Artist: Belle & Sebastian
Album: Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
In Brief: While the band’s bold leap into dance-pop territory is going to ruffle the feathers of longtime fans, that sound accounts for maybe a third of a record that’s stuffed with equal parts up-tempo surprises and warm, laid-back familiarity. It may feel like more of a mixtape than a cohesive album, but the diversity of Girls is one of its biggest strengths, making most of its hour-plus a sheer delight to get lost in.
I should make it clear from the get-go that I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek with my choice of review title, just as I’d imagine Belle & Sebastian was when they penned the line and put it into one of the more unorthodox songs among the 12 on their sprawling new album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. It’s an album on which they commit the perceived “cardinal sin” (at least from an indie hipster’s perspective) of playing pop music that at times is downright danceable, and they might not even be doing so ironically. It’s hardly the first time the group has played pop music, but usually it’s been of the meeker and milder, sorta-folksy and sorta-nostalgic “twee pop” variety, certainly catchy at times but not as likely to make a big show of itself. They were already beginning to stray from that as a default sound by the time they first caught my attention with a few tracks on their 2006 album The Life Pursuit. It wasn’t until 2010’s Write About Love that it really came together for me, since that album had a pretty solid mix of synthpop and indie rock and string-drenched retro-pop numbers that somehow felt like they all hung together better than the last time around. But I still wasn’t prepared for the group to dive into edgier rock sounds and full-on electropop five years later.
Now I wouldn’t say that those terms describe the entire album. It’s certainly the kind of thing that sounds like it might just be a lark when you hear them doing it on an advanced single released from the album. Just read the comments on the YouTube video for the big, glittery disco-pop tune “The Party Line”. You’d think they’d gone and betrayed everybody who used to love them. It’s a pet peeve of mine when so-called “fans” of a band are so quick to disown a band when they assume that one single which doesn’t happen to appeal to them genre-wise represents the sound of an entire album. I’m sure I’ve probably done this at various points in the past, too – and to be fair, comments left on YouTube don’t exactly represent the most intelligent segment of any band’s fanbase. But for crying out loud, dumb people who are somehow still smart enough to have liked an intelligent band at some point – give your favorite artists a chance to explore their interests. They haven’t abandoned the sound you once loved them for. I’d say there are a good handful of songs on Girls that are easily as laid-back and twee and cuddly as (admittedly what little I know of) the band’s past work. But when you’ve got at least three songwriters in a band and such long gaps between albums, people are going to grow up during that time in between, and maybe they’re going to get tired of making the same kind of music day in and day out. To me, the stylistic change-ups that occur throughout this record are actually pretty exciting. It’s definitely more of a “compilation of interesting ideas we tried out” type of record than a cohesive album that flows perfectly from front to back. But they’ve got more than an hour of music here, so for all but those with the narrowest of genre preferences, there should be plenty to choose from.
Ultimately, what makes Girls is a satisfying record is that despite all of the musical hats this Scottish sextet tries on, the personality behind all of those weird and wonderful sounds never feels less than genuine. Stuart Murdoch is still his vulnerable, verbose, faith-haunted, obsessively-journaling self. Sarah Martin still gives the band a feminine touch when it’s needed most (though here she also takes the lead on one of the edgier songs, surprisingly enough), and Stevie Jackson takes over for a track as expected, giving the band just the right shot of musical ADD. Even at its most electronic and otherworldly extremes, this is still the work of a band and not of heartless producers. The melodies that flow forth and the crisp instrumentation used to give them life are fascinatingly intricate at times, even when the goal is to appeal to that very basic need for a catchy pop song. There might be a few hiccups – nothing bad, really, just a few under-baked tracks that don’t really scratch any of my particular itches – but I never feel like the band is phoning it in or trying desperately to re-establish their relevance. Girls simply sounds like an album that they made because they knew they would have fun making it. Even when its lyrics are at their most cynical, there’s a refreshing sort of lightness to it. I’m not quite ready to say it’s my first “personal instant classic” of the year 2015… but it’s close.
