If you've heard Belle & Sebastian before, you know that sound - you know that familiar sound of jangling guitars and you know the tender, boyish lilt of Stuart Murdoch's voice. What is likely to be unusual to you is the gentle neo-disco pulse that drives "Nobody's Empire" the opening track on Belle & Sebastian's ninth album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. On this record, the band toy with dance and disco sounds, dry, springy guitars and funky polyrhythms and add them to their usual formula of twee indie-pop. Sometimes the results are astounding, and other times they're not, but it's wonderful that an established band like Belle & Sebastian are still taking risks.
Ever since 2001's Dear Catastrophe Waitress, when they teamed up with producer Trevor Horn, the band has been playing with soul and rhythm and blues influences, so perhaps it's inevitable that this is where they'd end up. Still, it's a little shocking to hear the pounding beat, handclaps, cowbell and percolating bass on first single "The Party Line." Murdoch and co. have always been slyly cheeky, though, and the song is still deeply insular - a witty and personal lyric for all the shy boys and girls in the world. "There is nobody here but your body dear," Murdoch sings and a million solitary hips shake in a million solitary bedrooms.
The album gets off to an excellent start, with the up-tempo rocker "Allie" bridging the gap between the two aforementioned tracks. "The Power of Three," with its wistful synth lines and luscious electric pianos, as well as a wispy lead vocal from violinist/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin, sounds like it should be on the soundtrack for a John Hughes film that was never made. Often it's remarkable that Belle & Sebastian can still take such a populist sound and make it sound so profoundly and genuinely emotional.
Unfortunately, later on, "Enter Sylvia Plath" breaks the reverie of the drifting "The Cat with the Cream" with an obnoxiously artificial dance beat, making it sound like a novelty 12-inch remix of what could have been a much better song. It would be more suited to being a b-side or a bonus track. Both "The Cat with the Cream" and "Enter Sylvia Plath" are emblematic of what is wrong with this record. They are overlong and not that interesting, with the latter being the first of two tracks to run over six minutes. At more than an hour, this is Belle & Sebastian's longest studio record yet, but it doesn't really justify that length.
The record's middle-section sags so badly that it is never quite able to recover from it, despite some excellent tracks near the end. It sits uncomfortably next to the racing percussion of "Perfect Couples," but "Ever Had a Little Faith?" is prime Belle & Sebastian, complete with softly strummed acoustic guitar and a violin part that emerges like a rising sun. As good as it is, though, "Ever Had a Little Faith?" is symptomatic of another of the record's flaws, in that it doesn't fit with what surrounds it. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance lacks cohesion and feels like less an intentional collection of songs, and more like a dump of material, placed together haphazardly.
As with every Belle & Sebastian record, following along with the lyric sheet improves the experience tenfold, but even the most devoted fan of the band's clever and funny lyrics will have their patience tested by the long, tiring record. With a bit of editing, this could have been a very good album. Even if it is uneven and sequenced in an illogical and jarring fashion, this is by no means a bad album. It's encouraging that a band as far into their career as Belle & Sebastian are still finding ways to change up the formula and for that they should be commended, even if the end result is not quite what any of us were hoping for.