ALBUM REVIEW: Belle & Sebastian – Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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fourLabel: Matador

Released: 19th January 2015

 

If you ever wanted to trace the history of Belle & Sebastian, you just have to go by the album covers. Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister were curious, intimate portraits of a perfect fit with the ramshackle beauty that waited inside, the crowded farce of Dear Catastrophe Waitress a perfect indication of the more ambitious, more user-friendly pop they band had shifted towards – and the slight self-pastiche adorning their previous album Write About Love a sign of the band dangerously close to going through the motions.

So the gun-and-crutches-wielding fancy dress shenanigans found on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance also prove, in their way, highly prophetic. This is an album that takes the core of the Belle & Sebastian sound and throws all kinds of different arrangement and production ideas at it: thankfully for all involved, this turns out to be just the kind of kick the band needed as they enter their third decade together.

Nobody’s Empire starts the album with a kind of mission statement for the new-look Belle & Sebastian, with Stuart Murdoch delivering an atypically personal lyric about his struggles with ME and the formation of the band whilst the band work behind him, more polished than ever under the synthesised light and spacious depth of Ben Allen’s production. It’s an opening shot that grows in stature with each listen, and one that sets up the old vs. new divide that runs throughout the whole album.

Indeed, at times it’s hard to escape the notion that there’s three albums going on in one here. There’s the fairly traditional Belle & Sebastian one (by far the least interesting one of the three; shambling throw-back Ever Had a Little Faith? feels even more regressive bracketed as it is by two of the album’s most oddball tracks), a rather pretty orchestrated retro-pop one (The Cat with the Cream thrives on its gorgeous, still strings: The Everlasting Muse welds lounge jazz to sea-shanty rhythms and still comes out a winner) and, most surprisingly and excitingly, the all guns blazing disco one.

Yes, the road they’ve occasionally hinted at ever since Electronic Renaissance is finally taken up here, and the results are glorious. Lead single The Party Line is a punchy show-case for the new party-ready Belle & Sebastian, but it’s the longer cuts later on like the bongo-driven Perfect Couples – easily Stevie Jackson’s finest showing since Jonathan David – and the gleefully absurd Enter Sylvia Plath, a seven-minute synth blast dedicated the great icon of confessional poetry herself that’s all mirrorballs and glitter.

Somewhat inevitably, the result of all this is by some distance the longest, strangest and most confusing album Belle & Sebastian have ever put out. (In a visible sign of hands thrown in the air, the deluxe edition comes packages as four vinyl EPs with additional tracks and extended cuts – an act of “oh, you figure it out” if there ever was one.) As oddly constructed as it is though, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance thrives on the sense of adventure that runs through it, the work of a band clearly pushing themselves to cover new ground and succeeding admirably. As polished and expensive as much of the album sounds, the intrinsic weirdness and playfulness running throughout finds Belle & Sebastian keeping true to their original selves even as they try out a new range of styles for size.

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