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Belle & Sebastian
Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance Lior Phillips , February 4th, 2015 14:07

It's a risky business being Belle & Sebastian. In the 90s they blew my tiny little indie-loving brains out; like a few short sentences in a love letter, a brush of lips against a forehead. Now couple that with wistful melodies and a nascent narrative, and you've landed in a lumpy goo of indie pop. Belle & Sebastian managed to chuck banana peels onto the pathways of conservative taste. Rarely does such pensive pop sound so comically ridiculous when you're trying to describe it to someone else. But in the 19 years they've been making music, the collective and innovative breadth of their releases has always dipped into a mirthy-syrup without ever really causing any major slip-ups.

But things fall apart on their ninth album, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance. One of the greatest downsides of being a gifted songwriter is that consistency is so often mistaken for monotony, and in the case of Belle & Sebastian's lead singer Stuart Murdoch, he has made a name for himself writing songs that sound similar to one another. Musically, they've now written an album that's built into the modes they have repeatedly impressed on in the past: mod-inflected early 70s pop synthesisers, gentle call-and-response intonations, but unlike the 60s pop fuelled Write About Love, which saw them developing instead of reinventing a new ground, this album barges in with a mélange of relentless pop tracks, as if they are frightened by Belle & Sebastian's legitimacy. Ever since Isobel Campbell and Stuart David left the band in the 90s, they have been churning out higher paced beats, codifying their thesis and cutting back on the adventurousness that made their 1995 debut, Tigermilk so thrilling or 1996's If You're Feeling Sinister so enigmatic. When Dear Catastrophe Waitress came out in 2003, it stomped about on their multicolored dance floor, but we were enlivened by it.

Now, 12 years later, Belle & Sebastian want to teach the world to dance, but there's no solid ground here. The opening ballad initially routes the topicality of 60s folk through a gloomy worldview; rhythms of 'Nobody's Empire' convey dread as Murdoch sings about his early-90s recovery from chronic fatigue in fantastical disrepair - "And he told me to leave that vision of hell to the dying" – in a particular cadence that portends something darkly ominous. "…There's beauty in every stumble," and it's impossible to determine just how much irony is packed into that line. It's still full of simple pleasures - that satisfying piano trill, the crispness of a well-tempered machine chime - but these are small details that amplify the music's quiet pleasure just to add a depth to the song's negative space.

Initially it gives us a sense of where these 59 minutes might be heading before they've even had a chance to grow beyond a single note, but this isn't the origin from which everything else evolves. Despite the excellent production aided by Ben H. Allen III, it could do with some judicious pruning. There's a clear influence from the veteran producer (Animal Collective and Deerhunter), but it twists and turns so arbitrarily, that songs like 'The Everlasting Muse' and its mariachi tasseled bossa nova choruses make it too distracting to climb from a pre-established stylistic rut. Although this approach works at cross-purposes with the band's obvious commitment for this record, with dance tracks at its core, it's clearly their attempt at a pop crossover.

When the nervous gimmicky synths cut through 'The Party Line', it wants to flood an area with a shimmering unwavering sound, but its 80s Eurovision dance-pop that just hopscotches from holding pattern to holding pattern spilling across songs like, 'Play For Today', and 'The Power Of Three'. The disco-divebomb, 'Enter Sylvia Plath' juggles a fat, foolish bassline, and with that loping disco, it's so kitschy and risqué that it could very well dangle from your rear view mirror like a fluffy pair of black and white dice clinking against a miniature disco ball.

The after effects of those disco explosions reverberate throughout the album, but luckily there are many musical "worlds" for Murdoch. He's still writing delicate and elegant melodies, purging characters from within his mind. 'The Cat With The Cream', in particular, is a wonderful piece of music, and no matter how it essentially recycles every little trick in the Belle & Sebastian playbook; it is for that reason alone that it is one of the best tracks on the album. Progression is a great thing to hear in an artist's work, and there's plenty of that here, but its flashier moments seem built-in to provide contrast. They remain at their most engaging when speaking to you in softly, and if they can channel that intensity into the louder sections, their music would transform into a sound that fears nothing.   Arguing how an album with its political title, personal subject matter, literary references, and religious connotations offers too many ideas seems passé. The sarcastic histrionics of 'Allie' flew passed me the first time around with airless lines like, "When there's bombs in the Middle East/You want to hurt yourself/When there's knives in the city streets/You want to end yourself" - trite meditations to conjure up a confusion of a harsh reality. It seems every one of the antediluvian forms they try and wrangle feel too slight to stick when words are crushed by pop schmaltz.

It can't be easy being Belle & Sebastian. We're finicky sadists demanding that our artists reveal their pain without being way too emotionally obvious about it. Unfortunately, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is the net effect of an effort that goes nowhere at all; and this deviation appears furtive, as if they're trying to hide their beloved quirks from an expanded audience. Have their albums just become directionless holding tanks for random material? I hope they refocus, but for now it's hard not to hear songs dance so close to the firing line, and wish they had stayed in the shadows.