Posted on February 10th, 2015 (3:00 pm) by Heather Milkiewicz

Belle and Sebastian’s latest album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, emits an overwhelming sense of reflection and renewal both in its musical theme and in terms of the band’s career and trajectory. The album is an ambitious endeavor that ends as a musical grab bag of glitzy, dance club, and nostalgia, all in one.

Belle and Sebastian have long been a mouthpiece for the lonely, sensitive souls of a disillusioned youth. Since their increased mainstream success resulting from The Life Pursuit, the Belle and Sebastian we once knew began to change gears from the gatekeepers of the shy to a more confident, burgeoning band flirting with the popular kids. In the years following, the band has both returned to their roots, with their release of The BBC Sessions in 2008, and dabbled in more creative territory.

As a result of this exploration, along with lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s constant need to evolve as an artist, we have descended upon Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. This album vacillates between dipping into ambitious new territory and falling back into the familiar. The album starts off with a crisp, clear, and polished sound on "Nobody's Empire" that might initially fool die-hard fans, making them wonder if they are listening to the right album. However, as soon as Murdoch’s vocals begin, we start to settle into familiar territory. His lyrical majesty is not only intact, but perhaps more penetrating than ever, given that this track is inspired by Murdoch’s struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and is what he himself calls the "most personal I've ever written."

The sleekly produced "Nobody's Empire" has lyrical intensity that is met with fitting crescendos of harmonic choruses and the playful tambourine that holds the characteristic of a gospel choir. What makes this song so striking is not only the grandiose feeling of the musical arrangement, but the very personal storytelling that Murdoch evokes. It is humbling, not only for its honesty about his struggle, but also for accurately reflecting his age, which is somewhat of an anomaly for the band. “Now I look at you, you’re a mother of two, you’re a quiet revolution / Marching with the crowd, singing dirty and loud, for the people’s emancipation / Did I do ok, did I pave the way, was I strong when you were wanting / I was tied to the yoke, like a decent bloke, who was stern but never daunting…”

The album then transitions from a track that suggests the band has finally reached its peak, only to return to their old ways with “Allie,” which is somewhat disappointing. Where “Nobody’s Empire” revealed the potential of the personal meets musical majesty, “Allie” returns to the third person narrative and a somewhat hyped up rhythm with the fast paced melody of the guitar. There is a quiet and sincere moment of introspection, which reveals the same vulnerability that was present in the previous track, with sparse instrumentation accompanied by the lyrics, “You made a list of all your heroes and you thought about what they went through...it’s much darker, much harder than anything that happened to you.”

We are then hit with the club ready, danceable track, ”The Party Line.” The track itself is a welcome change for the band and evokes some nostalgia for their epic foray into dance on “Your Cover’s Blown” off their 2004 EP, Books. Again, this track returns to the first person narrative in lieu of the distanced point of view that is the band’s bread and butter. This is what makes the more experimental Belle and Sebastian fresh, relevant, and exciting, in addition to the more polished and glitzy sound. The track is heavily reliant on the synthesizer and percussive elements, but the instrumentation is constructed in a way that still manages to maintain the quirky nature of the band itself, which is aided by the soothing vocal chorus. From there, the album jumps to a track that showcases Sarah Martin’s vocal prowess, which is both a nod to Write About Love and tracks such as “Women’s Realm” on Storytelling. The instrumentation is upbeat, but not overwhelming, which is where Belle and Sebastian has excelled in the past; wistful but not dragging.

“Cat in the Cream” is the most melancholy of all the tracks, bringing to mind the band’s formative years. What might be a welcome change for most fans, and an overall solid track on its own, somehow seems out of place on this album. It pulls us back to the days of “Wrapped Up in Books,” the dreamer whose silent words give him some hope for escape. Again, the next track jolts us from the safety and security of our words and contrasts with the former. “Enter Sylvia Plath” emerges with its synth heavy, upbeat musical arrangement and bold, confident duet between Murdoch and Martin. The track maintains the storytelling element, reflecting, in part, Stuart’s work on God Help the Girl. The song is intriguing and gives the sense that the vision behind the story lives somewhere else, leaving the listener longing to know more.

The next three songs on the album, “The Everlasting Muse,” “Perfect Couples,” and “Ever Have a Little Faith” seem to streamline and piggy back off one another more successfully than the arrangement of the rest of the tracks on the album. They reveal the integrity of the initial Belle and Sebastian mentality where emphasis on feeling through narrative, clever instrumentation, and lyrical integrity prevailed. “The Everlasting Muse” shines with the brass and folk dance inducing cadence that the band plays off and the fittingly ironic lyrical ending, “A tapestry of worlds, a subtle gift to modern rock, she says be popular play pop, and you will win my love.” “Perfect Couples” is the requisite track where Stevie Jackson is the lead. The track contains some of his most confident sounding vocals yet, which is refreshing. The band plays around with a new flavor of instrumentation here, but again maintains their chic nerd elements with lyrics such as, “Sexual tension at the fridge, he makes for the organic figs...Perfect couples are breaking up, what have they done.” “Ever Have a Little Faith?” again brings us back to the subtle and reflective Belle and Sebastian of years past with an introspective arrangement heavily reliant on strings that complements the sweet and melancholy lyrics.

Following this foray into yesteryear, we return to synth infused, glitzy, and bold exploration on “Play for Today.” The track feels both fresh and also reminiscent of Murdoch's God Helps the Girl album, with Martin showcased as a first person narrative character. Alone, the track stands out on the album, but feels as though it was pulled from a larger story that we’ve missed out on. “The Book of You” tries to marry a new upbeat sound with the old, serving as another nod to Write About Love. The album ends with the melancholy “Today (This Army’s For Peace)" which brings to mind the mood and flavor of old Belle and Sebastian, but attempts to add in more personal connection and plays with a new age synthesizer sound that isn’t as convincing as the band may have intended.

Overall, the lesson gained from Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is that Belle and Sebastian has an immense capacity for versatility, but still has room for evolution to further catapult their unique sound and flavor. As a showcase of varied and unique tracks that reveals the band’s range and depth, the album is a success. However, the band misses the mark in putting together a solid, cohesive album that either fully ventures into new territory or builds and tightens up their old sound. So, while the album may not be an overwhelming win as a whole, the individual pieces that make it up suggest that the band continues to hold the potential for much more in the future.

Track List:

  1. Nobody’s Empire
  2. Allie
  3. The Party Line
  4. The Power of Three
  5. The Cat with the Cream
  6. Enter Sylvia Plath
  7. The Everlasting Muse
  8. Perfect Couples
  9. Ever Had a Little Faith?
  10. Play for Today
  11. The Book of You
  12. Today (This Army’s For Peace)
Belle and Sebastian - Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance Review
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Our Rating

75 / 100
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