Monday 1 June 2015

Belle and Sebastian "Girls In Peacetime Just Want To Dance" (2015)

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Belle and Sebastian "Girls In Peacetime Just Want To Dance" (2015)

Nobody's Empire/Allie/The Party Line/The Power Of Three/The Cat With The Cream/Enter Sylvia Plath/The Everlasting Muse/Perfect Couples/Ever Had A Little Faith?/Play For Today/The Book Of You/Today (This Army's For Peace)

"Be popular, play pop and you will win my love"

'Peace Time' is somehow the record I always knew Belle and Sebastian would release and the one that has most surprised me. All at once it's an album that sounds like an old friend, full of characters and situations I feel I've been listening to all my life, a rumination on the ideas of faith and never giving up that's like all the themes in the backgrounds of previous Belle and Sebastian records brought forward to the surface - and yet audio-wise, style-wise, texturally, emotionally, thematically, even in terms of the lengthy running times for each and every song (this is by far the longest B and S album of new material to date) this album couldn't have been a bigger surprise, especially given early reports that this was a 'rushed' affair so fans didn't have to wait longer than five years between records. The first thing to note is how electronic this record is, with Chris 'Beans' Geddes working overtime across the records and coming to the fore as the most important member of the band alongside main writer and singer Stuart Murdoch (although it's nice to note that the band still don't give individual credits on their albums and instead credit the band).  I'm getting slowly used to the new-look B and S modern sound now, after three albums of progressively working it into their usual low-key productions and as early as 'Tigermilk' the band were playing around with the 80s retro sounds of 'Electric Renaissance' so that in itself isn't so odd. But this is the first B and S album that sounds driven by the sound rather than the words or music, the first one that my casual B and S friends/family won't believe is by them - even though there are so many of their characteristic touches in every beat it still seems very obviously a 'B and S' album to me. This isn't just a dash of colour - it's a whole new paint range being used here and it smacks you in the face on song after song, so so different to the subtleties of old. The effect is still disconcerting, like seeing someone you know really well decked out in a whole new extrovert wardrobe they've only ever hinted at before, or seeing Mick Jagger with a new hairdo. What happened to the band we've known?

We've spoken here before about how much as we wanted the band to stay the same forever, but that they had to change the minute that the band stopped being a love story from two members of the same band and became a harder-edged, more accessible group. The change, thankfully, has been gradual - even if it's still been faster than I would like - but this album seems as if it came out of left-field, especially given that the band had actually gone back to their old sound a little on last album 'Write About Love'. Hard as Trevor Horn tried to mould the band to his sound in 2003 on 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress', this is the first time the band have recorded an album that firmly belongs in the 1980s. I mean this album even has a song about a disco and how much good it does them for goodness sake - the old B and S characters didn't seem as if they'd even shared a happy night out between them before. To show you a bit more about what I mean, there was a highly entertaining (and typically chaotic) interview that Belle and Sebastian gave on Steve Lamacq's show the other week where the DJ joked that the album sounded like 'a man who was scared of heights jumping out of a plane with a parachute anyway'. A highly astute observation of the band and their sound in the main, which got lots of knowing laughs, as B and S' records all started out with exactly that sort of policy in mind, full of people who know they're different and desperately long to conform, yet still ultimately refuse: school-girls being told off for self-expression in their art exams or athletes wondering why the hell they're running to break a record no one else would ever care about but running all the same. However what struck me about 'Peace Time' is that, for the first time ever, that rule doesn't apply here. These are characters who've been around the block, who've found their place in the world and who very much know what they're doing - it's not so much that nothing scares them as that they've learnt that being scared is such a part of life they don't even think about it anymore, as if each of them have been given a golden ticket promising future happiness and have been told not to be afraid. These characters don't care what other people think of them anymore, even to the old extent of admitting to us that they still feel slightly insecure when they think about things too much; instead they just look to the future and get on with things(Instead the best analogy, based on the cover and some of the lyrics, might be the man who goes to war because it's the only way he can keep the peace and because he feels that, whatever happens to his body, his soul will be protected and come out the other side intact - we'll come back to this theme later on, if you stay with us that long).

To be fair there've been stepping stones to this point, but if you've come to this album from the first few records - where life was something to either fear and out to trick you or rebel against and your only way to stay sane was to value your differences - then is a colossal change; the equivalent of Pink Floyd writing a song in under three minutes, Leonard Cohen writing a song about feeling jolly or The Spice Girls defining what girl power means to them instead of simply brainwashing us with slogans. What Murdoch does so cleverly, though, is to subvert his usual themes about the love story between 'Belle' and 'Sebastian' (read Stuart and previous member and girlfriend Isobel Campbell) and turning the story on its head. Traditionally it's Belle who gets the narrator out of trouble, soothes his troubled head when he thinks he's done wrong and keeps him going. This time it's Stuart's older, more modern self looking back to his past and telling his younger self that it will be alright - that life will be worth fighting for. Time and again on this album a character in an impossible situation finds his life turned out - there's a light (of creativity and certainty) that wasn't there before, a new faith and hope, the discovery that no one has a perfect life however it seems on the outside, the feeling that things are meant to be. These characters are 'saved' whether by religion, dancing or Isobel herself (in 'The Everlasting Muse' especially) and actually have a future they look forward to, Murdoch proudly proclaiming his latest mantra in 'Enter Sylvia Plath' - that he's got more than enough faith for everyone whose ever felt lonely and troubled and offers hope to all of us 'from my faith'. Isobel may have left the band in 2002 ('We're fading into memory' the song 'A Book Of You' declares) but her spirit still haunts the band. In many ways we've been through the seven stages of grief across the last few albums (anger, sadness, jealousy, finally acceptance) but this album has moved on to the point where Murdoch is just thankful: how awful his life might have been without her belief, how much he might have struggled to find his voice without Isobel there to vocalise it for him.

