It’s over 15 years since Belle and Sebastian, in one of the first examples of the power of having an internet fanbase, won the Best British Newcomer award at the Brits. Pete Waterman was so incensed that his act Steps missed out that he demanded an investigation, and fans of 5ive were left scratching their heads as to who these nerdy Scottish people actually were.
Ever since then, Stuart Murdoch and company have delighted in confounding expectations. Even nowadays, ask your typical music fan to describe Belle and Sebastian, and they’ll probably throw out words like ‘bookish’, ‘slight’, ‘sensitive’ and, of course, the dreaded ‘twee’.
The truth is, of course, that Belle and Sebastian have always evolved and moved forward. This is a band who take as much care over their B-sides as they do their singles (as the excellent compilations Push Barman To Open Old Wounds and The Third Eye Centre prove), and who sound as comfortable working with Trevor Horn as they do employing Hollywood actresses like Carey Mulligan on backing vocals.
Now, with Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, they’ve produced an album that simultaneously sounds quintessentially Belle and Sebastian and also the most wilfully strange album you’ll hear all year. It’s full of typically bouncy indie-pop, while also managing to take diversions into (almost) banging disco anthems, and every so often, sounding like a dead-ringer for Saint Etienne‘s softer moments. While it won’t sate those who yearn for a return to the fragile acoustic musings of Tigermilk, the band’s ninth album slowly emerges as one of their strongest to date.
It’s also Murdoch’s most personal work. Opening track Nobody’s Empire acts almost as a mini-biography of the Scot, with references to his condition of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis evident in the song’s opening lines of “Lying in my bed, I was reading French, with the light too bright for my senses” before discovering “a girl that sang like the chime of a bell” who “put out her arm and she touched me when I was in hell”. It’s a lovely introductory track to what becomes an increasingly lovely album.
The moments on the album which will raise most eyebrows though are the dabbles in dance music. Obviously, there’s no dubstep experiments, but lead single The Party Line has a deep, squelchy bass, a funky guitar riff that Nile Rodgers would be proud of, and a chorus that practically begs you to bounce up and down to. It’s certainly not a song that ties in the cardigan-wearing, wistful image that some may think of. Even more surprising is Enter Sylvia Plath, which may be named after everyone’s favourite suicidal poet, but sounds more like the Pet Shop Boys in the middle of an Balearic rave. It’s certainly the closest that Belle and Sebastian have ever come to Euro-pop.
At other times, we’re on more familiar territory. Allie opens with some old school ‘ba-ba-ba’ harmonic vocals before becoming a punchy, anthemic beast with some fiery guitar riffs, while The Cat With The Cream, with its lush string arrangements and delicate ’60s sensibilities is likely to appeal to those who still hanker after the band’s early years. There’s also the traditional Belle and Sebastian democratic division of labour through the album, with guitarist Stevie Jackson taking over vocals for the standout Perfect Couples, and Sarah Martin sounding like a deadringer for Sarah Cracknell on the Saint Etienne-apeing The Power Of Three.
There’s so many ideas packed into Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, and so many explorations of different genres – sometimes in the same song, as the ‘light jazz meets Russian cossack dance’ mash up of The Everlasting Muse demonstrates – that it occasionally threatens to become a bit overwhelming and topple in on itself. Most of the time though, Murdoch and company keep things steadily focused, and the result is another accomplished record from one of this country’s most consistent bands.