Album Review: Belle and Sebastian - Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance

Album Reviews
Jacob Webb

It is nothing short of bewildering that it took Belle and Sebastian almost twenty years before they named an album with a title as on-the-nose as Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance. As a songwriter, band leader Stuart Murdoch is famously as self aware as he is garrulous, and despite being fascinated with women (it's telling that the only B&S album that doesn't feature one or more women on the cover is the one with "boy" in the title) for the entirety of his career, and pop music for the second half of it, he's never been quite this forward. It's so quintessentially Belle and Sebastian that the only thing separating it from self-parody is that it's not obliquely worded. However, when viewed in the context of the twelve songs on their ninth studio album, the title is impeccably chosen; it explicitly lists the band's three major themes (girls, dancing, peace) and then thoroughly examines those ideas with a set of songs that covers most of the band's stylistic range. And that's exactly what makes Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance so enthralling. It's their most disparate album by a country mile, but at no point does it sound like anything but a Belle and Sebastian record, and a great one at that.

There aren't many musical discussions had with "twee" in them without "Belle and Sebastian", and, as much as the band hates what they've dubbed the "t-word", it's not an entirely unreasonable connection. More than any other group, the band's first three albums (and the associated non-album releases) capture the sound of mid/late-90s indie pop, from its melodic inclinations to its bookish aesthetic. But what's often ignored is that after that narrative is a second, just as important one: since 2003, Belle and Sebastian have had one of the best second acts in music. 2003's brilliant Dear Catastrophe Waitress and 2006's nearly-as-good The Life Pursuit reenergized and reinvented the band, changing them from a group that soundtracked lonely bedroom slow dances into one that incited jubilant group dancing. Considering this, it's fitting that Girls In Peacetime's opening track marries the two sides of Belle and Sebastian more organically and convincingly than anything else in their catalog. "Nobody's Empire" was written about a flare up of Murdoch's myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), the same disease that left him bedridden, begetting his first songwriting efforts and one of music's most compelling backstories. It's the first song in which Murdoch directly addresses his ME and, incidentally, it immediately ranks among his best songs. It's heavily orchestrated and highly lyrically engaging, but it's also bright and, built on a four-on-the-floor beat, very danceable. It doesn't have a chorus, but it has a handful of clear climaxes, and upon the delivery of his final lines – "And he told me to push and he made me feel well/And he told me to leave that vision of hell to the dying" – it's clear that this is the kind of life-affirming anthem that Murdoch's been building up to for over a decade.

And then there's its complete opposite "Enter Sylvia Plath", a seven-minute Eurodisco jam that features a protagonist who's fallen in love with the deceased writer via her writings set over a track that sounds like the band trying to channel St. Etienne's Foxbase Alpha and Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters at the same time. It's inexplicably great, but it's also an incredibly unexpected turn. Although dancing During the album's second half, "Enter Sylvia Plath" is mirrored by another just as excellent lengthy, Pet Shop Boys-esque number, a duet between Murdoch and Dum Dum Girls' Dee Dee Penny entitled "Play For Today". Sitting in between those two is "The Party Line", a track that brings the band only a few degrees away from straight up dance music that also features the line "jump to the beat" in its chorus. This trio of songs sound absolutely nothing like "The Stars of Track and Field", or even "I'm a Cuckoo", but they aren't a radical jump either; They sound like Belle and Sebastian moving from being a band that likes to dance to being a full-on dance band, and they're even more outstanding when placed in the context of the other ~40 minutes of music on the album, which is comprised of some of the best archetypical Belle & Sebastian songs they've produced in some time. The winding, explosive "Allie" recalls Dear Catastrophe Waitress in all the best ways, just as "Ever Had A Little Faith?" evokes If You're Feeling Sinister. Although they've been the low points of B&S albums in the past, the non-Murdoch cuts – Stevie Jackson's "Perfect Couples" and Sarah Martin's "The Book of You" and "The Power of Three" – are among the pair's best songs, and don't seem incongruent in the least. (Martin, in particular, plays an expanded and crucial role on Girls In Peacetime as Murdoch's vocal partner, and her contributions are consistently among the album's highlights.) Combined with Ben H. Allen's luscious, pristine production, the non-dance songs on Girls In Peacetime shine just as bright as their 4/4 comrades, and at a formidable 61 minutes – the band's longest album by a considerable margin – Girls in Peacetime ultimately serves the dual purpose of providing an effective snapshot of all the great things that they've done and the places they're still looking to go.

Admittedly, there's some dichotomy in the way Girls In Peacetime is structured, but Belle and Sebastian have always been a band about dichotomy. Most of their early work is based by the battle between wanting to be well and actually getting better, physically, relationally, and, most of all, spiritually. (Twenty years on, it's still both amusing and impressive that Murdoch would craft the narrative of his despair-filled crisis of faith not with chaotic, raging noise, but with delicately arranged strings.) But in the last ten years, that struggle has been replaced by serenity. The space that the wistful sentiment of Tigermilk or The Boy With The Arab Strap is now occupied by a celebratory spirit, and even though there was some turbulence during the making of the album – in addition to Murdoch's aforementioned health issues, longtime bassist/trumpeter Mick Cooke amicably left the band – that jubilance continues to run through Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance. Murdoch and company have found their peace, so it's time to dance, and since they're boasting an album as fantastic as Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance, who wouldn't want to join?

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