There's clearly been a major shift at work here - well actually there's been three. The first is the generally accepted wisdom now that Belle and Sebastian are actually a really good band that people are pleased to see again - not the music-has-to-be-loud-because-I-don't-have-the-intelligence-to-actually-listen-to-the-words criticisms of the early years or the wow-they-got-a-hit, let's-smash-the-follow-up of the past few years. Although the band feared the five-year break (by far their longest between records) might kill them, it's actually done them a power of good in terms of how well the album has been received. Stuart has also got married to first wife Marisa (who appeared on the sleeve of both the DVD 'For Fans Only' and the 'Life Pursuit' album) - well actually he did in 2007, before the last album, but despite the title the songs for 'Write About Love' sound as if they written earlier than that, more of a 'goodbye' album than a 'hello' one. This one, by the way, is definitely a 'hello' album: for the first time since 1996 Stuart sounds loved;  the characters sound happy and contented and he's clearly in a good place. Part of the reason for that may be Belle and Sebastian's other success story of the last few months, covered on these pages mere weeks ago: the film 'God Help The Girl' (which may well be seen in years to come as a final goodbye to that 'golden summer when it felt that anything could happen', going back to Stuart's early pre-fame life for the first time, although Stuart's and Isobel's characters are all mixed up together and split into three). Stuart's been reminded about how things used to be, looking backwards after years of looking forwards and realises that the great adventure he embarked on twenty years ago has all worked out to some extent - not entirely the way he planned it (the break-up with Isobel was intense and protracted) but after years of fearing that he had not future he's had twenty great years. Together with the marriage, the warm reception to the film and the sheer joy of creating something new, Stuart has found happiness and contentment at last. As a result this album sounds very different not just because of the digital disco-fied backing, the fact it was recorded in New York or even because it's no longer focussed on what was in the past; it sounds different because it's a happy, contented, at peace with the world album. Dear God, have Belle and Sebastian have become middle aged?

Well, no - you see that's another thing I wasn't expecting. Writing a site like this over a period of time means you come to see patterns between bands. There's the exciting new sound of the debut LP (counter-acted with the 'gee nobody knows what we're doing so we'd better make a bland first album that sounds like everyone else' syndrome), followed by a more confident second album that does more of the same, a difficult third album when you realise you're going to be trapped in that said format forevermore and - if you last that long - a fourth album that finally hits pay-dirt, followed by a long slow decline where bands try to recapture their youth and what it felt like to be vibrant and full of energy and madly in love. You can add to this a debut that's very much part of its time, made with current technology, a low period when bands have adamantly stuck by the sound of their youth even though it's now horribly out of fashion and a final glorious resurgence when people realise that music really is timeless, it's just the recording fashions that change. Belle and Sebastian, a band who've spent their careers doing things differently to other people, seem to be following this arc backwards. First two records 'Tigermilk' and 'If You're Feeling Sinister' came with a sound fully born and a confidence that belied the fact that the creators hadn't really created anything before, with Stuart Murdoch serving his apprenticeship of life while lying poorly in bed from m.e. rather than honing his talent through craft and gigs and poor-selling disasters (making it all the more incredible that he got so much right). Those early records are as timeless as any music can sound, recorded sparsely and with absolutely no reference to anything else around in the mid-90s, with wisdom light years beyond the band's tender years and experience. By contrast the last two albums (numbers seven and eight) have been more and more concerned with modern danceable pop, the sort of thing bands tend to leave behind after album three, not empty exactly but less concerned with the message and morality and more with a funky beat.

'Girls In Peacetime', jokingly referred to by the band as their 'disco' album (and also as their 'Eurovision album', although the band later retracted that comment!), almost always comes with a beat: it's the first thing that hits you when you play this record, the hypnotic drone sticks in your head when you try to remember what any of the melodies to the song's actually are and it's still the treacle that you're trying to plough through several playings later when you're trying to work out what the songs are actually all about. Most B and S albums are growers - that goes double for 'Write About Love' by the way, which I've come to like a lot more since reviewing it (the curse of a reviewer trying to review new music; it's much easier reviewing old records). But this one is immediate: it's catchy, to some extent disposable, in-your-face and so 1980s it ought to come with a health warning. The band aren't dipping their toe in the pool of someone else's pond to give themselves a 'lift or variety anymore, they're practically swam the channel. Dear God, I take back what I said earlier - Belle and Sebastian have finally made a youth album - and that thought is even more scary than making a middle aged record. The whole of the album sounds like an uneasy alliance between the two, as if only now - with love and contentment in his life, the general acceptance that he was doing something worthy and doing it well and having made his mark on society in some small way - can Stuart go back to the business of having the youth that got taken away from him.

