Release Date: January 20, 2015
“Nobody writes them like they used to / So it may as well be me,” Stuart Murdoch sang on “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” from Belle and Sebastian’s rightly adored second album, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. Since then, his band of Glaswegian indie rock torchbearers have amassed quite the archive of songs exploring isolation, religious jadedness, youthful arrogance, Smiths-like self flagellation, and anxiety-ridden regrets. Now, on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (Belle and Sebastian’s first studio album since 2010), Murdoch is still a fountain of clever wordplay, but this time he’s got a new agenda — a political one (“Tory like the cat with the cream”). As always, Murdoch’s writing is pristine — learned but unpretentious; complex but not unfocused; revealing but not diary-entry juvenile. However, with its Studio 54 bounce and chintzy instrumental opulance, such lovely lyrics run the risk of being overshadowed by Girls‘ near-blinding disco shimmer.
True, ever since the ’90s departure of Stuart David and Isobel Campbell, Belle and Sebastian have been twirling the mirrorball, starting with 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, which saw the seven-piece’s first real foray onto the dance floor with such upbeat rump-shakers as the regret-fueled “I’m a Cuckoo” and the unapologetically nerdy “Wrapped Up in Books.” They took things to ultra-mod ’60s pop territory on 2010’s charming Write About Love, and now, with assistance from producer Ben H. Allen (Deerhunter, Washed Out, CeeLo Green, Animal Collective), their latest effort hustles straight into the ’70s.
Opening with what’s being billed as Murdoch’s most personal song ever, the delightful and uncharacteristically straightforward “Nobody’s Empire” is sonically the most classic-sounding Belle and Sebastian track on Girls (think: a slightly less jaunty version of “I Could Be Dreaming”). “Lying on my bed I was reading French / With the light too bright for my senses / From this hiding place, life was way too much / It was loud and rough ’round the edges,” confesses Murdoch, who, accompanied by purposeful piano, sharp horns, tinkly keys, and thick harmonies, ironically sings of being plagued by chronic fatigue.
From there, the mirrorball really starts to twirl, casting a lustrous sheen on songs like the synth-slathered “The Party Line,” whose title suggests a leftist slant, encourages you off the wall, with references to close bodies and morning-after emotions. Talk about reaching across the aisle, eh?
“Cat With the Cream” slows things down long enough to decry those “men in frocks debate all the policy changes” and ever-conservative Tories. “Enter Sylvia Plath,” meanwhile, finds B&S going full-on Europop: It’s so flashy, it may as well be lined in sequins. “Play For Today,” which features Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee Penny lifting her octaves to meet Murdoch, is similarily glossy — so much so that it almost threatens to obscure their melancholy words which not-so-secretly condemn the humdrum working week (“Work is a sentence / Family’s a drag / This house is a trap”).
Of course there’s a long history of pop music camouflaging its wistful subject matter and/or legislative ideas with glistening synths, jolly guitar, and buoyant percussion (like, say, the Smiths and every indie-approved Swedish singer ever). It’s a good thing — Johnny Marr’s peppy guitar-work is partially what makes songs like “The Headmaster Ritual,” which denounces corporal punishment, bearable. And to a large extent, like so many albums before it, Belle and Sebastian’s latest full-length succeeds in pointing out societal injustices with just enough sweetness to lighten the bitter frustration lurking within. And yet, at times the endless flutes, synths, and strings risk of giving the listener a cavity. Just remember to rinse Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance with a mouthful of Tigermilk, and you’ll be fine.