Rating:Already it’s easy to tell that Belle and Sebastian’s latest record, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, will be remembered as their “dance album,” an outlier in a discography rife with low-key acoustic chamber pop and twee indie rock classics. Yes, the band makes a remarkable transformation on the album, trading their delicate folk stylings for heady synthesizers, plucky muted guitars and four-on-the-floor disco beats, but this is only the case on about half of the 12 tracks on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. The rest of the record alternates between typical Belle & Sebastian delicacies that wouldn’t feel out of place on any of the band’s much-lauded ‘90s albums (“Ever Had a Little Faith?”) and the type of robust, rock-oriented songs that have come to define the latter half of their career (“Allie”). It’s disingenuous to characterize Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance as Belle & Sebastian’s “dance album” because, despite its resemblance to similar stylistic shifts pulled off by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Tegan & Sara and Arcade Fire, the record doesn’t fully commit to that synth-pop sound. The band instead attempt to assimilate those elements into their personal legacy rather than try on clothes they know won’t fit. It’s not a metamorphosis, but an adaptation.
Mislabeling Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance only serves to sell the rest of the album short. “The Party Line,” “Enter Sylvia Plath” and “Play for Today” are the album’s most upbeat and danceable songs, bouncing with disco and new wave elements. It is indeed surprising to hear vocalist Stuart Murdoch sing effortlessly infectious hooks over pulsating synthesizers and drum machine rhythms in his signature croon, but the revelation of these tracks shouldn’t take away from the success of the mellower songs, some of which rival Belle and Sebastian’s greatest work. While the synth-pop influence has naturally spawned the most publicity for being the furthest from the quintessential Belle and Sebastian sound, the band embrace a number of other new and untested influences on the record. “The Everlasting Muse,” for instance, seems to come straight out of a smoky European cabaret circa 1933, but it’s preceded by the Studio 54-esque “Enter Sylvia Plath” and followed by the groovy post-punk of “Perfect Couples,” which sounds almost like a Hot Chip or Cut Copy B-side. These jarring transitions understandably (but unfortunately) render the most attention for the more immediately strange bookends rather than the subtle middle track.
Of course, pushing retro disco against century-old baroque pop may seem like an odd sequencing decision in the first place, but Belle and Sebastian maintain a consistent mood of wistful sentimentality (their specialty) throughout, lending a coherency to the record that’s hard to imagine out of context. It’s almost like a soundtrack for the working classes of the Western world across the ages, everyday people who shuffle into local pubs, nightclubs and bars, trying to take their mind off the world slowly burning around them. It’s as the title suggests: girls in peacetime want to dance, because tomorrow might never come.
The quieter moments on the album, the kind that Belle and Sebastian have always excelled at, are made all the more beautiful because of the record’s atypically upbeat pace. “The Cat with the Cream” is as lush and moving a song as the group has ever recorded, but slipped between the sultry ‘60s pop of “The Power of Three” and the aforementioned “Enter Sylvia Plath,” it becomes a crucial part of the structural whole rather than a mere highlight. Melancholic closer “Today (This Army’s for Peace)” serves a similar function, pulling down the tempo and unraveling the rigid compositions that give Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance its form for its most achingly powerful number, like a rapturous slow-dance after the excitement of an all-night party.
It’s no secret that Belle and Sebastian’s repetitive formula has gradually become monotonous, but they have finally discovered how to flex their versatility without leaving anything behind, even improving on their established sound. This makes Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance an essential pick from their latter-day career. It’s as moody and emotional as fans would expect, but it comes with a fresher design for skeptics and those who grew tired of the band’s formula long ago. It may seem strange to call a legacy band that ventures into the realm of dance music in 2015 “brave,” but Belle and Sebastian nonetheless took a risk and it paid off. Before anything else, that’s what this record should be remembered for.