All that makes me sound as if I don't like this record - but I do. Though the sound if off-putting at first, and even second and third hearings, it doesn't get in the way of the brilliance of the writing. After following Stuart (and Stevie and Sarah) for so long, it's glorious to hear them sound happy - and while friction seems to be necessary component of truly great LPs, contentment is an under-rated component of very very good ones. There are still oodles of B and S touches scattered throughout the record that no other band would ever have dreamed of making, little melodic touches here, harmonic blends there and poetic turns of phrase that confirm Murdoch as the master of lyric writing in the present day bar none. The last two B and S albums have tended to sound a bit one-dimensional - full of novelties, love songs or characters who clearly belong to the intelligent frustrated rebels of past records but which had begun to sound a bit cardboard cut-out (The emo 'Sukie In The Graveyard', for instance, is an outsider's ideas of a Belle and Sebastian song). The need to write songs for the 'God Help The Girl' film that don't just tell us the plot but what the characters think of the world, of themselves and of each other has been a great boost to Murdoch's ability to juggle narratives, of showing us without telling us and saying more about human nature in a pithy sentence than a lot of his recent songs. The formula this time around, mixing very commercial sounds with very deep and un-commercial songs, is almost always spot on. Somehow despite the excess of the production, the rushed writing sessions and the long running time, this album is gloriously consistent. There isn't one track here I disliked: 'Enter Sylvia Plath' is a rare song that gives you something to think about without sacrificing the energetic beat, while even the overt dance-athon single 'The Party Line' somehow manages to sound just B and S enough to tap the mind as well as the toes. Of course this record isn't quite as pioneeringly brilliant drop-dead gorgeous as the band were in their early days - there are still perhaps three songs ('Nobody's Empire' 'Enter Sylvia Plath' and tear-jerking closer 'Today') true mega-classics that compare to the old days rather than a whole album's worth - but every band finds that more or less as they travel further and further from the source of power that made them turn to writing in the first place; as the band enter their 20th year (clue: this is how long ago The Beatles sounded in 1983) this is still an incredibly good attempt at re-kindling the sound of the old days along with a challenge of making it all sound slightly different that, despite being quite so different to what I was hoping for, is so much better. Personally I'd much prefer to hear the band weed out their inner 60s influences, but I'll settle for the better sounds of the 1980s: more Human League, Heaven 17, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark) and Orange Juice (bands with something to say who just happened to be born in the era when you said it with synths)  than Wham, Bros, Villi Manilli and even Madonna (artists in music to sell a lot of records rather than make a connection).

Lyrically there are a number of themes at work here, the main one being faith and hope, of getting through the bad times because good times must surely always be ahead. The title of a B and S album is often a red herring (they've never written less about romance than on 'Write About Love' for instance) but this time it seems pretty accurate, with the idea that in war too many of the innocent get hurt and there's more use of military words here than on 'Me And The Major'. However the album goes further: all these characters are at war whether they're at the front line or not, with all of us trying to fight our own wars and maintain the peace in our own difficult circumstances. Time and again these characters long to put things right, from their friends who seemed so right for each other breaking up to the endless wars fought on the other wide of the world - and yet there's nothing really that these characters can do except wait for their one great shining moment when they can put somebody's lives right, one time and be ready for the time when it comes. Many of these songs feature the most unimaginable suffering, but they urge us that peace will come in the end and everything will be alright.  After all, this is an album that starts off in bed, too weak to move and ends with an armistice day nobody sees coming, when all wrongs are righted. No wonder, then, that the cover has a girl with bionic legs, cradled by a man on crutches while both are being guarded by an evil looking uniformed woman with a machine gun: despite being such a light and happy record there's a real feeling that war hurts, life is too precious and that our heroes are still those who face up to danger, even though the narrator isn't in the main in a part of his life where he needs to do that himself anymore.

'Nobody's Empire', Murdoch's deeply moving song about his struggles with chronic fatigue and of thinking his life was over when it was merely a prelude to the exciting musical journey that is Belle and Sebastian teases us with an ending that we know but the character doesn't, that he will be saved and will 'leave his vision of hell to the dying'. The song also speaks of  peace missionaries and that 'if we live by books and we live by hope, does that make us targets for gunfire?' The song 'Allie' might as well be titled 'Allies', a Western girl moved by all the suffering in the Far East which doesn't seem as emotionally and geographically far away to her as it does to other people. 'The Cat With The Cream' basks in the warm glow of things going well, full of 'peace and love and dreams' before going on to attack Tory MPs for siphoning off all the profits for their own (and taking good people to war). 'Enter Sylvia Plath' promises a typically melancholic Murdoch character (maybe even Sylvia Plath herself) that things will get better, an unexpected pop chorus urging her to borrow 'from my faith' because he has so much to spare. 'The Everlasting Muse' is a German hoe-down where a nobody is shown how brilliant they could be with the words 'be popular, play pop and you will win my love' ringing in the narrator's ears as he does just that and turns his life around. 'Perfect Couples' sigh at how something that seemed so right and good can go so wrong. 'Ever Had A Little Faith?' urges that 'something good will come from nothing...something will come, wait and see'. 'Play For Today' sighs over all the characters the narrator sees endlessly waiting for something to come but ends with the hopeful 'assemble your troops...and head for higher ground'. 'Today (This Army's For Peace') is a soothing final tonic that blows all those troubles away, one last gorgeous look back at the time when Isobel entered Stuart's life and 'blew those cobwebs away'. Suddenly the confusion of thoughts in the narrator's head become one - a glorious future where 'victims will be justified, the lame will be leaping' and where people no longer need to cower in fear of their lives and can 'come into the light'. That's quite a journey, Murdoch cleverly compacting the last twenty sometimes painful often miraculous years of his life into a compact story where we veer from unnecessary cruel suffering to that glorious moment when everything makes sense and is perfect. Forget what I said earlier - yes this sounds like a 'hello' to happiness and new times, but it sounds like a 'goodbye' to us and Belle and Sebastian. The unlikely tale has been told, mulled over while in progress and can now finally be judged as a 'whole' story, complete with a happy ending.

