Album Review: Belle and Sebastian ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then we’ll begin.  Mr Murdoch is here to read us a story.  It’s a tale of love, relationships, imagined everyday characters of Glasgow … you get the general idea … but also war, peace, politics and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance begins with Nobody’s Empire, possibly the most personal song Belle and Sebastian have recorded, describing singer Stuart Murdoch’s long battle with chronic fatigue syndrome.  The almost nursery rhyme styling of the lyric phrasing reminds the listener of the Belle and Sebastian of old, being something that added a certain innocent charm to the band’s music.  The band were only too aware of this innocent quality, a quality which, in no small part, led the band to be tagged as ‘twee’ by the music press.  It was no surprise that the band addressed their nursery rhyme stylings on a song called Belle and Sebastian Sing Songs For Children, a song tagged onto the end of their 3,6, 9 Seconds of Light EP (1997) following the stunning Put the Book Back on the Shelf.

Here, we find Belle and Sebastian using the idea of war, a dominant theme on the album, as a metaphor for inner war.  Following Nobody’s Empire is Allie, in which Murdoch discusses actual war.  This isn’t the first time the band have done so, the opening track of Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000), I Fought in A War was a fictionalised account of a soldier remembering his time in the war.  However, on Allie, Murdoch now discusses world issues through the eyes of dreamers who are still saying prayers “to the soon to be closing library” with lines such as “When there’s bombs in the Middle East, You want to hurt yourself”.  It seems that the band’s foray in politics, coming out in support of the Scotland Yes Campaign, has left an indelible mark on them.

What follows though is even more surprising for a band that were once Gregory’s Girl put to music.  I reference here the wry wit of songs such as Lazy Line Painter Jane, from the 1997 EP of the same title, which included such marvellous lines as “You are in two minds, Tossing a coin to decide whether you should tell your Mum, About a dose of thrush you got whilst licking railings”.  The Party Line, the first single from Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is (shock, horror) a disco song.  And this, from here on in, is where the album becomes a slightly scatterbrain affair.  This scatterbrained approach has been something evident on Belle and Sebastian albums in the past.  Take for example, the at times wonderful but slightly unsure of itself The Life Persuit (2006).  However, this can be seen as an endearing quality which can go hand in hand with the tales of the insecure characters within some of Belle and Sebastian’s songs.  Take for example, The “mousy girl on the end pew” in Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie (from the 3, 6, 9 Seconds of Light EP) or the girl in Expectations (from 1996’s debut album Tigermilk who is asked, “Do you want to work in C&A ‘cause that’s what they expect, Move to laundry and take a feel off Joe the Storeman”.  The Party Line isn’t the band’s first attempt at disco.  On Tigermilk, we find Electronic Renaissance, a song which is the forefather of the Europop disco that we find on some songs on this album.  The Party Line is filled with pulsating 70’s disco beats whilst still keeping the indie sensibility that the band is famed for.  However, some of the magic has been taken away.  Perhaps this is as a result of working with outside producers such as Trevor Horn on the slick, but sometimes too slick, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003).  On first listen, I wasn’t too sure about the disco direction on The Party Line and other similarly disco-influenced songs on the album, but after several listens, I am able to strip away the glossy synth-led sound and be left with what we know and love about Belle and Sebastian:  their ability to write great poetry.  Take, for example, the lines “I want to be the Queen, Pulling kids out of rivers” in The Cat with the Cream.

The Power of Three continues the disco Europop theme introduced on The Party Line.  The Power of Three could easily be a Saint Etienne song, which, whilst not what we have come to expect from Belle and Sebastian, is no bad thing and I would say it is one of the stand out tracks on the album.  For enthusiasts of the old Belle and Sebastian, look no further than tracks such as The Cat with the Cream and Ever Had A Little Faith? which was actually written before their debut album.  The inclusion of these songs means that this is an album with something for everybody, including those still longing for the Belle and Sebastian of old and those who are finding Belle and Sebastian for the first time.  The Cat with the Cream continues the war theme first introduced with the album’s opening two tracks, with lines such as “In the days of old when knights were bold, They’d settle it with sword and shield”.  I began to notice a pattern here.  For the most part, the slower paced songs, mainly those without the dance influence, are the war themed songs and the dance style tracks allow the band to experiment with other subject matter.  This is Belle and Sebastian’s War and Peace.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the album is called Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, as this is an album of two halves, half war stories and half explorations into the clubs which the band may have once deemed themselves too square and nerdy to walk into.

