It could have been a catastrophe, right enough. Belle & Sebastian meet Trevor Horn: Tigermilk meets “Two Tribes”? Chalk meets cheese, more like.
But in a year that began with Horn frogmarching nymph-lesbian duo Tatu to No 1, is it so strange he should end it in cahoots with a band as similarly outside the pop norm as these fey lairds of indie? Ought we really be surprised that Belle And Sebastian, sad sensitive observers of “The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner”, would find a kindred spirit in the man responsible for The Buggles’ ‘faded film star’ tearjerker “Elstree”? Of course not.
Horn’s influence is surprisingly subtle, merely emphasising the band’s playful idiosyncrasies (working titles for this album included “Wanker’s Forest”, “Nazi Sinatra” and “The Six Guns Of Henry The Arse”). Hence its dozen tracks, one of which shares its name with former Catchphrase host “Roy Walker”, heave with mischievous appropriation. “Wrapped Up In Books” shamelessly pulls the rug from under Sir Cliff’s “In The Country”, while distinct outlines of Jackie Lee’s “Rupert”, Costello, Magazine and Adam And The Ants are elsewhere?so no wonder another working title was “If You’re Going To Be Hung For Stealing A Horse You Might As Well Shag It”. Lo and behold, they do just that on the outstanding “I’m A Cuckoo”, embezzling the dual guitar harmonics of “The Boys Are Back In Town” and then namedropping Thin Lizzy in the cheekiest rhyming couplet of the new millennium so far.
Such larceny would be that and nothing more if it weren’t for the songwriting chops of Stuart Murdoch and Stevie Jackson. From “Lord Anthony”, the saga of a bullied posh kid with transvestite yearnings, to laments for relationships soured by the humdrum couch-potatoism of cheap vino and I Love The ’90s-type telly, it’s by far the strongest collection of songs the band have ever assembled. If they entered the ring with Horn as talented greenhorns, by the final fade of the epic new romantic finale “Stay Loose”, they exit as accomplished pop epicures. A catastrophe in name only.