It's the 'dance' half of the album title that fans will have most trouble with, as many of these intellectual debates are delivered to the backdrop of a dancefloor. Occasionally the band go too far - it would be nice to hear a bit more of the old B and S sound here occasionally - but thematically it strangely makes perfect sense. This is Murdoch realising that he's realised his potential, the weight of the world lifting from his shoulders and enjoying the sheer calmness of this period in his life. Dancing, such a difficult past-time in war (or when confined to bed, incredibly poorly) is now possible in peace-time - so of course the characters are going to indulge. Goodness knows what the real Sylvia Plath would make of being the crux for the single most electronic bleepy contemporary dance tune, but somehow it works: this is an album from a band that have had such a difficult journey in many respects and where it's characters have struggled to stand on their own two feet not only doing that but dancing, laughing in the face of a world that's tried to knock them down. Just as on parts of  'Write About Love' these characters all kept faith through the dark times and are now enjoying the light.

So no, 'Peace Time' wasn't the record I was expecting - instead of the need to get writing for other voices out of his system pushing the band closer to their original style, Belle and Sebastian have gone sailing in the other direction. There are no real Murdoch-style characters on this album (the closest he comes is his younger self on the opening track), there's only two throwbacks to the 'pure' (i.e. low key) Belle and Sebastian sound and the sheer unrelenting dance track is a surprise. By comparison to this album even 'The Life Pursuit' looks like a conservative, indie-band move. And yet this album is so in keeping with the Belle and Sebastian style it sounds like what they should have released for their third album, to escape the template traps they'd set for themselves and blow their 'twee' label to smithereens, even with a dance track that I was convinced would be more of a catastrophe than a certain waitress. The press reports, even though they've been generally positive, sounded awful: Disco? Pop? B and S songs where the boogie is more important than the brains? Count me out! And yet those reviews don't do this album justice: 'Peace Time' is so much more than the surface, a deep and dangerous album that both throws in the fire and celebrates the fact that we don't have to live there everyday anymore and perhaps the most dangerous thing about it is how close to mainstream pop it sails, without ever sacrificing it's inner poetry. This is an album that far from being second-best to the 'God Help The Girl' project revels in how brave and daring it can be and can do no wrong. Even this album's unlikely collaboration with a trendy celebrity (this album Dee Dee Penny of the Dum Dum Girls on 'Play For Today'; last album it was Norah Jones) works well, adding a new dimension to the band's sound that the ever under-rated Sarah (who gets three welcome lead parts on this album) couldn't have handled. Belle and Sebastian don't always get everything as right as they used to, but to not get anything wrong and to get what they do get right with so much style you can't help but be impressed with this likeable record. If ever an album fitted out old website mantra of 'catchy but deep' it's this one, with both halves writ large, a record that acknowledges misery and harshness and cruelty and stupidity and mundanity and frustrations and fears and doubts and injustice and yet sweeps them all aside not with something one-dimensional and banal but a bit of love, a lot of faith and an infectious groove. Other Belle and Sebastian records leave you still feeling sad, but somehow less alone and less scared. This record leaves you feeling like part of a communal conga- line, appreciating all the glories of life afresh. In short, this is one hell of a record from one hell of a band and I long to be proved this gloriously wrong more often.

We've already spoken at length on this site about Stuart Murdoch's seven years in bed suffering from chronic fatigue, the human version of Superman's kryptonite draining everything from him (see our reviews of 'Tigermilk' and  'God Help The Girl' for more on this). As a fellow sufferer I've longed for Murdoch to write his experiences down into song and now, after twenty years, he's finally found the strength to do just that.  [144] 'Nobody's Empire' is an astonishing song, rightly hailed as this album's classic even by those who still think the neglected condition 'm.e' is a television award and a really accurate glimpse into not just the pain and tiredness but the years of living inside a cocoon as an outsider while luckier others get to actually participate in life ('Intellect and ambition fell away'). The world, which used to be such a glorious thing, is 'bright and rough round the edges', too strong for the newly fragile Murdoch to cope with, so he turns to survival mode, letting all of his dreams of the future wilt and die, king of 'Nobody's Empire'. In a particularly moving first verse Murdoch dreaming of death as his only escape from the pain and feeling as if he was 'floating in air' (me/cfs gives you travel sickness even when you're still, as if your body is always moving even when it can't budge an inch). But despite the horrendous events this is not a hopeless song: Murdoch sings that the 'silence was kind' by showing him all that was important in his life and of a 'green green light' he feels when the world is finally still and he can't sleep, returning to the 'Write About Love' theme of religion on the lines about being 'light as a father in the arms of his Father' and the glorious. Best of all he's finally 'touched' (both physically and emotionally - any physical contact with this condition is painful, so Stuart might not have been able to touch anyone in years) by a 'girl who sang like the chime of a bell' who must surely be Isobel in that glorious awakening year of 1994. By the end of this second verse Stuart's voice has grown from a hoarse whisper into a yell of delight - though left behind, he's not down and out and after years of writing the rest of his life off finally has a future. Like 'The Ghost Of Rockschool' the discovery is extraordinarily powerful, with a gospel feel about the revelation turning the whole song into a glorious celebration of the powers of faith (a big theme for this album).

