With the release of ‘Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance’, Belle & Sebastian now have more albums that don’t sound like Belle & Sebastian than they have that do, and are, accordingly, prolonging the identity crisis they’ve now endured for more than a decade. Because despite releasing records in that time that variously draw on glam, sunshine soul and symphonic pop fantasias while providing camp press photos and selling out the Hollywood Bowl, the received indie wisdom remains that Belle & Sebastian are fey, shambling and publicity shy. Like a grown-up child protégé constantly reminded of his own youthful precociousness, here’s a band that’s now spent the majority of its career fighting its own past.
And with that in mind, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance continues that narrative: the puppyish kook and self-aware genre dilettantism of the band’s last three albums returns, as does the wildly varying quality of songwriting, thanks to Stuart Murdoch’s ongoing policy of let-Ringo-have-a-go that sees a quarter of the album’s space given over to other band members’ writing.
However, where …Peacetime… breaks the recent mould is that for the first time since their heyday, Belle & Sebastian appear to have written an album without trying too hard to please, and the effect is as charming as it ever was. The tinge of rudderless desperation and the resulting forced bonhomie and blunt appropriation that characterised their last record, Write About Love, is replaced here with playfulness and a lightness of touch: the melodies of Nobody’s Empire and Play For Today are as sweetly poignant as any Murdoch has ever written, and backed with an airily confident and unapologetically high-fidelity chamber-pop arrangement that captures the band’s modern incarnation just as perfectly as the quietly strummed church-hall recordings did for its early days. Equally, the B&S-goes-disco double-header of The Party Line and Enter Sylvia Plath has just the filigree slink the genre demands, and closing track Today, too, makes for a wonderfully dreamy epilogue, its depthless reverb and effortless, serpentine vocal leaving a longing, honeyed aftertaste.
That said, splashes of the band’s more recent missteps also linger: as if trying to tick every box on a survey of the world’s most irritating musical genres, The Everlasting Muse veers frantically from kitsch lounge verses to a klezmer chorus and culminates in a bawdy bierkeller oom-pah singalong, while the likeable pep of Stevie Jackson’s Perfect Couples is somewhat undermined by his excruciating lyrics. At over an hour, too, and with most songs stretching beyond five minutes, …Peacetime… is by far Belle & Sebastian’s longest record to date, and frequently feels bloated: while undeniably a sign of a band having fun, several songs could lose their final slew of repeated choruses-to-fade – while others could disappear altogether – and that editorial wooliness quickly becomes confusing.
What is clear, though, is that somewhere within …Peacetime… is Belle & Sebastian’s best album this century, as they rediscover the natural charm that so seduced the early adopters. While the dialup-era fans who perennially pine for a return to the aesthetic of Tigermilk won’t buy the sheeny presentation and stylistic dabbling here, there’s simultaneously a sense that, for the first time in a while, the band are at peace with that. The result might be flawed, but it’s also frequently as charismatic as their earliest work: after so long spent failing to convince people of their new skins, Girls In Peactime Want To Dance suggests Belle & Sebastian might finally, thankfully, have found a way to simply stop caring, again.