Belle and Sebastian Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

[Matador; 2015]

Styles: bedroom dancing/world politics
Others: Flusser, ABBA, Yes Scotland, Eurovision

I didn’t know what to expect when I first saw Belle and Sebastian live. It was 2003, and they were just emerging from their “twee as fuck” heyday. I couldn’t imagine them lifting their amps onto the stage, let alone making it through a whole set of songs. Their long delicate lyrics and hushed accompaniments seemed designed for Sunday mornings, off-campus cafés, or headphones in the stacks. Did they get enough rest? Would they be warm enough? Should I bring an extra sweater for the drummer? Yet, there they were, amidst the run-down splendor of the Metro, doing a tough Chicago crowd proud. Their sound was surprisingly loud and muscular, twin-jet guitars ripping through “I’m a Cuckoo” and then a cover of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town;” Stuart Murdoch embraced the spotlight and played the preening star to perfection, nothing but cheeky charisma as he teased the audience and cheered on his band. The audience’s respectful silence quickly turned to stunned awe.

But that was nothing compared to the show I saw in 2010, after the release of Write About Love. Now Stuart was dancing. The group had just kicked into “I Didn’t See it Coming,” and with little more then a drum shuffle and a few piano chords behind him, he shut his eyes and started to bop — short bangs and tight striped pirate shirt, pumping his fists and hopping intently from one leg to the other. No Elvis, for sure, but he was just as cool and commanding. He looked ripped, in fact, but also tiny and frail, as if he had just recovered from a grave illness. And there was something so weird and intent in his movement that I haven’t been able to shake the image from my mind. It was a narcissistic moment. He seemed completely withdrawn into himself, insisting on his own pleasure. But he was also open and exposed, as if he were tentatively feeling for something in the world with his body. Sure, he was leading the song with his dance — shaping it, pushing it along — but also somehow trying to get beyond it. To be honest, he seemed a little frustrated, as if maybe the band or the song or his own past was against him. Whatever it was, he was trying to grasp something just out of reach, something not quite there, to grasp it and submit to it. And that’s it, if you can imagine it: for a moment, Stuart Murdoch’s body seemed to turn into a giant grasping hand — a raw and fragile hand. It was startling to think of anything associated with the group as so intent and physical. Then he started to sing: “Make me dance, I want to surrender…” And the moment was over.

Murdoch, though, has been grasping in his own delicate way for years now as a musician, and this is what I love most about him and his band. No doubt, the group’s albums are more varied in style than most critics would allow, but it’s easy to discern a restless evolution in sound, from twee folk to baroque retro-pop to now, it seems, dance and disco. One of the greatest pleasures as a fan has been watching them transition from “Belle and Sebastian” the cultural phenomenon to “Belle and Sebastian” the working band, one that has to manage their aging image and put out music on a regular basis. The first great step in this evolution occurred with Dear Catastrophe Waitress, when Murdoch addressed the pressures of professionalism head-on with a set of songs about working life that led by example with their own ultra-professional production (“Step Into My Office, Baby;” “White Collar Boy”). We’re now witnessing another major shift with Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, which uses the idea of dance and the space of the dance floor to explore a more expansive view of social life. The disco sound that frames the album represents a kind of lost public ideal, at once spiritual and political, engaged and engaging. In interviews, in fact, Murdoch has been calling it his “soul” album, suggesting not only that his long-obscured spirituality has finally emerged on the surface of his music, but also that these songs, in their textures and rhythms, figure as a form of social activism. “Soul means different things to different people musically,” he claims, “but souls are on the line here in these songs.” Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is a far cry from There’s a Riot Going On, but in its own tentative way, it seems ready to take on a whole lot more of the world.

