Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance — Belle And Sebastian

January 2016

My, how they’ve grown, my little bookworm buddies. I’ve followed Belle & Sebastian for quite a while, always a little ambivalent about labelling them twee, but ambivalent anyway about the thing that people picked out in them as twee. They were my clever, shy, bookish friends who wanted to make clever, shy, bookish music in a quiet nook in the 90’s music world, where even the most sensitive musicians I was listening to added a little muscularity to get over. B & S were soft and witty in a way that caught my ear without seeming to feel the need to show the toughness that other bands used to differentiate themselves from the “soft” mainstream, but somehow they quietly asserted their ambition and sheer lightly worn brain power without apologising for their weakness. Maybe they ought to have apologised a bit for their musical limitations (weak singing, wonky pitching, etc.), but it was probably more their lack of toughness that kept me from crossing the border from interested onlooker to fan (to my present shame).

They fell off my radar along the way and I became interested in looking them up again in the late naughties, in a more receptive frame of mind for clever, grown up music. When I did I was well pleased to discover that they seemed to have decided that rather than fade away into the introverse, that they’d push themselves back outwards as an ambitious, assertive band with a show that nobody was apologising for. It reminds me of a quote I read once from Morrissey, something to the effect that he wanted the Smiths to be music for sensitive people, but so towering, or so tough, or something, that it couldn’t be denied or dismissed. I think Belle And Sebastian have accomplished a similar feat without losing their essence. Of course, it depends what you think their essence is. If you think it is quiet fragility, and the sense that they could just be your friends messing around in the next room over a couple of cooling cups of tea, that is ebbing quite a bit. That’s not really what I’m looking for from them, though I love it that they started out that way.

Again this month, we are in diverse stylistic territory with Girls In Peacetime, but not much of the high energy stuff is rock music. Instead, there’s a dollop of various modern dance music, and other not so modern, or not so Western, dance music. I’m resisting a Paul Simon comparison, but the swelling choir and bubbling bass of the finale of Play For Today wouldn’t have been out of place on Graceland. Perfect Couples then takes us into the South American percussion of the Rhythm Of The Saints. And if Rhymin’ Simon gets round to making a Balkan/jazz album, I’m sure the result will be like The Everlasting Muse. There’s a great sense of flow across the album, with a perfect drop out and mood change between The Everlasting Muse and Perfect Couples, and a sort of false ending after Play For Today that makes the next two almost seem like an encore. The fact that The Book Of You is actually the rockingest song on the album adds to the impression of the band coming back on stage to rock out before easing us out into the night with Today (This Army’s For Peace), which is actually calming enough to simmer down a riot.

The first three songs are a pretty killer combo, as the laws of album construction require, with Nobody’s Empire warming us up and opening us out, and Allie and The Party Line both ramping up the excitement in different directions. The Party Line is probably the most un-B & S song, like, ever, being fairly obviously put together to actually make people dance. To be honest, I kind of liked it the way you would if your lonely friend scored a date with someone they knew they wouldn’t suit. I tolerate it as an important, inevitable, ultimately positive, but slightly doomed, enterprise. I guess on that score, Enter Sylvia Plath is the more successful of the two outright electro dance songs, probably because it sticks a little closer to the old B & S lyrical trope of conversations with imaginary girls.

Nobody’s Empire, on the other hand, is a quantum leap in songwriting. It attempts to say something big about a real person (Stuart?)’s real life. Not just about getting fish and chips and saving on the lecky bill. It’s still a little less clear to me exactly what the protagonist is up to in that song than, for instance, what the eponymous Allie is up to, so Stuart still has a little way to go to write as well about real life as about his imaginary friends, but damn, it’s a good and moving song. It’d be almost churlish to credit any other song as the best on the album, but to be honest, I probably get most pleasure out of the funky polyrhythms of Perfect Couples. I wish I found the (oh no!) twee, lightweight premise to be a knock against it, but I kinda like it. Special mention to the jazzy bass verses of The Everlasting Muse, the dreamy calm of Today, and the Afro-ecstasy of the last part of Play For Today.

Overall, it’s a long album, which I wouldn’t cut a second of. Stuart, Stevie and Sarah are still probably shaded by the singer in the pub band round the corner, but you’d still as little replace them as you’d replace a friend. They, and their band mates, can now play their instruments well, tightly and tastefully enough to put the songs over with the drama / restraint / flair they require. And it’s a pleasure to listen to in the same way it’s a pleasure to listen to an old friend who’s got wiser and more grown up but kept the same cheeky spark they once had when they choked out a muffled, self-conscious witticism on your first day of Uni. Only now they are more generous, and less inclined to need to relieve the tension with a joke, but the jokes and observations they do make are more self-assured and they’ve found the middle ground between muffled and strident which is their grown up voice.