The second half of the song then zooms forward to the present day and like 'Read The Blessed Pages' finds Stuart talking to a muse whose no longer there (now 'the mother of two' although Isobel isn't as far as I know, although the description of her as a 'quiet revelation' is one of Murdoch's best summaries of her character yet). 'Did I do OK, did I pave the way?' he asks shyly, 'Was I strong when you were wanting?' Another sudden swell of music pushes us on to another glorious finale as Murdoch is told that not only has he a future he's already had a golden past where he did everything he never dreamt he could actually achieve. Though the illness continues within him he realises that he's beaten, achieving more than he could have hoped for and that he won't die sad and alone and unremembered. With a final push from God 'he told me to leave the vision of hell to the dying' and musically it's as if the sun has come out on the bleakest saddest coldest spot on the planet. Clearly I'm biased into calling this Murdoch's greatest song in years given how similar our circumstances are (every line rings true by the way, from struggling to read with a light 'too bright for the senses' to turning back to memories of childhood precisely because you don't have much of a present - and therefore no future) and it's no surprise that even after a career of writing his heart out Murdoch has called this his most honest and autobiographical song. However other fans who know nothing of this have already seized on the power of both the music and the words and the subtle, clever change from hopelessness to courage. For once on the album the backing is subtle, led by a piano rather than synth part from Chris Geddes and some gorgeous backing vocals from Stevie and Sarah (cleverly arriving at just the point when in the silence Murdoch is lifted 'by a wind in the cold dawn' driving him onwards and very like a wind it sounds too). 'Nobody's Empire' is my new favourite Belle and Sebastian song, right up there with past classics like 'The State I Am In' and 'We Rule The School'. This is a song to cry, to make plans to and to refuel by, the best of what music can be, with Murdoch successfully making himself into a rebellious courageous and scared narrator that won't take no for an answer, as glorious as any of his many characters down the years.

The rest of the album can't quite match but is still rather powerful. [145] 'Allie' goes back to the traditional B and S approach and even opens with a round of softly spoken 'bah bah bah's that could have come from 1995. This character is clearly born from those early years, 'in a mess' because the character can't cope with the problems of modern-day life. Determined to stop all the suffering in the world, but unable to get even her closest to listen to her, Allie struggles to make sense of her life, feeling inadequate against her heroes who went through 'something much harder and darker than anything that's happened to you'. Though another of Murdoch's troubled 90s teenagers this one lives in the present day , taking refuge in a 'soon-to-be-closed library' cut by the credit crunch (though there are only two political comments on this album, both damning the Conservatives, that's more than Murdoch has ever written before) and wondering why other less deserving people get to make a difference when her heart is so much purer. The music is fittingly turbulent, going from that quiet opening essence to a scary place of lies and subterfuge ('The tricks in your head are a lie!' the chorus screams) as the narrator cries herself to sleep and has thoughts of suicide. The vocal lines and long and drawn out, making Allie sound as if she's both wailing through her broken tears and hopelessly lost in a song that just won't stray still. A clever Chris Geddes keyboard lick plays mournfully on in the middle of all this maelstrom, one last bastion of hope in a world of noise that seems to be falling apart. While there are better Murdoch songs based around the same rough plan, this is another excellent song that sums up nicely the feelings of confusion and frustration, with a classic Stevie Jackson guitar part back upfront where it always ought to have been.

The album single [146] 'The Party Line' doesn't really fit on the rest of the album. This one is more of an escapist song, set in a disco where the narrator quickly goes from feeling out of place to being the most confident one in the room (is this is a memory of how he and Isobel met in the line - a party line - for a gig?) The lyrics for this track don't quite cut as well as the rest of the song, being basically one long chat up line, although there are some good lines like the narrator trying to cheer people up and 'leaving them worse than before' and worrying about the darker side of Glasgow night life, full of stolen cars and knives and guns. However the narrator ignores his surroundings to combine with the music in a glittering chorus that 'jumps' when he joins the beat of a party line and loses himself in the music (thankfully he's still too shy to do what one of my flatmates used to do and resist the temptation to dance out front on top of the speakers 'because the bears eat the pretty ones'). In context of the other songs here, about being stuck in bed and waiting for a future, it sounds like a hymn to the glories of being able to move without consequence, as if dancing - after being denied to the narrator for so long - now sounds like the greatest thing in the world. Though 1980s dance music dressed with a contemporary sheen is a long way from my own tastes (kudos for Geddes and drummer Richard Colburn for conjuring up a sound they've never really played before), the result works: the two synth licks work in tandem, a lost and lonely stranger surrounded by a swirl of music he can't help but join in with, while bassist Bobby Kildea and guitarist Stevie both hit a strong approximation of a nightclub setting. While far from my favourite track on the album, this song is better than the setting made me feared it would be and is full of great touches, from the opening slow swell of noise (just like walking through the door into a party) to the electronic effects on Murdoch's and martin's voices that make them sound both alien and alluring.