The stunning opener to Girls in Peacetime takes the band’s long shift — from shy introversion to spazzy extroversion — as its theme. “Nobody’s Empire” is a chronicle of Murdoch’s continuing struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or myalgic encephalomyelitis. While Chronic Fatigue is a real medical condition, it suits the band’s cultivated identity, serving as origin and inspiration for its shy decadent aesthetic. Songs such as “Sleep the Clock Around,” “A Summer Wasting,” “Nice Day for a Sulk,” and “We are the Sleepyheads” translate what is essentially a viral condition into a hip drowsy stance for the indie scene. In fact, commenting on “Nobody’s Empire,” Murdoch stated that “It was as much of a surprise to me as to anybody else, because I’ve always been writing songs that, even if they weren’t specifically about ME, they were at least from the perspective of a person with ME.” On this glorious track, the history of the band figures as a struggle to resist silence and solipsism and fatigue, the hallmarks of the classic Belle and Sebastian style, and acknowledge the vital world beyond the bedroom. But “Nobody’s Empire” is not a simple tale of triumph over nihilistic fatigue; while it documents a newfound strength and engagement, the old values are not left behind, and the singer’s power is tempered by a characteristic passivity. The song’s title refers brilliantly to both the sick bed and Scotland’s ancillary status in relation to England, both of which, in their obscurity and detachment, signal a uniquely political form of non-aggression: “We are out of practice we’re out of sight/ On the edge of nobody’s empire/ If we live by books and we live by hope/ Does that make us targets for gunfire?” This is just as apparent in the song’s winning sound. Belle and Sebastian have always resisted the masculine postures of rock and punk, but “Nobody’s Empire” balances force and gentleness in a new way. With its throbbing synths and brief gospel bursts, it teeters on the verge of righteousness, but the song remains a “quiet revolution.” Murdoch delivers his tale in a low, gentle whisper, his voice softly cradling the violence it details. The moment of triumph comes quietly, fittingly, in the bedroom, as he watches his sleeping wife; there’s machine gunfire in the background, but also a trumpet and an angelic choir. It’s a wonderful moment, as sweet and compelling as anything on If You’re Feeling Sinister or The Boy With the Arab Strap.

No doubt, by testing their traditional sound in the direction of politics — i.e., in asking whether the “politics of style” can address something like “real politics” — the band is taking a big risk. For the most part, though, the songs here advance no explicit political positions, but address the difficulties of being invested in the political world at all. Murdoch himself cautiously entered the Scottish referendum debate last summer, ultimately siding with the independent movement. His comments suggested a solid left position on immigration and the working class, but his vision for Scotland revealed the same hazy romance that defines his songs (“Judy and The Dream of Scotland”?). Girls in Peacetime seems at least partially informed by this debate and Murdoch’s ambivalence. In fact, he’s suggested that the album was loosely written from the perspective of a girl named Allie who is preoccupied with global political events, but feels powerless to effect any real change. The latest and perhaps most worldly of Murdoch’s many female doubles, Allie makes an appearance on the album’s second track, surfing the internet and feeling confused by what she reads. With its buzz-saw guitar and wailing flute, the song is perhaps the band’s angriest yet. For Allie, though, this anger has no real object, except possibly suicide: “Allie, what would you do?/ When there’s bombs in the Middle East/ You want to hurt yourself/ When there’s knives in the city streets/ You want to end yourself.” Guns and bombs and armies appear, startlingly, in a number of these tracks, piercing the silence of the bedroom and inspiring a range of complicated moods. “The Cat With the Cream” takes a more wistful approach. Here, as the romance of the past gives way to the messy reality of the present (the king replaced by a “grubby little red MP”), the family home ceases to be a place of simple peace and dreaming. Backed by soft quivering strings and an urgent pulse, the singer seems genuinely stunned by the acts of men he had only previously “studied in the library.” The best of this politically-minded set is “The Party Line,” which most clearly advances the band’s new dancehall policy program. Here, the momentary hookups and breakups of the “discothèque” trump any rigid party politics, represented neatly by the retro black and white tiles on the dance floor. Something in this song smacks of last decade’s scholarly poptimism and a somewhat dated celebration of dance as a form of body politics, but “The Party Line” — with its rattling cowbell, bubbling synths, and shouted dance directives (“Jump to the beat of the party line!”) — makes its case through its own exuberance.

