FOR A BAND OFTEN CAST AS THE BEST PROPONENTS OF PRE-HIPSTER HIPSTER’S JUMBLE SALE ‘LIT-POP’ (AT LEAST, THE BEST SINCE THAT PEERLESS RUN OF NON-ALBUM SINGLES FROM THE SMITHS IN 1983 / ’84; THIS CHARMING MAN, HEAVEN KNOWS I’M MISERABLE NOW AND WILLIAM, IT WAS REALLY NOTHING), BELLE AND SEBASTIAN SHUFFLING DESERT BOOTS EVEN JUST A MERE INCH OR TWO FROM THEIR OWN PARTY LINE MAY SEEM A BOLD STEP. BUT IS IT REALLY SO STRANGE?
The strides taken on the Glasgow sextet’s new album GIRLS IN PEACETIME WANT TO DANCE (out this week) may call for a little realignment of expectations, but precedent for a slicker sound and the occasional stylistic shift was first set on the Trevor Horn-produced DEAR CATASTROPHE WAITRESS, back in 2003. That album marked Belle And Sebastian out as toughened – a band with little fear of stepping out of the bedsit and onto the street. No coincidence that THE BOY WITH THE THORN IN HIS SIDE was once a cover version of choice for auteur-in-chief Stuart Murdoch, with Morrissey’s intoxicatingly dizzy note of earnest willing and joyous possibility – “When you want to live, how do you start? Where do you go? Who do you need to know?” – clearly informing his own grasping of the nettle. On the subsequent evidence of 2010 album WRITE ABOUT LOVE’s Northern Soul soul, the TOGETHER IN ELECTRIC DREAMS stylings of Richard X’s remix of I DIDN’T SEE IT COMING and, now, certain ‘dark funk’ elements, Murdoch’s own ‘where you need to go’ was quite obviously off the street and onto the nearest dance-floor.
ENTER SYLVIA PLATH, the new album’s most outré moment, would not sound completely out of place on a Pet Shop Boys record. It’s a lengthy excursion into dense Euro-pop, with the spoken word section delivered blankly. At odds, there’s a spellbinding cameo from Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee Penny on similarly ’80s-referencing PLAY FOR TODAY. For PERFECT COUPLES, think Tom Tom Club throwing shapes at Arcade Fire’s REFLEKTOR and having them mirrored back and, in the case of single THE PARTY LINE (or should that be ‘teaser track’? Does anyone actually put out bona fide singles these days, even a band so much in love with the traditions of 20th-century pop music?) there’s a Chic-like centre – complete with Nile Rodgers licks and Bernard Edwards throb. It’s not all gay abandon down the Saturday night disco on GIRLS IN PEACETIME WANT TO DANCE, though. Belle And Sebastian know that there will always be a Sunday morning.
EVER HAD A LITTLE FAITH? (written, apparently, before 1996 debut TIGERMILK) and elegiac closer TODAY (THIS ARMY’S FOR PEACE) are the Velvet Underground on the couch that Sunday morning after someone – there’s always a someone, isn’t there? – has got up early to tidy away debris and put the hoover round. Flecks of dust swarm up through the sunlight; NOBODY’S EMPIRE is “the most personal I’ve ever written,” Murdoch says. It details his mid-1990s struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome; when curtains were half closed and music put its arm around his shoulder to rescue him from isolation; when he could only “live by books and live by hope”. There is still a little bedsit ‘lit-pop’ on offer here if going out dancing’s not quite what you want to do.
GIRLS IN PEACETIME WANT TO DANCE can be ordered here