fresh, and moreover, nice to have you back, Stuart.

The new directions are even more satisfying, however. "If She Wants Me" reminds me of the Credibility Gap's "Foreign Novelty Smash," with great pseudo-Memphis guitar lines and Osmond-esque harmonies that finally deliver the sugar missing from the scorched espresso of the previous records. It's Stuart as Shaun Cassidy, and that's fucking terrific.

"Asleep on a Sunbeam" takes the same basic approach of "Seeing Other People" into an odd but fantastic 70s-Christian-soft-pop area tailor made for high school chorale groups. Best B&S chorus in a long-ass time.

"I'm a Cuckoo" stands out immediately, intentionally rewriting "The Boys Are Back in Town" (!) and even mentioning Thin Lizzy so you know that they know. It's a hopeful step that the band finally seems willing to let its audience in … and that they're kinda rockin' out, to boot!

"If You Find Yourself Caught in Love" is cautiously genuine and deeply sweet; "Lord Anthony" is much like Maria McKee's "Life is Sweet," another new Murdoch classic, with so many of his perfect little lyrics: "It's all gone wrong again/You got double math."

At ten tracks and the bright sunset of "Find Yourself Caught," the album feels over, yet the last two tracks are the best – "Roy Walker," simply a fun romp in the vein of "Legal Man," and then "Stay Loose," by far my fave track and the most staggering new thing for B&S ever. This one morphs Cool For Cats-era Squeeze on the verse into a kick-ass chorus straight out of Get The Knack. So uncool, and so fucking thrilling. Might be B&S's best pure pop song of all. And it's nearly seven minutes long!

This album is like your prodigal brother coming back from rehab and getting a good job. Give him a hug; he needs it; he deserves it!

Review by Thomas Long-and-Strong