That said, there are some obvious pitfalls to this newfound worldliness, and the second half of Girls in Peacetime is a bit of a mess. I’m just not sure how much extroversion this famously reclusive band can stand without losing its identity. Arguably, Murdoch’s weakest characteristic as a bandleader has been his tendency to collaborate; the group’s most uneven albums have been those in which he shares too many songwriting and singing duties. Here, ironically, two of the strongest tracks were penned by bandmates (musical credit for “The Party Line” goes to Bobby Kildea, while “Perfect Couples” is a Stevie Jackson effort all the way). This is also the first album in which Sarah Martin seems like an essential member of the group; “The Power of Three” and “The Book of You” would be little more than exercises in style without her confident soulful delivery. Rather, the problems here stem from the collaboration nature of its production. Girls in Peacetime was recorded in the unlikely place of Atlanta, Georgia with the unlikely choice of Ben Allen (Deerhunter, Washed Out, CeeLo Green, and Animal Collective), who encouraged the band to leave their songs more open-ended before entering the studio (bad idea!) and who apparently cut and spliced smaller bits of each track in order to create the final songs (worst!). Some of the tracks, especially in the second half, have a dull, processed feel; the various parts of the mix lie flatly next to each other, and everything thickens, indistinctively, in the middle range. I miss the lightness of touch and the witty play of instruments that marked earlier recordings. Murdoch’s openness also gets the better of his often spot-on taste for musical eclecticism. Perhaps pushing the political theme a bit too far, he once conceived of the album as a series of national entries for the Eurovision contest, and it shows here in the second half’s kitschy genre hopping from Belarus disco to Scandinavian pop to French bossa nova to Eastern European drinking song to a Lion King-like pseudo-African choir at the end of “Play for Today.” Even some of the best tracks, such as the ABBA-esque disco fantasia “Enter Sylvia Plath,” open with blasts of Europop synths that demand to be endured rather than enjoyed.” Seriously, if this is “world music” today, I’m heading back to the bedroom.

But you should stick around to the end (if only for the late-album charmer “Ever Had a Little Faith?,” a dainty folk strummer with a Nico-esque vocal that harks straight back to the old days). If you listen behind these late tracks and their affected surfaces, you can still hear a band grasping at the world, trying to shape it into something better. The late German media theorist Vilém Flusser defined gesture as a movement of the body for which there is no causal explanation. A gesture, he claimed, must be freely undertaken and delicately expressive; its sincerity is matched only by its fragility, its distance from the brute world of cause and effect. In this, Flusser believed, even the most insignificant gestures — reading a book, smoking a pipe, dancing on stage, playing a record — seem to project some better world, to uphold or maintain some different set of values. The world depicted on Girls in Peacetime is one in which the possibility of such gestures seems threatened, in which the band’s art and all it stands for seem threatened. In a recent interview with Murdoch, Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy observed that “The beauty of your records is that they give all those people a safe space. That’s the bedroom thing — you can get safe inside your records. Because the characters are so open ended, you can see yourself in those characters and come into that room for a little while. But this is the first record that hasn’t felt like that. You’ve created a romantic, alive political record.” Murdoch, in turn, declares his commitment to art that is safe and consoling. On Girls in Peacetime’s dreamy closer, “Today (This Army’s for Peace),” he looks out his window and dreams of building a “shelter for your mind.” He gently calls upon his listeners to join him and “come out into the light.” The community he seems to imagine here is not exactly the twee community of romantic shut-ins that once defined the group’s fanbase. It’s a different version of that group, not necessarily older, but certainly wiser in their recognition of the need to engage the world in order to preserve their dreaming within it. You might not love disco or Europop or even all of the songs on Girls in Peacetime, but you can still feel that honest, gentle hope in each of them.

Links: Belle and Sebastian - Matador

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