The party line with Belle & Sebastian is that they peaked early with If You’re Feeling Sinister (“Go off and see a minister”). That record may be tad monotonous but it’s still utterly charming and very much deserving of its stature as a modern classic. Yet I feel that their true masterpiece is 2006’s The Life Pursuit – also one of the top-ten albums of the last decade, period. The songwriting is uniformly inspired, the production downright exciting, without jettisoning any of the lyrical bite that we’ve all come to love so much. More importantly, for our purposes, it is an ultra-rare example of Christianity successfully integrated into indie pop-art.

Stuart Murdoch, the band’s primary singer and songwriter, has made no secret of his churchgoing ways (he even teaches Sunday school in a Protestant parish), yet nowhere has he incorporated that fact into his band’s music as seamlessly as he does on The Life Pursuit. True, a couple of the early B&S songs prominently feature clergy (“The State That I’m In” etc), and 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress even boasts a slice of proto-Christian pop in “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love.” But those references carried an undeniable shock-value component – church imagery reinforcing the whole quaint Scottish twee-thing. On The Life Pursuit, Murdoch treats church almost as a matter of course – yes, he goes to church, doesn’t everybody?! The references are simply there; they don’t attract attention themselves. Christianity (and church) is portrayed as an almost unspoken factor in the everyday lives of real people, one that is in turns pathetic and profound, but a factor nonetheless. In other words, his references ring true. Take for instance the lead-off track, “Act Of The Apostle”:

Morning prayers took the girl unawares
She was late for class and she knew it
The broadcaster had a voice that was soothing
She couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman
A patch of sun fell onto her neck
She put her head on her arms on her desk

The lesson today was Acts of Apostles
The crazy hippies, they’re running scared
She shut her eyes and imagined the desert
No cars, no mobiles, just sun and bread
What would she look like standing by the well?
More like a women and less like a girl

“Oh, if I could make sense of it all!
I wish that I could sing
I’d stay in a melody
I would float along in my everlasting song
What would I do to believe?”

Later on she plays Morning Has Broken
She knows she’s bad
She is slowing everybody down
The choirmaster, usually a bastard, knows her mother’s sick
He’ll be nice to her
She thinks that she shouldn’t be there at all
Her worries make everything else seem trivial

“Act of The Apostle” has a reprise that is equally delightful and considerably funnier. Then there’s “We Are The Sleepyheads” with its eloquent closing stanza:

Someone told the truth when it really mattered most
The beauty of the moment is the beauty sadly lost, sadly lost
So I went around to your house
Over tea and gin we talked about the things we read
In Luke and John the things he said
We’re always mourning, we are the sleepyheads

Again, Murdoch’s songs aren’t vehicles for his ideology; there’s absolutely no attempt to convince anyone of anything, and also no humorless exercises in introspective mysticism (ahem, Sufjan, ahem). Call it authentic, call it unartificial, whatever you want: Christianity is so clearly not a source of insecurity for him – it’s simply a fact of life, a la the films of Whit Stillman. This ‘peripheral approach’ strikes me as far more compelling and attractive, artistically-speaking, than either the R-rated first-person confession-booth-ism that’s increasingly prevalent in the indie scene or, worse, the exhausting and oblique, and borderline dishonest, posturing of those afraid of being ‘outed’ as sympathetic to religion. I wish more artists had Murdoch’s knack with this stuff. Or his ear for melody…