Ahead of the release of Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, Belle & Sebastian released two tracks, Nobody’s Empire and The Party Line. The former was unmistakable in its congruity with the group’s back-catalogue, and the latter entirely symptomatic of a band still intent on challenging itself.
The challenge facing every established artist is learning when to adapt and take risks. Cult status inevitably creates a somewhat precarious situation when it comes to a band testing new waters creatively. This album, Belle & Sebastian’s ninth, certainly doesn’t represent a group content with resting on their laurels. Their significant back-catalogue may not have struck a chord with the musical mainstream, but their critical success has engendered a strong and enthusiastic cult following. Few have sustained such a pleasing brand of indie-pop, without the oft-tiresome monotony that many (see Two Door Cinema Club and Mumford & Sons) within the genre fall foul to. Therefore, whilst the subtle yet noticeable forays into new musical territory inevitably inspired some angst on my part, it was also very much welcome.
Whilst I may have harped on about how the group have ventured into new pastures, it’s still entirely evident that the group remain remarkably adept at producing sublimely whimsical indie-pop. The album opens with Nobody’s Empire, an archetypal Belle track in the best possible way, with Stuart Murdoch recanting tales of summer romance to harmony, twanging guitars, and a smattering of trumpets. Elsewhere, The Cat With The Cream, and Ever Had A Little Faith will be enough to satisfy the insatiably rapid thirst amongst the more dogmatic Belle & Sebastian fans.
The Party Line and Enter Sylvia Plath are the most overtly fresh stylistic departures on the album. At times one could be forgiven for mistaking the synth-heavy Enter Sylvia Plath for an undiscovered Tears For Fears track. Murdoch’s writing lends itself seamlessly to a brief venture into 80s synth-pop. Perhaps the only mild criticism would be that it does impact upon the congruity of the album when played from start to finish. To some, the transition from the Power Of Three, to The Cat With The Cream, and then to Enter Sylvia Plath in particular could be construed as jarring - though there is an argument that such discontinuity is inevitable in a piece that simultaneously attempts to tread new ground and cultivate old.
Elsewhere, The Book Of You and Perfect Couples also represent a bit of a break, albeit a subtler one, from the pattern often associated with Murdoch and co. The guitar is significantly more prominent and almost bluesy; it certainly feels like a record that allowed the members of the band to express themselves to a greater extent, and that’s always something enjoyable to be privy to.
A couple of fairly weak tracks (The Power Of Three notably) arguably deny Girls In Peacetime the chance to outrank the seminal earlier Belle & Sebastian albums. Nonetheless, even this represents a band that remains intent on challenging themselves creatively. As an album, it should be judged alone, not relative to its forebears, and for that reason it deserves significant praise. Belle & Sebastian remain supremely accomplished songwriters, and their wistful and distinctive brand of indie-pop is truly delightful.