[147] 'The Power Of Three' is the first of two Sarah Martin lead vocals on the album, although the scansion of the lines and the characteristic references to books means this is most likely another Murdoch song. Sarah sings about the mystery of the power of three - she dismisses the idea that 'two' makes for 'the perfect couple' and argues against Arthur Conan Doyle's creation Sherlock's Holmes' belief in 'The Sign Of Four' (which is actually not a love story as it's made out to be here but a pact between four criminals who are all searching for the treasure they buried in India years before). She could be singing about the holy trinity (another sign that this song is full of Murdoch's fingerprints), The Three Musketeers, a threesome or perhaps Belle and Sebastian's front line (now comprising the three S's of Stuart, Sarah and Stevie). Sarah always reads three horoscopes in the paper, not just her own, because these un-named people's lives are now so closely intertwined because together they can leads to 'the fourth dimension', a mystical telepathy that only close people can share. Just as a thought - was this song written not for this project but for 'God Help The Girl' and the friendship between Eve, James and Cassie? (is that why Stuart gave it to Sarah, because he wrote it for a female voice?) While sweet enough in its own right and it's always welcome to hear the under-used Sarah sing a full song (without any harmonies for once), this song is perhaps the weakest on the album - nothing really happens and the 80s trappings are more off-putting than elsewhere, with lots of production effects added to the drums specially that are rather distracting. Still both the idea and melody are good ones, with a nice synth riff and some more great Stevie Jackson guitar in the mix.

[148] 'The Cat With The Cream' is much more adventurous, starting off with those famous B and S strings for the first time in a while, but instead of making the song prettier or more hopeful they exist in an eerie 'I Am The Walrus' way, making the whole song rather creepy. Murdoch's voice is treated with yet more electronics on another song that sounds as it was inspired by those early days when Murdoch found hope again, finding an achievement in just sitting at his kitchen table 'full of peace and health and dreams'. Everyone else's lives are messed up - his mum's upstairs with 'another new boyfriend' and other people's lives are ruined by 'men in frocks debating policy changes', the 'real' cats that got the cream. (It's worth looking again  at these lines, so unusually angry for Murdoch as he lashes out at what musts surely be the Coalition or perhaps the previous Labour Government: 'Everyone bet on the boom and got busted, everyone bet and on the Government trusted, a grubby little red MP, yellow flapping hopelessly'. He goes on to compare our current crop of glorious leaders with 'those I read about in school. knights on shining armour' and finds them wanting). Murdoch's narrator wants to put the world right and now feels as if he can, 'waiting for my code of instructions' and believing 'suddenly, now, I'm destined for greatness', the real cat who got the cream - not the politicians, they just got power, which isn't the same thing at all. The song ends with the repeated refrain 'It got settled by the King' - but whose the king in this world? Not the people nominally in charge or a literal king but those who are suddenly gifted the spark of insight the way that Murdoch has just been, with the power to 'change history' (whether they ultimately do or not). Throughout the song's melody, the most traditionally B and S on the album, is balanced precariously on a knife-edge between genuine warmth and sarcasm, as if it's drifting through the character's lives on a very different level to them. I'm still not quite sure whether this song works or not - I admire it rather than like it, which is different to the rest of the album and I'm not sure that Stuart wouldn't have been better off singing this one 'straight' rather than mockingly, but the melody is genuinely lovely and it's nice to hear strings back on a B and S record and used in such a different dramatic way.

[149] 'Enter Sylvia Plath' is a song I've really come to admire, despite having even more of a 'dance/Eurovision' drive (actually I rather like the Eurovision Song Contest and not in a sarcastic don't-they-look-stupid? kind of a way either; it's a nice to have a night of near-international negotiations about something other than war and what can be more unifying than music? I just wish they'd sort the rigged voting system out and stop it becoming more of a dancing contest!) Poet Plath has never been heard like this before, with a hypnotic repetitive swirling riff (Geddes and Colburn playing out of their skin again) as another typical Murdoch character finds a world of books and abstract ideas more inviting than everyday life. Sarah, acting as Sylvia herself perhaps, warns the eager wannabe student 'holding on to decency, reality' that an artist's life is hard: 'Boy you don't know what you want, it isn't what you think it is, all the dreams and guilt and loneliness' Murdoch carries on unabashed, calling out to get lost in her 'lonely world' and promising that actually he can help the poet, giving her a voice and allowing her to borrow 'from my faith'. In a glorious finale that line gets repeated over and over, over a variety of unexpected chord changes until it sounds like the most uplifting sound in the universe, Murdoch trying to rebalance not just a lost poet's world but all the lost wannabe poets reading her: 'From my faith! From my faith! From my faith! From my faith! From my faith!...' That might not sound much on paper but together with the uplifting music it's a revelation: never before have we heard Murdoch so sure about anything and it's as if he's sending this song back in time (this has a very 80s vibe) not just to himself but to all his characters and all the band's fans, a promise that things do get better and while he felt as lost and hopeless as any of us he now has faith in spades, offering a hand back to us to help us all. In other words this is another staggering song that sounds as if it shouldn't work at all (I've never heard a dance song about a philosopher before and doubt I will again!) and yet it works brilliantly, with another strong tune and some of the best vocals on the album from Stuart and Sarah highly convincing as the dancing pair of writer-listeners who can teach each other so much. It's probably not a wild guess to think that Isobel is in here somewhere too, with a pair of very different creatives propping each other up, the pair of characters Belle and Sebastian still dancing their wild dance long after Isobel and Stuart have finished dancing theirs.

