Belle & Sebastian
Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
20 January, 2015 (Matador)
By Josh Hughes
The quiet introversion of early Belle & Sebastian has become something of a crutch for their last three or so releases. While Stuart Murdoch and co. still remain the quintessential polite rock band, they’ve slowly grown more confident with each passing record, to the point where the lead single for their ninth LP is actually, literally a modern dance song. Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, the band’s first album in five years, shows off Belle & Sebastian’s biggest musical leap into the spotlight while keeping their songwriting intact. The progression of “Nobody’s Empire” and the balladry of “The Cat With The Cream” (on another note, the most Belle & Sebastian-y Belle & Sebastian title ever) could sound right in place anywhere in their catalogue, even with the former’s extroverted, pulsing backbeat. It’s comforting that all the synthesizers and lengthy running times don’t try to mask poor songwriting, and that instead they simply show off a different presentation of the mostly the same music.
Despite its title, GIPWTD resonates more as an intimate record of vague self reflections and typically obscure poetry. Murdoch has called the amazing “Nobody’s Empire” the most personal song he’s ever written, chronicling deeply personal vignettes of living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome delivered in expected novelesque prose. While it’s always hard to follow up an album with the best song stacked at the very top, Belle & Sebastian mostly succeed. The first five songs grouped together are as good an access point to the band as If You’re Feeling Sinister or Dear Catastrophe Waitress, only more Mercer than Morrissey. The playfulness of the record reads throughout, and it’s evident that they’re less concerned about a cohesive sound than a collection of well crafted songs.
Things roll smoothly until “Enter Sylvia Plath” (yes, you read correctly), which I actually thought was a Spotify ad the first time I listened to the album. That’s not a bad thing, it’s not a bad song, and it’s the bravest musical deviation of their career, but it drags on too long for its simple premise. The rest of the album mostly reads this way, exploring different variations of the usual Belle & Sebastian song. In the next thirty minutes there’s neo-funk, a celtic waltz, another minorly Irish sounding ballad, and a seven minute new wave homage. About half of them make sense and work as well as (and often better) than they sound on paper, but the others detract from the cohesion of the album. It’s jarring to hear “Ever Had A Little Faith?” next to “Play For Today”, and it begins to feel that there’s two different albums going on at the same time. There’s the blueprint of your usual B&S album, and then there’s another one on top of it reading “SYNTHS, FLUTE, DANCE PRODUCTION”. The odd part is that I’d be completely happy with either album based off of the highlights of each style, but hearing both of them together reads as a relatively disjointed record.
That’s still to say it doesn’t ever detract from the stability of the songwriting, which scarily sounds just as inspired as it did to them twenty years ago. In the end, the compilation sound of GIPWTD only adds to its charm and bubbly charisma, even with a few weaker spots. No matter what, this is a consistent band that will probably never release a bad album, and it’s refreshing to see them growing more comfortable and experimenting with each release of their already solidified, legendary career.
Rating: Liked It
Fave Tracks: “Nobody’s Empire”, “Allie”, “The Party Line”, “The Cat With The Cream”