It could be said that Belle and Sebastian have always threatened to write an electronic album, a dance album, and also descend into self-parody, throughout the course of their career. It's not surprising that they've flirted with those three either, due their long career and enduring success, but also due to their cult status through the perfection of their three album run right at the start of their career. The worry was that following the five year break between The Life Pursuit and Write About Love the band wouldn't come back at all, or that if they did it would be a return like Write About Love, an album that featured too many listless tracks and too few great songs.
Write About Love had a problem, and that was it was oddly unfocused for an album titled “about” something so obvious as love for Belle and Sebastian. They have almost always tackled love right from the start - love of other people, love of yourself, love of a time, or a place. Stuart Murdoch's charm always lay in the way relatable characters could be conjured in three or four lines, and then be expanded upon through a single verse, twisted and tangled amongst melodies vocal and instrumental hooks. The love of the early Belle and Sebastian albums isn't just nostalgia either - they're simply some of the smartest and most beautiful pop music ever written. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance manages to allay those fears very quickly upon first listen. It also surprises as well, something that Write About Love was unable to do.
The lead single The Party Line worried me at first because it was all syntheses up pop and featured a restrained vocal, but it is actually a bit of a curve ball. The album does feature other tracks that sound like The Party Line; like Enter Sylvia Plath; but the albums real strength is that when the band return to their signature sound it’s still with unique changes and experimental additions - very little here sounds like their earlier work on first listen - it is further listens that reveals the canonical nature of the album.
The opener, Nobody's Empire, does start sounding a little like montage music at first, but once Murdoch's vocals come in the track becomes a Belle and Sebastian classic, complete with Stevie Jackson harmonies and brass band stabs. It's in the vocal melody that you can feel yourself falling back into the old ways, as these is just something about that reminds me a lot of the bands best work. It could be the personal story. It could be the simple stanzas. It could just be the confidence in which the song climaxes. Whatever it is, it is a perfect opening track for the album.
Allie sounds like it was cut from the same cloth as almost all of The Life Pursuit, or even recent career peak Dear Catastrophe Waitress. I have been humming the central melody for days since I heard it, and despite it's dark subject matter; "the tricks in your head are a lie"; the song features almost everything that was missing from Write About Love - charm, cheek and fun, and when you realise it's followed by The Party Line you are pulled in - it's got you by track three.
Enter Sylvia Plath is another standout track, not for it's length or it's split structure, but that it seems to commit wholesale rebooting of one of the band's greatest tracks - Your Cover's Blown, from the Books EP - albeit through a four to the floor style disco stomper. Infact, I wasn't sure what I was listening to when I first heard this track. Was that the band losing it? Or was that them getting it? The one-two in the middle of the album of this and Everlasting Muse with it's jazz and cossack-style schizophrenia reminds me of a band who are trying everything that they might have considered off base before, and it feels brilliant. It feels like a big shift in their sound, but a natural one that feels right. If you're this far into your career you might as well give it ago and this just might be Belle and Sebastian's long threatened 'dance' album.
Stevie Jackson takes the reins for one of the funnest tracks on the album, the wonderful Perfect Couples, which also seems like a cousin of Your Cover's Blown with similar instrumentation but a wicked sense of humour. Ever Had a Little Faith is classic Belle and Sebastian though, and confronts the idea of faith with a sound teleported from the band's early years. It isn't all sure footed moves that work however. Sadly, Sarah Martin is saddled with some of the clunkiest lyrics on the album on The Power of Three, and tries her best to make "Every time I read the horoscopes I read three" sound profound, and "you could be Holmes, I could be Watson / Every hero, yes even me, has their Moriarty" work melodically and rhythmically. Stretching at just over an hour losing The Power of Three would have made a leaner and slighter record. Martin does have one of the album's stand outs later on with The Book Of You which has a wonderful bouncing sound and a dirty aesthetic that the band have never came across before.
The most brilliant thing about Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is that it feels like a sequel of sorts to Push Barman to Open Old Wounds with it's out-there moments and tracks that don't sound like anything they have done before. The squelches of synth and the dancier moments are wonderful. Belle and Sebastian's best work has always been danceable, but now, here, they've embraced it and it's worked remarkably well. It's 2015 and 19 years since the release of Tigermilk and this stands up there as one of their best records since then. They've found new strings to their bow, new sounds and a new verve that was arguably missing from their recently recorded output.
The album ends with Today (This Army’s for Peace), a slow and down-tempo slice of perfection, and one of the best songs they have ever done, and a perfect way to end an album full of unpredictable shifts, turns, and diversions. This is 21st Century Belle and Sebastian; not quite 20th Century Belle and Sebastian, but then who could be?
- Mark Shields
Belle and Sebastian - Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is out now via Matador Records and is available from all good record shops and online music retailers.