Isobel is certainly all over [150] 'The Everlasting Muse', a sort of nicer re-write of 'Read The Blessed Pages' from the last album. Realising that he needs the girl he's just met in his life, the narrator 'sets a snare in the evening air, made of faith and hope and doubt'. He goes on to 'taste the strangest chord' whenever she's around, as if she's planting ideas in his head that he never knew existed before and when he sees her dancing 'music rushes in'. The narrator knows that he can't match her dancing or 'keep her up at night' the way she keeps him awake with longing, but he still desperately needs her in his life. However I think this song has a twist - fresh from merging his character with Isobel's for Eve, the central character of 'God Help The Girl' (who suffers from his illness near enough and doubts and talent, but also her strength and confidence) this song sounds as if it's written from Isobel's perspective. 'Her cause is mine - but I'm a slave' Murdoch sighs, reflecting Isobel's complaints from the time she left the band in 2002, while the ending line ('Be popular, play pop and you will win my love') sounds very much like her 'game-plan' for what their life could be together. A bluesier song than any Belle and Sebastian have done before, this features another great drum track from Richard and a sparkling pulsating bass riff from Bobby before a second half that turns the song into a German polka. Once again the two styles shouldn't fit and yet they do: Murdoch's blues are blown away by the sheer inspiration that runs through him when she is near him which makes him want to dance and seems to be a feeling as old as time - so of course he's going to wind up in a traditional dance settings somewhere down the line. Once again this song sounds like a Eurovision entry and once again that's no bad thing - 12 points from the Alan's Album Archives jury!

Stevie Jackson's one song on the album [151] 'Perfect Couples' is the most immediate song on the album. Starting with a cascade of congas and glockenspiel, it has a more singalong melody than any others on the album (like many of Stevie's songs it would have made a good nursery rhyme - and again that's a compliment not an insult) and rocks harder than any of the other tracks too. Stevie returns to a favourite theme that really fits both this album and his own strand of quirky songwriting (best heard on solo album 'Can't Get No Stevie Jackson') with the idea that the narrator used to be jealous when younger of all the beautiful people he knew leading beautiful lives ('Why can't my life be like that?') But now they're all 'breaking up' and he doesn't know why - I mean they had everything ('What have they done?') and in a song full of memorable lines 'once took comfort in their flair' while he had nothing and looked on jealously for so long. Stevie wants to believe in the romantic Hollywood dream, of happy ever after - how can he believe in happiness for himself when even the people he knows are meant for each other have trouble staying together? (Fascinatingly yet again he picks up on the album theme that Murdoch is after: faith, thought coming at it from quite a different angle). However he vows not to let it happen to him and in another example of this album suddenly becoming triumphant and uplifting tacks on an upbeat finale where instead of feeling as if every coupling his doomed he's just as entitled to try love as everyone else he's always admired from afar. Suddenly the whole band cry 'What am I waiting for?...What makes me get in the fray - they just throw it away!' singing the line over and over as if urging everyone to think twice about their lives. More 70s than 80s, unlike the rest of this album, this is one of the better Stevie songs around and nicely suited to the album's ambience.

[152] 'Ever Had A Little Faith?' is the one song on the album that could have appeared on any previous B and S album, with that familiar sighing and longing Murdoch melody and lyrics about a sad and lonely character contemplating their life. There's even a violin part right where there always used to be one as Murdoch turns tables and becomes the voice of hope and reason he always used to hear from Isobel: 'Something good will happen' he urges his sad character staring out of a window on a rainy afternoon, 'wait and see'.  Perhaps thinking about his earlier doubtful self, he urges everyone to 'stop second guessing faith' and promises that after so much emotional 'rain' that 'you will flourish like a rose in June'. Actually to go back to my earlier statement, though musically this is pure B and S (even having a curious atonal organ part at the end that unbalances the song, a la 'You Made Me Forget My Dreams'), I'm not sure Murdoch would have written this song without having made his film. In 'God Help The Girl' he basically revisited his early years as they happened at the time, but through the eyes of someone who knows that all that struggle and hope will be for something - that Eve will get to make her mark on life eventually and her years of having nothing will flower into having everything. Murdoch sounds more than ever as if he's singing to the younger self he's just seen (via a change of gender) on screen, pleading with his twenty-something self not to give up because it will all come right by his forties.

[153] 'Play For Today' is back to the louder, dancier Belle and Sebastian but with the usual setting of a 'boy who hides in attics when the sun is up and everyone is at work'. Sounding like the tangle of doubts in his head from his me/cfs years Murdoch asks 'What will I do? Where will I go?' and pleading with the fates 'Won't you show me the way to grow old?' The answer comes in the form of creativity, perhaps remembering the first moment he wrote a song and found his true calling. Finding himself a 'dried up river of bed' without any chance for love to run through it he sighs that even the goals he longs for are almost as restrictive as his present nothing-life: 'Work is a sentence, family's a drag, this house is a trap'. Suddenly another voice steps in, with Dee Dee Penny's voice playing the 'Belle' to Stuart's 'Sebastian' and playing the part of a girl in a play where 'everybody loves her' but she conceals an inner darker world where 'she hides her emotional baggage inside'. Suddenly Stuart realises that everybody hurts - that every character in every play and every song suddenly seems to belong to his own desperately lonely world and that after years of 'living alone, loving a song' he too can write down thoughts and feelings that others can identity with and not feel quite as alone. With her help (and the presence of a rather odd 'chain gang' backing vocal) he learns how to 'push back the tide and lift the mountain up, re-writing the setting for his life that seemed to be set in stone. When Murdoch now sings 'take a chance and play for today' he's punning on words, writing a play in song about the world today - and discovering that writing can be fun as well as hard work. Turning again to his muse he clinks metaphorical glasses with her, thanks her for filling his 'cup' with the 'sun' of inspiration and offers to 'fill the glasses on the tables of everyone we love'. It's a heart-warming moment on a heart-warming record, presenting not just the problem as per usual but also a solution. Belle and Sebastian's role in the music world has never made more sense than here and while the melody isn't one of the best (it's here to serve the lyrics rather than vice versa) this is another first-class song.

