Album Review: Belle and Sebastian, 'Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance'


Belle and Sebastian 'Girls in Peacetime Want to Da
Belle and Sebastian, 'Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance' (© 2015 Matador Records.)

The recording process for Belle and Sebastian's newest music was chronicled extensively via the band's social media accounts, namely Instagram, though several intriguing tidbits were leaked out via Twitter. Lead vocalist Stuart Murdoch teased a question to his followers in November 2013; it provided a fascinating insight into the way artists prepare their work for release.

Murdoch asked, via a series of tweets:

"Ok, a straw poll, next belle and sebastian recordings, assuming you give a sh*t: would you prefer.. a) A solid 12 or 13 track lp, a serious attempt at our best 'work', b) Two punchy little sweet 10 trackers that come out 6 months apart, or.. c) A series of four or so EPs, four or five tracks each, that come out sporadically and may or may not be shaped into an LP later."

One fan immediately added "d) A sprawling double album," which Murdoch rebuffed by indicating that such an effort would be "very difficult to pull off."

After Murdoch sent these tweets into the ether, a full year passed before the announcement of Belle and Sebastian's new full-length album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. It has become apparent that the band aimed for Option A, with mixed results, yet also managed to have their cake and eat it too, by subtly engaging in Option C as well, in a parallel-universe version of the record. Belle and Sebastian are blessed with a fanbase that will gleefully plunge down the rabbit hole of sequencing, preferences, hierarchies, and record-collector minutiae; I'll do my best to stick to the task at hand, which is reviewing the new record for our Album of the Week.

The most immediately noticeable aspect of Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is the last word of said title, as an overriding genre: dance. Aficionados will note instances of the dancier sound sprinkled across the rest of band's work, but there seems to have been a real, concerted effort by the band to significantly shake up their core sound in a more upbeat fashion to reflect their live performances. Lead single, "The Party Line", particularly shimmers with a dance-floor thump, and tracks like "The Power of Three" and "Enter Sylvia Plath" further utilize tricks like synthesizers and disco rhythms. What's surprising, then, is that for all the focus placed on the album's dance tracks, the rest of the material wanders off in other stylistic directions. Sometimes these transitions work smoothly, while others are jarring to the point of being disruptive to the record's flow.

The first two songs on the album are among Belle and Sebastian's very best: the sentimental, uplifting "Nobody's Empire" and the wry, scolding "Allie," the latter of which is particularly packed with Murdoch one-liners that will fill many a social-media bio. After the "classic" sound of the first two songs, we get two dance songs, then a sumptuous string ballad "The Cat with the Cream" (one of several tracks on the album featuring Minnesota's own Laurel String Quartet).

The rest of the record more or less alternates between up-tempo dance songs and various assorted styles; each song is pleasant on its own, but in terms of flow, the album struggles to jell, and actually starts to feel on the long side by the end (it's a 61-minute album, the band's longest by 12 minutes or so). Some songs could have benefited from pruning, while others might have benefitted from better placement on the record.

One such instance of the latter is "The Book of You," appearing after meandering, seven-minute "Play for Today" but before the slow goodbye of album closer "Today (This Army's for Peace)." It feels a bit buried, a song that only the hardcore fans will really notice, which is a pity, as "The Book of You" is, of all things, the best New Pornographers tribute recorded by any band to date, with its booming drums, three-part vocals, and wiggly guitars and organs.

It truly feels that Belle and Sebastian made their best effort to make their best 'work' to date, by incorporating many unique sounds into a collection that would stand as a band's opus. Ultimately, I'm not convinced it works as such, though each song boasts its own set of virtues. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is another strong collection of songs from one of the world's strongest bands; the only diminished area of strength is as an album per se. If only there were another format by which to appreciate it …

(This section of the Album of the Week review is now complete. If you want to take the red pill and dive deeper into the world of Belle and Sebastian fandom, by all means, please keep reading.)

