BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: GIRLS IN PEACETIME WANT TO DANCE (2015)
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.
The waiting period between Write About Love and its follow-up has been the longest so far in the history of Belle & Sebastian — not surprisingly, since slowing down with age is a natural thing on the pop/rock scene; but you might actually wish that those five years had been more beneficial to the evolution of the Belle & Sebastian sound. As it is, Girls In Peacetime is not a renouncement of the things that went wrong on Write About Love, but rather their smooth, logical continuation, as we see Murdoch sink deeper and deeper into the world of electronics, dance beats, and harmless, friendly blandness.
Okay, that sounds a little too harsh — after all, harmlessness and friendliness have always been the band's primary trademark, and few tasks are more daunting than determining which particular Belle & Sebastian song is «bland» and which one is «surreptitiously haunting». But let us deal with the electronics first. As I listen to formally «club-oriented» tracks like ʽThe Party Lineʼ, ʽEnter Sylvia Plathʼ, or ʽPlay For Todayʼ (the latter two stretched out to seven minutes each, like all well-behaving disco numbers should), I have no idea what this approach is supposed to mean. Is it, perhaps, some sort of tricky self-centered psychotherapy? Had somebody recommended to Stuart that he make his music more «dance-friendly» in order to cure himself of introvert shyness? Is it symbolic — an implicit sign to his audience that the man cannot be pigeonholed, and that there are no specific musical forms to which his world-weary melancholy must be closely tied at all costs? Is it trendy — «Radiohead commanded us all to do electronics long ago, because guitar-based music is on its way out (again)?» Whatever it is, it don't work. It didn't work with Arcade Fire when they did Reflektor, and it don't work here.
The weird thing about it is, ʽThe Party Lineʼ is one of the catchiest songs Murdoch has written in a long, long time. It is so not him, from a technical standpoint, but it is well crafted, one of those disco tunes so full of self-irony that people will be forced into body language communication whether or not they realize that the lyrics are making fun of them. He should have donated it to Franz Ferdinand, though, or to Madonna if she would have it. ʽEnter Sylvia Plathʼ, as the title suggests, is a song about suicide set to a Pet Shop Boys-style rhythm track — seven minutes of planting nasty subliminal messages into the head of an unsuspecting dance victim; the only saving grace is that this one seems to lack any traces of a catchy chorus whatsoever, so not much will hopefully be imprinted.
Best of the lot are Dum Dum Girl Dee Dee Penny's vocals on ʽPlay For Todayʼ — for a moment out there, they made me forget about the dull electronic backup. The lyrics are just a tad too pretentiously clichéd for Murdoch's usually respectable level ("life is a rope, death is a myth, love is a fraud, it's misunderstood" — come on now, there must be more interesting words left in the English language, right?), but when it's Dee Dee's turn, she gets to coo this out in such a «sexy angel» tone as I have yet to hear on any of her Dum Dum Girls songs I've heard. Well, at least it is good to know that a shy guy like Murdoch can bring out the best in some people.
Electronics aside, there's quite a few «traditional» B&S songs here as well — in fact, the album is almost uncomfortably long, mainly due to the endless stretching out of the disco tunes, but also, I guess, because even if you do not put out an album in five years, you still write songs, and a mediocre songwriter like Murdoch does not have to worry too much about sifting the exciting from the bland. Thus, strong tunes like the opening ʽNobody's Empireʼ, the Paul Simon-esque ʽAllieʼ, and the consolatory ʽEver Had A Little Faithʼ are mixed with moodily pleasant waves of sentimentality (ʽThe Everlasting Museʼ) and semi-successful attempts at some sort of New Age-y effect (ʽThe Cat With The Creamʼ). Or, perhaps, with a little work of the mind you could turn these judgements inside out and come out with the exactly opposite impressions — it doesn't really matter. «Take some, leave some» will probably be the prevailing opinion here.
On the whole, now that I am making this decision at the last moment, it would be silly to deny the album a thumbs up just because of its electronic coating. I have nothing against «dark dance music» (or I'd have to hate Depeche Mode and the like) — I just happen to think it should be left to professionals, not amateurs for whom it had never previously worked as a point of reference. On the other hand, this album does a better job of integrating the beats with Murdoch's personality — the worst moments on Write About Love were accompanied with the thought of «this is not Belle & Sebastian I'm listening to here, this is a different entity — and these guys, of all people, have no artistic right to change into a different entity, so why am I even listening to this?» No such situation here: even ʽParty Lineʼ, as clumsy as it is, is yer trusty old Belle & Sebastian, forcing themselves to jump through a burning hoop for no clear reason. So, maybe their glory days are over and out, but as long as Murdoch has enough strength and personality left to press that «It's ME again!» button, let the music flow for all I care.