THE TWIN peaks of Belle and Sebastian’s artistic achievements, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister and 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, have set a high standard for a band that, over its long career, has regularly delivered quality work.
That level of consistency was disrupted by 2010’s Write About Love, which, though containing some fine songs, was less imaginative, more mainstream, than previous work - exemplified by the insipid ‘Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John’ and featuring the equally insipid Norah Jones - seemed desperate to retain the commercial success the band has acquired in recent years.
Given that band leader Stuart Murdoch’s side projects of the God Help The Girl album (2009 ) and feature-film (2014 ) were vastly superior and, on all levels, closer to the soul and spirit of Belle and Sebastian, it was clear that Write About Love’s follow-up needed to be much better. In that regard, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance’s opening track ‘Nobody’s Empire’ is a clear statement of intent.
An inspired melody builds around major chords, its verses build with purpose and energy, energising the listener in the process. A nakedly autobiographical song by Murdoch about coming to terms with chronic fatigue syndrome and the redeeming power of love, it also contains a couplet that stands for both the band and its audience: “If we live by books and we live by hope/does that make us targets for gunfire?" The best song on the album, it is also one of the band’s finest moments in their long career.
Although nothing else equals it, some songs comes close, such as ‘Allie’, a full blooded number dealing with personal and political despair, depression, and anxiety, which ably mixes the contrasting sounds of fuzzing, searing, guitar lines and flutes.
‘Ever Had A Little Faith?’ is classic Belle and Sebastian, a gentle acoustic number with Murdoch advising that faith - however you want to interpret/practice that term - can go along way towards helping you through the day. ‘The Party Line’ mixes club beats, disco, and indie effectively, and is easily the best of the more dance/electro tracks on display.
The album closes with the powerful ‘Today (This Army’s For Peace )’, its balmy, near ambient, instrumental backing allowing Murdoch’s voice to be the repository for the melody and power of the song.
However with some tracks extending over five minutes, self-indulgence creeps in, particularly on ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’, which is two minutes too long, while ‘The Everlasting Muse’ is a turgid attempt at Eastern European folk/music hall that recalls Mary Hopkins’ ‘Those Were The Days’, and no, that is not a good thing.
Yet, despite some inconsistency, Girls In Peacetime... is a return to form for Belle and Sebastian, a reconnection with their muse, their willingness to mix genres, and with what makes them so individual and vital.