Release Date: Jan 20, 2015
Record label: Matador
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Signed to a new label, with production duties taken on by Ben H Allen III (of Gnarls Barkley fame), Belle & Sebastian – now much more of a unit than ever before – have found their stride, turning in one of the most satisfying, complete and cinematic albums of their 19-year career. There are no pop sell-outs here – though, true, there’s a sheen to The Party Line, and an almost Arcade Fire gloss on the breathtaking duet, Play For Today; Enter Sylvia Plath is traditional disco. But all the positives come from more than just knob-twiddling.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. Try as we might, it is difficult to disentangle ourselves from our past. We might seek new horizons, switch careers or simply change our hairstyle, but the baggage that accumulates over years of lived experiences never really goes away. We can get better at hiding it from others or ignoring it, but sooner or later something gives us away - a tell in the way we approach certain subjects, or a certain defensiveness perhaps.
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.
For their ninth album, Glasgow’s indie-pop darlings explore the personal and the political. Guns, protests and political dissatisfaction are balanced with a tender, awestruck look at the redemptive (and sometimes spiritual) power of love, themes most poignantly brought together in the hauntingly brilliant opening track Nobody’s Empire (which frontman Stuart Murdoch has called “the most personal I’ve ever written”). Delivering this mix of melancholy and optimism with their trademark storytelling panache, the band have created a compelling and moving record, with Enter Sylvia Plath and The Party Line offering an unexpected Europop divergence from their roots.
Irony abounds in the title of Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, the ninth album by the Scottish collective Belle & Sebastian. It goes unstated that the record was released in an atmosphere not quite synonymous with peace, but the group unquestionably want to dance, spending nearly half of this lengthy record grooving to a neo-disco beat. To approximate the pulse of a mirror ball, Belle & Sebastian hired Ben H Allen, a producer best known for his work with the modern psychedelic troupes Animal Collective and Washed Out, a decided shift away from the exquisitely sculpted miniatures that populated B&S' two records with Tony Hoffer, particularly Write About Love.
Despite some indications that Belle and Sebastian’s ninth might be a politically motivated album – Allie’s reference to “bombs in the Middle East”; the title itself – Stuart Murdoch and co ultimately focus on matters of the heart, whether in Glasgow or Gaza. The gorgeously ambient Today (This Army’s for Peace) drifts into a slumberous state despite its tormented lyrics, single The Party Line is the disco-dancing partner to 2004’s Your Cover’s Blown, and Nobody’s Empire – a song about Murdoch’s chronic fatigue syndrome – tackles illness with dexterous delicacy. Most importantly though, this album retains the group’s old sense of humour: Enter Sylvia Plath is, quite incongruously, a sequin-studded Eurovision romp, and Perfect Couples – a song about marrying young and breaking up early – tackles “sexual tension by the fridge”, baskets on bikes and fruit-based snacks with elegantly wry wit.
Humanity’s natural fixation on the new has become amplified in the music world down the years, to the point that it seems like somewhere around the six or seven album mark artists usually drift into a different space when it comes to critical appraisal. You tend to see a lot of bands with ten years or more under their belts judged by veteran-specific criteria where it’s pretty much just assumed that their newest output won’t meet high early career watermarks, and a good reaction to a new LP might be something along the lines of ‘their best work in ten years’. There are exceptions to this, of course, and it feels safe to say that Belle and Sebastian can be considered as such.
No one can accuse Stuart Murdoch of laziness. Fresh from his God Help The Girl project, which added the tag of writer-director to his resume, he still managed to come up with a new batch of tunes. Concerns about blunted creative instincts should be dispelled by Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, a well-crafted collection that is far more coherent than 2010’s Write About Love.
Contrary to their twee reputation, Belle and Sebastian have never been averse to taking risks. If that hadn’t been apparent before, it’s something that’s hard not to notice with the way the iconic Glasgow group previewed its new album with the disco romper “The Party Line”, the farthest it has ventured out on the dancefloor up to now. While “The Party Line” wouldn’t necessarily incite a backlash from their fanbase, the funkier angle Belle and Sebastian pursued on it is still a bold move for a revered, beloved band that could’ve easily continued to refine the chamber-pop aesthetic it mastered long ago with no complaints or unmatched expectations.
Belle and Sebastian wants to dance, which might surprise fans of the infamously mopey Glasgow band. But the Nile Rodgers-style guitar lick on “The Party Line,” the lead single from Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, their first album in five years, suggests they had recent radio trends on their minds while in the studio. This isn't your dad's disco though, nor is it Daft Punk's.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first saw Belle and Sebastian live. It was 2003, and they were just emerging from their “twee as fuck” heyday. I couldn’t imagine them lifting their amps onto the stage, let alone making it through a whole set of songs. Their long delicate lyrics and hushed accompaniments seemed designed for Sunday mornings, off-campus cafés, or headphones in the stacks.
