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. In other words, cultivating a literary, twee and cultured sensibility is less likely to draw gunfire now than anytime before. Perhaps Murdoch agrees and thinks there’s been a ceasefire called on abuse toward those of a sensitive and bookish bent. It’s peacetime for the twee and Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.
It’s not like Belle & Sebastian’s previous output was created under any real degree of oppression. Murdoch’s always come across a bit like Morrissey without all the self-involvement and ire. There’s always been a melancholy tinging the music of Belle & Sebastian but never really an anger. For the most part, it’s been peacetime since the beginning. They’ve been well-liked and esteemed since they first appeared, but never has the entire twee sentiment been as universally embraced as it is now. The fact Lena Dunham is appearing on magazine covers isn’t just indication of a ceasefire but of a celebration.
True to the title, this is the band’s danciest record ever. They’ve dabbled in groovy basslines and synthesizers meant to excite rather than invoke an ambience or sense of mood before. This new aesthetic works and fails to varying degrees, usually due to how in step it is with their well-worn sound of gentleness. The good dance songs on here sound equally as at home on a Belle & Sebastian record as they would in a particularly refined club. The worse-for-wear ones don’t sound like a great fit for either. Peacetime seems to have begotten laziness in the ranks.
One of the album’s singles, “The Party Line,” is a clear example of how the group can make it work. It somehow manages to incorporate the synth-led amp-ups which are popular in the here and now with the indie dance pathways first trodden by bands like The Magnetic Fields on their ‘90s records. When it comes to tracks like “The Power of Three” and “Enter Sylvia Plath,” they’re packed with clever literary references as per usual for the band, but the instrumentation is so close to being over-the-top the whole time that it’s difficult to appreciate. “Allie” stands out for making you want to sway and jump and around while being devoid of the deliberately dancey instrumentation present on other tracks, conjuring up memories of songs by The Smiths like “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish.”
The best songs on the record bookend the album. “Nobody’s Empire” and “Today (This Army’s for Peace)” both possess the tight and twee songwriting of their best tracks of days gone by while also sounding like new developments for their sound. It’s on these tracks they seem to allow the restraint of If You’re Feeling Sinister and the triumphant confidence of Write About Love to run in perfect parallel with each other. The instrumentation is understated yet prominent, as are Murdoch’s lyrics.
Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is far from the best Belle & Sebastian album, and it signals more a distraction for their sound than an evolution. Still, just as everything is with them, that distraction is both pleasant and polite. A visit to their pastel and paisley discotheque isn’t going to make you hanker to return but you’ll have a good time while you’re there.