Review: Belle and Sebastian, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

Beneath its well-produced cacophony, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is an emotional and intelligently bruised work.
belle and sebastian

opinion byZACHARY BERNSTEIN < @znbernstein >

The title of Scottish sextet Belle and Sebastian’s ninth LP, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, is a quietly loaded statement. In the last half-decade, EDM staged a coup d’etat on the airwaves while pop and hip-hop went back to the discotheque. The Dance Dance Revolution has accordingly transcended its celebratory role and shifted gears to delirious escapism. Considering that 2014 was, as per cultural consensus, pretty much the worst, we may not be at war, but we are most definitely not at peace. Who can worry about geopolitical uncertainty, disease outbreaks, and the ever-looming specter of global climate change once that beat drops? Just dance, gonna be okay, da da doo-doo-mmm, just dance.

It’s a dangerously random and randomly dangerous world in which we live, so we now have a Belle and Sebastian album for 2015 that acknowledges the dance-apocalyptic landscape in which it was conceived – sexier, crueler, and yet more fragile than ever. Stuart Murdoch and Co. are hardly the first of their indie-baroque compatriots to dance themselves clean (see also: Ra Ra Riot, Stars). Hell, even Arcade Fire swapped megaphones for mirrorballs. Like Reflektor before it, Peacetime serves its particular brand of disco with a side of irony. Given their preexisting penchant for jangle-rock and sunny-day melancholia, the band has transposed those sensibilities into a conversation about escapist music in a violent society. Don’t be discouraged, though, Peacetime is still very much a Belle and Sebastian album, albeit one with a slicker sound and slightly larger stakes. This is not an Achtung Baby moment – Belle and Sebastian have always been an adorably modest band and Peacetime is their adorably modest reinvention.

On the Tartan romp “The Everlasting Muse,” Murdoch deadpans on the music industry, “Be popular, play pop, and you will win my love.” Perhaps he knows that dance-punk is not his band’s particular area of expertise, which is why the album’s club-ready tracks place their tongues firmly in their cheeks. Lead single “The Party Line” deploys New Order synths, thumping bass, and handclaps while Murdoch alternates between sinewy Lou Reed coos and David Byrne yelps. It all sounds formulaic in theory, but when Murdoch implores his audience to “jump to the beat of the party line,” his words are deceptively galvanizing. Is this political posturing in the middle of a dance song? Don’t kill the vibe, Stuart! That’s Belle and Sebastian’s disco music for you – they will play pop, but they will risk not winning your love by subverting lyrical expectations.

The six- and seven-minute opuses “Play for Today” and “Enter Sylvia Plath,” a song whose self-parodying title deliberately clashes with its sound, are content to stretch the genre to its limits. Long-form indie dance music can be excellent (Exhibit A: LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”) but it needs some kind of momentum – peaks and valleys or a continuous crescendo. The parts are all in the right place, the rhythms are tight, and Sarah Martin’s vocals shimmer appropriately, but these featherweight numbers surprisingly weigh down the record’s forward movement with their exaggerated length, almost as if on purpose. Belle and Sebastian have always been at their best in concentrated, concise doses.

Where Peacetime truly finds its sonic groove is the janglier, more polished rock-oriented material on which the band focused its early-Aughts releases. Opener “Nobody’s Empire” is a genuinely uplifting, orchestral number about falling in love, scored beautifully by horns, castanets, and a gospel choir. The gently lilting “Ever Had A Little Faith?” is a dead ringer for the Velvet Underground at their most pale-blue-eyed moments. Beyond their novel New Wave sheen, “Allie” and “The Power of Three” are agreeable, if fairly forgettable. Viewed in the larger LP context, the band’s Hot Chip-aping numbers are but one component of a bigger-budgeted, but otherwise standard Belle and Sebastian release.

Murdoch’s storytelling abilities and observational lyrics, the true highlight of this record, have never been sharper or more relevant. Military imagery and violence are pervasive, from the cover art to the lyrics (“when there’s knives in the street, you wanna end yourself”) to the song titles (“This Army’s for Peace”). There are overt references to current events, as on “The Cat with the Cream,” in which Murdoch calls frock-wearing Parliamentary officials to the carpet and sings “everybody bet on the boom and got busted,” but that statement need not be strictly financial. This is not a political album, per se, but rather, an album about politics – governmental, sexual, and romantic. On “The Party Line,” Murdoch’s dancefloor come-on’s are concerned less with sex and more with the bizarrely impersonal culture of club hookups.  One of the album’s highlights, the bossa-nova flavored “Perfect Couples,” is a hilarious send-up of yuppie relationships, in which a man ignores the realities of marriage, idealizing matrimony as a life of organic meals in beautifully decorated apartments. This is an audio record of manners for a Spotified generation, an age of lost innocence.

Beneath its well-produced cacophony, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is an emotional and intelligently bruised work, and that is probably why its dance-oriented numbers fail to hit all of their marks. Belle and Sebastian are a band far too shrewd and intimate for the escapist club fantasies that presently dominate the airwaves. Their ninth record demonstrates how they, much like the rest of us, have matured in order to adapt to our changing world, even if the products of that maturity are not always completely engaging. There is a sobering moment amidst the instrumental swell of “Nobody’s Empire” in which Murdoch sings “if we live by books and we live by hope, does that make us targets for gunfire?” Truer and timelier words have rarely been sung, perfectly consistent with the ethos of Belle and Sebastian’s more enduring releases – wide-eyed, wounded, and most importantly, undeniably human. B