Enter Sylvia Plath reintroduces the disco-orientated sound but this is where Belle and Sebastian could be beginning to nail their new direction.  To a backdrop of music which sounds a cross between Pet Shop Boys and Visage’s Fade to Grey, this is a near seven minute song which combines both old school Belle and Sebastian and the new direction which the album attempts to veer in.

As the first half of the album closes, and notice on the back of the sleeve the way in which the tracklisting is split into two halves (yes, this is a band who still believe in a record having two sides and we love them for it), I am still not sure what to make of it.  However, my concerns are laid to rest with The Everlasting Muse, a highly inventive song about being a musician (“A subtle gift to modern rock, She said ‘Be popular play pop’”) which harnesses jazz music in its verses and Bavarian oompah music in possibly the best chorus on the album.

Perfect Couples is another stand out track, a tale of people who marry young interjected with witty  lyrics about “sexual tension by the fridge” and “a basket on a bike” that only Belle and Sebastian could muster.  Play For Today, like Nobody’s Empire appears to be partly inspired by Murdoch’s Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (“About a boy, Who hides in attics, When the sun is up, Everyone is at work”) mixed with the tale of a relationship.  This song, rather blissfully, reminded me of Lazy Line Painter Jane, thanks in no small part to the shared vocals with Dee Dee Penny of the Dum Dum Girls whose voice bears a passing resemblance to Monica Queen’s.  Play For Today provides proof that Belle and Sebastian do have the ability to be able to twin their new synthesiser driven musical style with the lyrical quality that we have come to expect of them.  Play For Today is a song which reminds me of the stronger song writing of Paul Heaton’s Beautiful South days, particularly songs he duetted on with Briana Corrigan or Jacqueline Abbott.

The Book of You is a revelation, with a rocking stomping guitar solo and a pumping bassline coupled with the beautifully synchronised dual voices of Murdoch and Sarah Martin.  The song builds and builds with lyrics about “walking in the rain” before one of the best song endings that you will hear all year, it is just a shame that it fades out and loses momentum.  As the electric guitars of The Book of You slip away, the album ends with Today (This Army’s for Peace), a suitably peaceful, dreamy but slightly lethargic song which lulls you to sleep after a long day.  The loose ends of the album’s war theme are tied up in lines such as “Victims will be justified, The lame will be leaping, This army’s for peace, come out into the light today” and all is well with the world.

On first listen, as the album finishes and I am somewhat sleepy after Today (This Army’s For Peace), I am left a little confused about what I have just heard.  Perhaps Stuart Murdoch has just passed on his chronic fatigue syndrome.  I used to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a new Belle and Sebastian record but this time, I had heard The Party line and wasn’t entirely convinced from the outset.  I am still one of those geeks who buys physical records and never downloads and the sleeve, with it’s cover stars resplendent in their World War Two style garb made me happy and full of promise about what I was about to hear.  I thought maybe The Party Line would make sense after hearing the album and that perhaps it was ironic but despite the fact that this album does offer some great moments, I am left feeling cold.  This is a feeling that I have never got from a Belle and Sebastian album before.  Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is the sound of a band who have come of age, but in the process run the risk of losing the things we loved most about them.  This is Belle and Sebastian’s War and Peace, but that war is within themselves.  What we find on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is a band who can’t decide which direction they should take and as a result, have crafted a work which is at times brilliant but also very odd.  It is an album that may alienate some die hard Belle and Sebastian fans but I urge you to keep listening to it, it does actually become more enjoyable on the second listen.  A valiant effort from our indie soldiers but I suspect an album that will (hopefully) grow on you over time.  I hope this isn’t the end of the Belle and Sebastian story but this is a band in serious need of direction and to perhaps put the synth back on the shelf.