Sweet and melodious songs narrating tales of youth and innocence are Belle and Sebastian’s signature. With each record this band has released since its 1996 debut, band leader Stuart Murdoch has patiently and comfortably mastered his craft. Little by little, the band has explored with sonic elements of other musical styles to amplify the stories behind their songs. All of those experiments have ultimately led them to take a slight leap of faith on their ninth LP, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.
Girls in Peacetime has the Scots trading out their intimate sound accompanied by string arrangements for a snappier one augmented by dance rhythms, drum machines, and synthesizers (with help from producer Ben H. Allen). This ultimately refines the atmospheric direction of the album. The problem with this is that it can feel very unsure of which direction it wants to take. Should it move your heart or get you dancing? Can it do both successfully? This uncertainty continues throughout its entirety, altering the flow of the record. The transition from Cat with the Cream to Enter Sylvia Plath is slightly startling, Enter Sylvia Plath being the most radical thing this band has done as far as changing their sound goes. Still, some of it feels too abrasive and out of character.
Album opener Nobody’s Empire is a personal and heartfelt tune about Murdoch’s younger years and his struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome. With lyrics like “if I had a camera I’d snap you now, ‘cause there’s beauty in every stumble,” it opens on a lovely and familiar note. Allie tells the story of a sensitive girl who no longer knows how to react to her surroundings. Driven by guitars, it could easily fit in 2010’s Write about Love. Lead single The Party Line is a suggestive dance track making great use of synthesizes. An attempt in folk and polka music, The Everlasting Muse is charming and playful. It follows the singer as he longs for an enchanting girl, to “steal her melody”. The only catch is she demands the singer “be popular, play pop” for her affection. Eight track Perfect Couples is a cynical and upbeat number with guitarist Stevie Jackson on lead vocals. It features some pleasant instrumentation such as bongos, bells and chiming guitars, which only enhance its appeal.
The strongest moments this album lives out are the gorgeous The Cat with the Cream and Ever Had a Little Faith, which are delicate, sentimental, and embellished by strings, faithful to the band’s usual style. Not all of their sonic experiments fail to deliver; The Party Line, The Everlasting Muse, and Perfect Couples are dynamic enough to keep things interesting. Some of the tracks here, such as new-wave attempt Enter Sylvia Plath and the Caribbean inspired Play for Today (which features Dee Dee Penny) needlessly drag on for more than they should, the latter going on for seven and a half minutes. The final two songs, The Book of You (lead by Sarah Martin) and Today (This Army’s for Peace) are outshined by some of the finer moments that came before, lacking some of the momentum felt in the album’s first half.
Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is ambitious, yet nervously timid. Belle and Sebastian has proven they still have the ability to pen beautiful songs and flirt with different sounds. However, if what they want is to completely change their brand, they’ll have to fully flesh it out to avoid some of the stumbles between styles on this record.
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