1. Nobody’s Empire
Every now and then there’s a track that is so difficult for me to describe, it gives me writer’s block. I’ve kept putting off this review because I would find myself constantly changing my mind about what this song meant or whether it made sense as an album opener. It’s not even that unusual of a song, musically speaking – it just seems rather unassuming compared to what follows. It’s up-tempo and modestly catchy, but Stuart seems strangely alone and vulnerable, not supported by the vocals of his bandmates until the very end, which is a big change from album openers like “Act of the Apostle” or “I Didn’t See It Coming”, which had these huge, sing-along choruses. Here, Stuart’s got a huge mouthful of a story to tell, which doesn’t lend itself as well to a simple, repetitive chorus, but there’s so much detail to it that I’ve learned to love how it subverts my expectations. He goes into depth about a debilitating illness that plagues him for several years, one which I don’t fully understand the nature of from the lyrics alone, but which seemed to have drained him of joy and energy, almost to the point of having an out of body experience. Yet there’s a refuge in the darkness, and in the restful sleep that he gets when he’s locked away in rehabilitation mode. The lyrics hint at some sort of a faith healing taken place – which adds yet another dimension to the ongoing saga of “Stuart Murdoch explores Christianity from the perspective of a thoroughly un-cynical outsider.” This is all so fascinating that the neat little musical accents – the castanets and bells and the horn section that chimes in at the end – almost seemed like afterthoughts to me until about the tenth or twentieth listen. I almost wish I wasn’t aware of how anyone else had interpreted this song, because examining the lyrics in a vacuum, it could go in about a thousand different directions. That’s good songwriting – the kind where the question of “What the heck is this about?” can engage listeners and potentially be a source of healthy debate, rather than an off-putting aspect of the song.
The cheery “Ba-ba-ba”s that are faintly audible at the beginning of this song, and its bouncy folk/rock rhythm, are intentionally dissonant from its lyrics, which definitely tell a sad story. The woman Stuart describes here seems to be a bit of an activist – upset about everything from wars to urban blight to domestic violence. But her response to it is self-harm rather than anything constructive, as if it’s her last desperate plea to get the world to own up to its injustices. Stuart confronts this behavior with a bit of sympathy and a bit of a “first world problems” rebuke, pointing out that her heroes have been through much darker times than her, and saying “the tricks in your head are a lie”. (And yes, there’s that catchy, repetitive chorus lyric I was looking for, though I feel like a heartless bastard for enjoying it so much.) His assessment is that she’s got so much more to give, rather than checking out early just to teach the world a lesson: “There’s a softness in your heart, there’s a poetry to come.” Keep that connection between poetry and mental health in mind, because it’ll come up again later.
3. The Party Line
For most of the month of January, I was all like, “Aw man, this is my JAM!” Which is a phrase that I tend to use with equal parts irony and genuine enthusiasm, because any time there’s a song about dancing or partying that gets me excited, it’s because the lyrics are somehow making wry commentary on the very same superficial catchiness that the music provides. It’s an irresistible recipe, to have a band compelling movement with all manner of drum machines and snappy synth melodies (which the band proudly trots out here, along with strong, disco-influenced bass and guitar licks), and then critiquing how easily we can all fall into lock-step when that beat demands such movement from us. I’m pretty sure that “Jump to the beat of the party line” is some sort of a political statement here, and in that case I’m all for people not falling in line so easily if it means the alternative is stopping and thinking for yourself before you punch holes in a ballot. But then some of the other lyrics suggest they’re critiquing other kinds of superficiality (especially the amusing quip “There is nobody here but your body, ear”), or just strike me as plain surreal (“People like to shoot at things with borrowed guns and knives“? How does that work?!) It’s tough to balance an immediately accessible, “love at first listen” sort of pop song with lyrics that actually make you want to go back and dig deeper. Usually I end up appreciating artists for one or the other – not both. I figure this song is the best of both worlds.
4. The Power of Three
I hate to dog on Sarah Martin, because her contributions are usually highlights for me, but this song is just goofy. I don’t mind synths (as evidenced by the previous song), but when the most obnoxiously cheery variety of them is overlaid onto the more retro-pop style that’s been B&S’s bread and butter for the last few albums, it’s incongruous in a way that doesn’t sound like it was intentional. Sarah spends the entire song dissecting the virtues of the number three, and it’s all veiled in oddball literary references to The Three Musketeers and Sherlock Holmes and so forth, and I’m just not connecting to her reasons for wanting to make a compelling argument in favor of three being better than two or four. “Sherlock Holmes found the sign of four”, she muses. “I don’t listen to that number theory.” So why bring it up if you can’t explain what the theory even is that you’re dismissing? Truly baffling, this one. If she were making a case for the “third wheel” being an important aspect of a couple’s relationship or in some way fighting for that underdog who feels like the odd woman out, I might relate. But she’s failing to connect the dots in any satisfying way, making this song rather annoying and skippable as a result.