In their two decades as a band, Belle and Sebastian have reinvented themselves a few times already, and on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, their follow-up to the pleasant but uninspired Write About Love in 2010, they've done it yet again. The track times, which frequently stretch past the five-minute mark and max out at seven-and-a-half, mark an effort on the band's part to stick with songs long enough to let a groove or a feeling fully sink in. The approach works especially well on "Play For Today," whose subtle, African-inspired rhythms and optimistic lyrics juxtapose with the morose, minor key melody to evoke a feeling of hope amidst despair, and on "The Cat With the Cream," where the runtime allows the weight to the song's solemnity to slowly build.
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.
On “Nobody’s Empire,” the first track of Belle & Sebastian’s new record, Stuart Murdoch asks a simple question. “If we live by books and we live by hope / Does that make us targets for gunfire?” Murdoch’s band has been trying to answer that question since their debut album, Tigermilk. It’s just interesting he’s proposing the same question now in a time when thick-framed glasses are in vogue, Portlandia is one of the biggest shows on TV and so forth.
Seven years is how long Belle and Sebastian lead singer Stuart Murdoch was afflicted with chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating illness with no easy cure. You’re tired all the time, but sleep doesn’t help; you can’t hold a job down, since you don’t have the energy to be anywhere. Murdoch developed the disease as a university student, when he was old enough to fully comprehend what he’d be forgoing should his symptoms endure.
"Jump! To the beat of a party line," Stuart Murdoch sings over Pet Shop Boys-ish synths on the lead single from Belle and Sebastian's ninth LP. Like many songs here, "The Party Line" pairs vaguely political lyrics with vaguely clubby music – an unusual combination for this band, and one that doesn't always work. (See the gimmicky EDM-lite track called "Enter Sylvia Plath.") Thankfully, there are also a handful of inventive standouts like "The Book of You," where B&S shape electronic music around their strengths, rather than vice versa.
For all of the adjectives you could use to describe Glasgow sweethearts Belle & Sebastian; “twee”, “cerebral”, “brittle” perhaps, “daring” is the word that best sums up ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’. After almost 20 years through a career that’s encompassed various line-ups, enormous tours and an award-winning feature-length film, Stuart Murdoch and co have made a record that’s engineered primarily for dancing. ‘Girls in Peacetime…’ is a confusing beast.
If someone had said a year ago that Belle and Sebastian would have a Europop song called “Enter Sylvia Plath” on its new record, would you have believed it? After all, the Glaswegian indie pop group is notable in part for being so damn consistent. From Tigermilk to Write About Love, the band’s entire discography has been packed solid with batches of indie pop that deftly tread the line between smart and saccharine. While they’ve experienced marginal dips in quality, namely Storytelling and arguably Write About Love, the band can always be trusted to deliver strong melodies and clever, introverted lyrics.
Review Summary: The Be Here Now of twee.Although its origin has been debated, the term “the Disease of More” is generally considered to have been coined by noted Los Angeles Lakers/New York Knicks coach and current Miami Heat Sith Lord Pat Riley in his 1988 non-fiction bestseller Showtime. Riley was using the phrase to discuss the problems that crop up in a team attempting to follow a championship year – in his case, the 1980-81 Lakers – with equal success. The problem with reaching the pinnacle of basketball for that supremely talented team, Riley found, was that everyone wanted a greater slice of the pie: more run, more shots, more money.
Of the many acts quietly hammering away in the shadow of the alternative revolution in the ’90s, Belle & Sebastian wasn’t a strong contender for longest-lived. An apparent shunning of careerist game-playing—press interviews, world tours, exposure of any kind—was part of the group’s appeal. Its discography painted a picture of musicians preoccupied with wasted or hidden potential: “Expectations,” “Judy And The Dream Of Horses,” “It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career”—all songs about people hiding their lights under a bushel, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Listening to the latest Belle and Sebastian album is a bit like watching the band perform. Twenty years ago that line would not read as a compliment. The Scottish pop group started out as a loose collective of musicians with a reputation as an unreliable live act. Nine albums later, they project an easy confidence no matter how expansive or ambitious the arrangement.
More than any other band I can think of, Belle & Sebastian have the kind of back catalogue that you can divide very neatly into two halves. The former period, running from their inception in January 1996 to their eventual signing to Rough Trade in the early noughties - not too long after the departures of Stuart David and Isobel Campbell - is widely considered to represent their vintage years; they turned out three masterly records in a row in Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy with the Arab Strap, and - in a lovely nod to a bygone era - exclusively released non-album singles. The collection of EPs and singles they put out between 1996 and 2001, Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, is one of the greatest compilations of non-album material in recent history - “Legal Man”, “Lazy Line Painter Jane”, “Dog on Wheels”, “Photo Jenny” and “La Pastie de la Bourgeoisie” just a handful of the many stone-cold classics across the two discs.
Winter semester is upon us, and it makes a certain amount of sense that Portland, Ore., folk rock band the Decemberists and Scottish folk-rock-disco balladeers Belle & Sebastian would issue new musical texts on the same Tuesday in January. Both acts have survived first-blush crushes and sophomore ….
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.
It's a risky business being Belle & Sebastian. In the 90s they blew my tiny little indie-loving brains out; like a few short sentences in a love letter, a brush of lips against a forehead. Now couple that with wistful melodies and a nascent narrative, and you've landed in a lumpy goo of indie pop. Belle & Sebastian managed to chuck banana peels onto the pathways of conservative taste.