Sarah's [154]'The Book Of You' is a fun quirky pop song (again with signs of Murdoch's hands in the lyrics) that opens with what sounds like a lorry reversing before a happy funny goofy love story takes place. Sarah, perhaps playing Isobel's part again, plays hard to get sighing that 'Faith will just evaporate' if the game is won too easily before a love story of walking in the rain and finding out that 'I'm the one for you and you're the one for me'. Geddes gets a nice lot to do again on another strangely contemporary-sounding song with the same air as many of the songs from 'The Life Pursuit' and Stevie turns in a fiery passionate guitar solo. However , sweet as this song is, there's no getting away from the fact that it's lighter than all the others on the album and has slightly less going on inside it - this is a song that has the same answers to the other songs on the album without spending as much time exploring the question. Once again, though, it's great to hear Sarah getting so much to do and her usual breathy bouncy vocals are a wonderful counterbalance to Stuart's voice.

The album ends on another strong song with [155] 'Today (This Army's For Peace)'. Another surreal dreamscape of a song not unlike 'The Cat Got The Cream', it sounds as if the younger sleepier Murdoch has at last got his poor tired brain to a deep and restful sleep with the comfort of the fact that he has something to get up for in the morning, if only he can. Opening with the line 'I want to slip back into a dream I had', it also sounds like the older Murdoch trying to remember how things used to be (worrying reports that Murdoch struggled with another me/cfs flare-up after making the last B and S album in 2010 might account for this album in general and this song in particular). After finding that 'The choices have all clashed around my head', he wonders if 'it's right to leave your charges and go charging round the bend?', his usually cautious self desperate to race into the brave new world he's just glimpsed after living so long with the brakes full on. At last he doesn't have to live in yesterday because he has a tomorrow - and even a 'today'. This song is full of some lovely images: 'A tent put up in heaven' that means he can't stay in paradise but has glimpsed it enough to know it's there, wanting to be like the contented few who have built 'mansions in the sun' (the sun being a regular Murdoch image for creativity) and 'wanting to tear the rust from my mind'. After a war that's left him broken and tired, this is Murdoch taking the decision to approach the light of peace, finding harmony as he 'comes out into the light - today'. A gorgeous melody is well met by a classy shimmering Murdoch vocal and a lovely Martin accompaniment that soars alongside him, making him feel as if he's no longer alone. Geddes too excels himself with a keyboard swell that rises and falls as the song demands, swamping everything with a golden glow. It's a truly emotional moment that's a worthy finale to the album and a poignant goodbye to all the album's themes.

Overall, then, 'Girls In Peacetime Just Want To Dance' is as close to a perfect album as the older Belle and Sebastian are ever likely to get. By going back to the past and filling us in on the story just before he started making records, Murdoch manages to breath new life into his usual empathetic characters but rather than just sympathising with them his realisation that life has worked out enables him to go further and offer them hope of a better future. Reports of this album's sessions claim that it was rushed, that Murdoch had spent so long writing and re-writing both his film soundtrack and various abandoned scores for it that this album was an afterthought, released to keep fans happy more than anything else. Reports that a new trendy producer in Ben Allen and a spell away from home in L.A. had resulted in a punchier, dancefloor Belle and Sebastian scared me silly. And yet this album is nothing of the kind - it's as intellectual and emotional as any of the past albums and makes for a fine 'before and after' comparison to the events in 'God Help The Girl' that reveals more of the 'real' Stuart than perhaps any album since 'Tigermilk'. The rest of the band too get lots to do, aiding and abetting without diluting Murdoch's drama as happened occasionally in the past. Far from sounding rushed and coming off second best, this album sounds like the product of a lot of thought and attention and manages to present a far more deserving 'new direction' for the group than any of the changes they've made since Isobel left the band (with the likeable 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' not far behind). 'Peacetime' is a triumph, full of songs about hope and faith that reward us fans' long years of wondering when the next great Belle and Sebastian album might be. The greatest, deepest, loveliest dance record ever made.

Other Belle and Sebastian articles from this site you might be interested in:

A Now Complete Link Of Belle and Sebastian Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:
‘Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’ (2001)
'Storytelling' (2002)

'Push Barman To Open Old Wounds' (EP compilation 2003)

'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' (2004)
'The Life Pursuit' (2006)

'Write About Love' (2010)
'God Help The Girl' (Stuart Murdoch Film) (2014)
Girls In Peace Time Just Want To Dance (2015)

Belle and Sebastian: Existing TV Clips
Belle and Sebastian: 12 Unreleased Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Non-Album Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums
Essay: B and S Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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