5. The Cat with the Cream
One of Stuart’s most lyrically dense songs on this record masquerades as such a soft and unassuming number, you’d have no idea how political it is due to the false sense of security it lulls you into. There’s all sorts of stuff here about MPs and Tories, and “Days of old when knights were bold/They’d settle it with sword and shield”, that sort of thing. I’m sure there’s some great commentary being made here about groupthink or consumer culture or the whole Scottish independence thing that didn’t go through last year. I don’t have to understand it all to appreciate the incisive nature of some of these details. But I think the music, which is pretty much the band at their most congenial and non-threatening, really does these lyrics any favors. It just sort of… floats there for five minutes straight, with the guitar and bass slowly thumping away on every quarter note, and the string section burgenoning but never quite bursting forth into anything actively dramatic or angry or sad or otherwise expressing. It’s pretty, but a song like this one should only use “pretty” as a starting point to intentionally mislead the listener’s expectations, not as a constant throughout.
6. Enter Sylvia Plath
I’m going to stick my neck out here for a song that I could tell, from its first few seconds, would probably the most reviled thing on the record. Probably also one of the most beloved tracks for fans who are into the more exploratory side of the band. But this one’s so firmly entrenched in its Europop rhythm and its glossy synthesizer melody that I can’t imagine there being much middle ground. At nearly seven minutes long, it’s a bit of a marathon, though I think the melody and lyrics have so many fascinating little twists and turns that every second is well spent. But I can imagine some folks really suffering through this one. It’s certainly a weird backdrop given its namesake, poet Sylvia Plath, who is sort of the poster child for the “tortured artist”, since she suffered from depression for much of her life and ultimately ended up killing herself. The song doesn’t tell her exact story per se, but Stuart seems to be drawing parallels between her story and a woman whom he admires in the present-day, perhaps seeking to save her from that fate. His lyrics expressing outright admiration, wanting to steal her away from their reality of loneliness and drudgery, and to be her inspiration or her steady rock or heck, even her pupil – whatever makes her feel validated and loved, I guess. He might be putting her on a bit of a dangerous pedestal, but heck, who wouldn’t feel at least a little bit of warmth when offered these words: “In this time and place/There is no one who will shoot you down/There’s no one who will take a girl/And tell her she can’t have the world”. Sarah chimes in during the bridge of the song and sort of keeps him at arm’s length, insisting he doesn’t know what he wants and that it might take a lot more than he’s willing to give to pull her out of her depressed state. It’s a thoughtful, conversational piece that might be easily overlooked by those who doesn’t appreciate the chosen musical genre or the ambitious length of the song. But I think it’s an inspired bit of madness.
7. The Everlasting Muse
Two genres, both of them a bit unusual for the band, collide in this bizarre song, which seems like a breezy, acoustic, jazz-pop sort of piece (complete with upright bass!) until it crashes headlong into a slower, Eastern European folk dance-inspired chorus. It sounds borderline goofy at first – plus I’m not generally a big fan of establishing an upbeat rhythm and then snatching it away from the listener so suddenly mid-song. But the two halves that don’t seem to work together at first comprise a satisfying whole nonetheless, and I have to applaud the band for still finding something adventurous to do when I figured after that last track that they’d gone as far off into left field as they were gonna go for this album. Stuart’s trying to woo a girl in this song, which is nothing new, but there’s the sense that one of them is considered “forbidden” by the other one’s culture, which explains the clashing musical styles, I guess. It’s the music itself that seems to bridge that gap between them – as Stuart explains it: “Money tends to disappear/Beauty crumbles with the years/But music is for us.” At that point the old-world instrumentation starts to creep into the cool “jazz club” atmosphere – I’m only guessing at what I’m hearing, but it sounds like a mariachi trumpet and a bouzouki, and honestly it’s the sort of thing I’d expect to hear from DeVotchKa. The lyric I quoted in my review title crops up here, ironically in what might just be the farthest thing from conventional pop on the entire album: “A subtle gift to modern rock/She says be popular, play pop/And you will win my love.” (I find myself wondering whether there’s a comma in between “win” and “my love”. That would change the entire meaning of that last stanza, from winning her over to winning over the music industry.)
8. Perfect Couples
The extended opening to this song is all conga drums and happy-go-lucky “La-la-la”s from Sarah, misleading me at first into thinking its one of her songs – but then the addictive, stabbing guitar riffs kick in and it turns out to be Stevie Jackson’s turn at the mic. His songs often feels like they have squat to do with whatever’s going on around them, but they tend to be fun nonetheless. Here he’s musing on the facade that Hollywood couples keep up – and honestly, it sounds naive for anyone in this day and age to be fooled by that, but I’ll indulge him since I suspect he’s being a little tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing. He almost sounds like he’s writing a spec script for a romantic comedy that’s equal part Friends and Portlandia: “Sexual tension at the fridge/He makes for the organic figs/Belmondo lips, dangling a cig/And she, just back from her hike/And to the gallery she might/Glide by with a basket on her bike.” The moral of the story’s pretty obvious here, even if he’s being facetious – be happy with what you’ve got and don’t believe someone else has it all together just because they look happy at a glance. Stevie gets no points for astute observation here, but the way he writes about it is full of personality, and the rhythm section’s more than proved their versatility for three songs straight now, so I can’t help but enjoy this one a great deal.