… Murdoch's tweets from November 2013 stuck with me, but I didn't truly appreciate what he'd said until I came across the deluxe version of Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, which is available as a sprawling vinyl package, featuring four new songs and two extended mixes. Option B felt like it would be invariably disappointing; if two albums were released, fans would inevitably just disassemble the records and put them back together in their own preferred mixes, all the while lamenting, "If only they'd condensed it down to a single record!" Option D, while never a serious option, would have flopped similarly; in this day and age, a double album is a very tricky proposition, and such an album would also likely suffer from listeners cherry-picking their own favorites to cut down on "filler" and "sprawl" and other amorphous nouns that music buffs like to use. The mixed reaction to Arcade Fire's Reflektor, for example, showed that it's easier to come up with a great idea for a double album than it is to execute perfectly. (Even the best double album of recent years, M83's Hurry Up We're Dreaming, was actually under 80 minutes, and padded up to a great extent by instrumentals, to emulate the spectacle of a classic double album).

The lone remaining option, then, was Option C: a series of EPs. This was Belle and Sebastian's modus operandi during their early years: releasing an EP or so a year of top-tier material, each with one focus single, but also a few more songs that were simply way too good to be called "B-sides." Their Push Barman to Open Old Wounds is a collection of all these EPs, and it's also the finest release of their career. Freed from the constrictions of the album format, the EPs on Push Barman flow together organically, and magically, and sound more cohesive when presented in strict chronology than anything that could have been re-sequenced after the fact.

Ultimately, EPs are a lot more difficult to market in today's musical environment, and I suspect the Belle and Sebastian knew all along that it was economically unviable to release their new music in this way. However, on the deluxe edition of their new album, Belle and Sebastian present all the music from the Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance sessions over four vinyl records, each one anchored by a focus single, with three more songs on the flip side that are all simply way to good to be called "B-sides." Rather than a single, hour-long chunk of music that you sit through at your computer or in your car, it's broken up into four discrete elements, ideally to be absorbed, in good old analog fashion, through vinyl. (The deluxe edition also came with a digital format, which has admittedly been my primary method for listening.)

The effect is immediately stunning. Four strong singles are each given their own spot of prominence: "The Party Line," "Enter Sylvia Plath," "Perfect Couples" and "Play for Today" (I'd have relegated "Play for Today" and elevated "Nobody's Empire," though I recognize the technical limitations that would have come with taking a seven-minute song off its own side of vinyl) — they're all even designed to be played at 45 speed, which means that when you get up to flip the album, you need to change the speed on your record player! This is a lot more investment on the part of the listener than is required by hitting "play" on your phone and checking back an hour later. Even looking beyond vinyl, breaking the music up into 20-minute "EPs" makes the experience far more digestible even when listening digitally: it matches our diminished attention spans, for better or worse. In this format, 80 minutes pass in the twinkle of an eye, whereas 60 minutes with the original feel like a slow march to the finish.

I'm as stubborn as anyone in sticking to canon: the "official" story/release. But the experience of the deluxe release of Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is so wholly different — and so wholly wonderful — that I feel like I need to primarily evaluate the record on this basis. The standard release is probably a 3.5-out-of-5 star album, duking it out with Write About Love in the lower third of their discography; the deluxe edition flirts with a 4.5 out of 5, along with their very finest work. The only analogies I have are in film: Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and James Cameron's The Abyss. The films are great, but the extended editions add so much vitality to the overall experience; once you watch them, you can't imagine ever returning to the comparatively basic originals.

Just as I can't watch The Abyss and imagine a version that didn't have the giant wave at the end, it's hard to listen to the deluxe edition of Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance and imagine it without the vastly improved sequencing, the sprightly extra tracks, or even elements as subtle as the lovely extended coda to "Ever Had a Little Faith?".

For this longtime fan, it's hard to imagine anything more, or anything better.

Audience ratings for this album

The Current's listeners rated this album very favorably, with nothing lower than a 4 (out of 5 stars). Here's the percentage breakdown, where red represents 4-star ratings and blue represents 5 stars. Poll closed at noon on Friday, Feb. 20.

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