For nearly two decades, Belle and Sebastian have provided the soundtrack to a cloudy day with calm, pensive and melancholy music. But with the band’s newest record, “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance,” Belle and Sebastian aimed for a completely new sound, supplanting grey clouds and folk melodies with strobe lights and disco-pop synths.
The shift in genre is, as expected, largely a disaster. Admittedly, there are a few glimmers of hope. “The Everlasting Muse,” for example, a slow-grooving track replete with soothing bass lines, Spanish horns and a strong Klezmer undercurrent, demonstrates the band’s ability to create dance-appropriate rhythms.
Unfortunately for Belle and Sebastian, this strength is rather limited upon listening to the record’s other dance tracks. The tawdry, Euro-pop inspired “The Power of Three” or the underwhelming “Enter Sylvia Plath” come replete with flaws, and much of the album is unbearably derivative. The band’s attempt to pay homage to 70s disco often comes across as a tacky tribute band, recklessly stealing inspiration from disco legends like Chic and ABBA.
Lack of originality aside, there is also the question of who would actually dance to the record’s selection of watered-down disco. An uninspired and dull track like “Play for Today,” would sooner be heard at a retirement home for titanium-hipped seniors than a proper night club full of the young and limber.
Fortunately, there is more to “Girls at Peacetime Want to Dance” than dance tracks. The album provides non-disco tracks like the beautiful “Ever Had A Little Faith,” as well as “The Cat with The Cream,” a standout track featuring a stunning violin arrangement and beautiful vocals from both band leader Stuart Murdoch and violinist Sarah Martin. These tracks are the record’s savior, for in their simplicity they allow Murdoch’s superb lyrics to truly shine.
One of the album’s most affecting tracks, “Nobody’s Empire,” epitomizes the power Murdoch’s lyrics can lend to a song. Murdoch broaches his struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome, singing of feeling “like a child,” “light as straw,” as his father carried him off to the hospital. “I clung to the bed,” he croons, “I clung to the past.” Approaching the track’s end, though, the situation suddenly brightens as an isolated Murdoch realizes being “out of sight” and “out of practice” has granted him freedom, a position “on the edge of nobody’s empire.”
Freedom seems to be the issue with the record. With “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance,” Belle and Sebastian have chained themselves to an idea of reinvention. Had they freed themselves more from this motif, we would have had a significantly better record. Instead, we are left with little more than a pitiful trove of disastrous disco.