9. Ever Had a Little Faith?
I’m sensing a pattern in the mellower songs on this album – they tend to be the ones that Stuart tries to pack the most poetry into. Nothing wrong with that – his detail-oriented portrayal of a girl looking out the window at her rainy neighborhood and struggling to overcome some sort of sadness or depression helps to offset the otherwise plainspoken advertisement for faith that the song ultimately becomes. Over the simple strum of an acoustic guitar and some very subtle violin and honestly not much else, he tries to compel her to believe “Something good’ll come from nothing.” To me this feels a bit like “The Ghost of Rockschool” from their previous album, except that song took an interesting detour midway through, and this one just seems rather complacent with its unremarkable sound, which makes its four and a half minutes grow slowly tedious.
10. Play For Today
The last of the up-tempo dance tracks on this album is a bit more subdued than the earlier entries. Though it isn’t any less long-winded. At seven and a half minutes, its aspirations may be even more epic than “Enter Sylvia Plath”, though since it achieves its climax by way of slow burn, it isn’t as immediately captivating as that song. Dee Dee Penny of the Dum Dum Girls (I swear I’m not making those names up) drops by to share a duet vocal with Stuart, and at least in this context, her vocals have a sense of grace and innocence much like Sarah’s (which might be intentional, since they presumably have to sing the song live and can’t drag an singer from across the pond around with them everywhere they go). This makes it all the more startling when the two describe being characters in a play about a seemingly harmless girl who turns out to have “A friend, an ugly monster who will eat your face.” You just have to hear Dee Dee deliver that line to appreciate the irony – she almost whispers it, as if it were the cutest thing ever. The chorus, which brings in some melodic twists similar to Green Day‘s “Last Night on Earth” (now there are two bands I never thought I’d compare, and probably never will again), might just be the most cynical thing on the entire record: “Life is a secret, death is a myth/Love is a fraud, it’s misunderstood/Work is a sentence, family’s a drag/This house is a trap.” Yikes, Melodramatic, much? The song might feel like a sentence to some, since its coda spends a very long time in a coda before finally fading out – they could probably drop a minute or two of this and be no worse for the wear. Still, there’s so much to enjoy here, between the synths and the clever melody and the vocal exchanges between the two leads, that I usually don’t mind it hanging around for a little longer.
11. The Book of You
Suddenly there’s a lot of writing about writing happening on this record. (Didn’t they devote an entire album to that last time around?) Sarah’s second and final lead vocal on this record is much stronger than her first – the song’s got a spring in its step similar to “Allie”, though it seems a little more innocent at first, bumping along on a syncopated beet and a keyboard sound that I can best describe as “tooting”. Sarah’s analogy about two people being books that are still being written dovetails nicely with the concept of a play still being written in the previous song, though her version is way more optimistic, taking their similar stories as evidence that the two belong together. Just when you think it’s all harmless cutesy fun, this jagged, downright dirty guitar solo shows up at the end of the song and kicks it into overdrive. It comes right the heck out of nowhere and it pretty much steals the show, but I kind of love it for that.
12. Today (This Army’s For Peace)
The final song might seem like an afterthought, especially since this album has demanded almost an hour’s worth of your attention so far. Much like “The Cat with the Cream”, it seems so cautiously and meticulously arranged that it’s nearly sterilized in comparison to some of the messy bleed-overs between genres that we’ve heard in previous songs. It’s just sort of… there, but not in an unpleasant or overbearing way. It feels almost like Stuart wants us to drift off into the wide-eyed daydream he’s sharing, which might just take a page or two from the book of Revelation as he softly promises us: “Victims will be justified/The lame will be leaping/This army’s for peace/Come out into the light.” I almost wish his vision of Utopia wasn’t so softspoken that it threatened to blend into a blurry sea of greys and pastels. But it’s still a nice sentiment to leave us with.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Nobody’s Empire $1.50
The Party Line $2
The Power of Three $.50
The Cat with the Cream $.75
Enter Sylvia Plath $2
The Everlasting Muse $1.75
Perfect Couples $1.50
Ever Had a Little Faith? $.50
Play For Today $1.50
The Book of You $1.25
Today (This Army’s For Peace) $.75
Stuart Murdoch: Lead vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, keyboards
Sarah Martin: Vocals, keyboards, electric and acoustic guitar
Stevie Jackson: Vocals, electric and acoustic guitar
Chris Geddes: Keyboards
Richard Colburn: Drums, percussion
Bobby Kildea: Guitar, bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: