Belle And Sebastian - 'Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance'
The Glasgow veterans flit between acoustic indie and disco bangers on their camp and scatterbrained ninth album
Many a hard-rocking band has mellowed with age. It’s all part of the smooth downhill jog to the day you ask for Werther’s Originals on your rider. But for Belle And Sebastian there’s never been any softening to be done. With 1996’s second album ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’, the band captured the hearts of a certain type of indie kid, speaking to the mopey, insecure homunculus via character songs about aspirationally dysfunctional Glaswegian proto-hipsters. That, the band acknowledged, couldn’t last forever, and their sixth album, 2003’s ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’, marked a watershed. Out with the juvenilia, in with big, Trevor Horn production, prosaic pop songwriting and unbridled whimsy.
Ten years on, the signposts that preceded ‘Girls In Peacetime…’ didn’t augur well for those yearning for a return to something less frivolous. Frontman Stuart Murdoch was talking about the influence of Eurovision, and interviewing uber-twee comedian Josie Long. He told NME: “I said to the band, ‘I’m way older now and I don’t know what kind of songs you’re going to get out of me’.” Deciding to take a different approach, they headed to Atlanta to record with Animal Collective producer Ben H Allen.
The resulting album is one on which much is the same but much is changed, too. It starts with an unbearably arch line (“Lying in bed, I was feeling French”) but the same track, opener ‘Nobody’s Empire’, goes on to reveal much about Murdoch himself, referencing his struggle with ME.
It’s surprising. As Murdoch has created an imagined world around him, the real world seems to have become less visible. His 2014 movie, God Help The Girl, served to confirm this tendency, being set in a mythical Glasgow where bespectacled boys and girls with eating disorders have amicably complicated relationships while plotting domination of the local indie scene. The band engaged in politics last year too, voicing support for the Scottish ‘Yes’ campaign, but on ‘Girls In Peacetime…’, world issues are explored through the eyes of doomed dreamers: “Allie, what will you do when there’s bombs in the middle east? You want to hurt yourself,” says one on ‘Allie’.
Familiar boxes are ticked. There’s the one sung by keyboardist/guitarist Sarah Martin (‘The Power Of Three’), the one sung by guitarist Stevie Jackson (‘Perfect Couples’), and there is something here for early fans: the string-drenched ‘The Cat With The Cream’ and – in particular – ‘Ever Had A Little Faith?’, which was written before 1996’s debut ‘Tigermilk’.
But surprises are sprung at every turn: ‘The Power Of Three’ is white funk reminiscent of Scottish post-punk forebears Orange Juice and Josef K, ‘The Party Line’ has tropical disco beats and electro bass and ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ is part Saint Etienne, part Pet Shop Boys, and nothing like a song about the heroine of sad sixth-formers. Elsewhere, ‘The Everlasting Muse’ has jazz verses and a chorus you could break out in a Cossack dance to. The whole album flicks between acoustic and electronic, beat-free and disco banger. It’s so scatterbrained and camp, you can almost picture the band rifling through a dressing-up box in the studio. It leaves the feeling that Belle And Sebastian are on the way to something new, even if they haven’t quite landed on what it is yet. A very weird album, but a very intriguing one too.
Director: Ben H Allen
Record label: Matador
Release date: 19 Jan, 2015