Album Review: Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

By on Thursday, 22nd January 2015 at 1:00 pm
 

B and S album cover artWhenever I’m listening to a new album for review, I generally try to steer clear of reading other reviewers’ opinions, at least until my own review is officially in the books. I’ve had particular difficulty this week avoiding the barrage of media attention for Belle and Sebastian’s new LP ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’. Music critics and diehard fans alike have been eagerly awaiting this release since it was announced late last year, especially now that their attention has turned from end-of-year charts to the business of making predictions for 2015.

‘Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance’ is not only new music for the new year, it marks a slightly new musical direction for Belle and Sebastian as well. As implied by its title, this set of songs unabashedly experiments with dance pop, which comes as a bit of a surprise from the Scottish indie sextet, who have previously been known for their sunny and cerebral brand of twee. In fact, I was astonished to find myself delightedly dancing along to the album’s first single ‘The Party Line’ when I heard it played on Steve Lamacq’s BBC 6music programme last week.

Aside from being a gleefully giddy bit of pop pleasure, the track is a strong statement of the band’s intent for this, their ninth studio album. Its trippy, heavily synthesized disco beat, deep pulsing bass and catchy vocal hook, “jump to the beat of a party line / there is nobody here but your body, dear”, put the radio-friendly dance vibe squarely at the forefront of the overall sound. (Watch the video for ‘The Party Line’ in our previous Video of the Moment feature.)

This is not to suggest, however, that frontman and main songwriter Stuart Murdoch has gone soft on his normally erudite lyrical style. Album opener ‘Nobody’s Empire’ is a deeply introspective look at Murdoch’s own introversion, examining the disconnect between himself and the world around him. But the song’s probing lyrics, “we are out of practice, we’re out of sight / on the edge of nobody’s empire / and if we live by books and we live by hope / does that make us targets for gunfire?” are disguised by a sprightly instrumental arrangement and uplifting gospel choir backing vocals that convey more something more akin to optimism than self-doubt.

[youtube]http://youtu.be/Rgb8am3NQU0[/youtube]

‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ is a glittery disco ball of a track with slick synths and programmed percussion backing the lyrically astute vocal trade-off between Murdoch and Sarah Martin. Likewise, ‘Perfect Couples’ features a sensually serpentine guitar riff and an irresistible, almost tribal sounding dance beat behind a tersely cynical lyrical examination of the superficiality of modern relationships: “sexual tension at the fridge / he makes for the organic figs / from on her lips dangling a cig”.

Possibly the most intriguing track on ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’ is a different kind of dance tune entirely. ‘The Everlasting Muse’ shifts back and forth from a seductive Spanish dance rhythm to a heavy, more Eastern European march tempo. In contrast to the glossy, polished production of the disco numbers, this track has a more traditional dance feel, right down to the handclap rhythms and the hints of modal harmony.

Belle and Sebastian step away from the overarching dance theme in the album’s more characteristic indie pop moments, including the dreamy haze of recent single ‘The Cat With the Cream’ and the blissfully pastoral acoustic arrangement of ‘Ever Had a Little Faith?’. Final track ‘Today (This Army’s for Peace)’ closes the album in a similarly contemplative vein, with distantly echoing vocals and a meditative piano solo over a constant and soothing rhythm, delicately executed by drummer Richard Coburn.

‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’ is solid evidence that even as they approach the 20-year mark of their career as a band, Belle and Sebastian are willing to stretch the limits of their established musical style. At this point, anything they release would be likely to create a buzz of anticipation in the music media, but here they live up to the hype with an album of songs that are by turns pleasantly unexpected and comfortably familiar.

8.5/10

‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’, Belle and Sebastian‘s ninth studio album, is out now on Matador Records. Belle and Sebastian are scheduled to perform at a slew of festivals this year, including a high-profile slot at Coachella (Saturday 11 April) and Liverpool Sound City 2015, where they will be headlining Sunday night (24 May) with a full orchestra at the event’s new Bramley Moore Dock location (more information here).

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