Review: Belle & Sebastian – ‘Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance’

bsGirls In Peacetime Want To Dance‘ is to its very core a Belle & Sebastian album, while at the same time being absolutely nothing like a Belle & Sebastian album.

It has the usual beautiful Nick Drake dripping, pastoral flourishes that present stories of the small lives that people really live in the most beautiful of hues, whilst managing to explore and push their own sound and style in very new and unexpected directions.

This is Belle & Sebastian’s ‘dance’ album, which aside from seeming like a massive oxymoron, is also a little misleading. Don’t expect phat [sic] beats and massive dubstep rhythms. This isn’t Diplo or Agnello destroying your speakers, it is Belle & Sebastian’s own form of “doily-disco”: twee, shuffling and almost intangible at times.

It is also misleading as the whole album isn’t just “dance”, much of it is Belle & Sebastian doing Belle & Sebastian, and other parts are Belle & Sebastian doing Kings Of Convenience (which itself was just Belle & Sebastian with productions flourishes and a bossa nova shuffle). And it’s this 80’s Casio bossa nova setting that really changes the album. Somehow in pushing their sound forward, and moving with the times, they sound more retro and indebted to the past than ever before.

Only this time the debt is not owed to Drake or Donovan, or Vashti Bunyan or Nico, but instead to the glory days of disco. Not the soulful New York disco of Mancuso’s Loft, but instead the stark but playful sound of Giorgio Moroder’s Euro-disco. It’s Belle & Sebastian doing Donna Summer. Or maybe more appropriately, considering their heritage, Sheena Easton’s ‘Modern Girl‘.

Play For Today‘ is Summer’s ‘I Feel Love‘ with all the sex taken out. It’s like comparing Scotland to France, both beautiful and full of history, art and culture. But one has sex in its very DNA, and the other has porridge. So this would then be a kind of dance porridge (possibly the worst analogy ever, but is somehow the only way to describe it). It’s not all “doily dance”; ‘The Book of You‘ is a traditional Belle & Sebastian track musically and lyrically. Just with dramatically different production. If it had acoustic guitars, and nothing else, it would have sat perfectly on ‘Tigermilk‘ or ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister‘. It also sums up the contrasting sides of the record. Half of it is typical Belle & Sebastian fare, merely done using dramatic production techniques, the other half is a total shift in direction and style.

This new direction is both startling and exciting, yet the standout moment, ‘Allie‘, is not only exceptional, but also pure Belle & Sebastian. Simple characters, beautiful wordplay and storytelling on the most personal and smallest of scales, examples of their true genius. Equally, the dramatic changes of rhythm on ‘The Everlasting Move‘ would fit on any of their previous albums, so familiar and timeless that you are almost sure it is a lost b-side.

Ultimately what sets this album apart from their previous work is the dance elements. The comparison to Kings Of Convenience is not insignificant. The Kings of Convenience have always had a true love of dance music, and have managed to walk the finest of lines over the years in bringing that passion to the lightest and most delicate of indie styles. And Belle & Sebastian are now treading this very same line, though it is doubtful that Stuart Murdoch et al will be doing headline DJ sets anytime soon. They have managed to show a completely new and unexpected dimension to the band’s sound which, after all these years, is something to applaud.

The beautiful ‘Cat and The Cream‘, is everything that is right with Belle & Sebastian, while the incongruous and fascinating ‘Enter Sylvia Plath‘, in its contrasts, speaks volumes. In fact it’s the very wonderful incongruity of ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ that truly sums up what is brilliant about this album. It has the most Belle & Sebastian title on the record, but is the least Belle & Sebastian track in sound. A total misstep: part euro-trash disco, part human league pop-synth storytelling, but all with their wonderful wistful and thoughtful veneer.

In many ways ‘Peacetime…’ is the most Belle & Sebastian record so far, simply by being the least Belle & Sebastian record so far. And that is not just unexpected, it is also exciting.

Very exciting indeed.

(Dylan Llewellyn-Nunes)

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