Review Summary: "Be popular, play pop, and you will win my heart."
Much like Stuart Murdoch's bill of health, Belle & Sebastian's near two-decade innings has experienced its share of peaks and troughs. On this rocky ride, one of the few discernible patterns is that the highs have risen from adversity, be it the singer's chronic fatigue which inspired their neigh-on perfect early records, or the less-than-amiable departure of Isobel Campbell, cited by many as the catalyst behind their spirited mid-'00s revival. Five years on from the largely successful Write About Love
, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
arrives a little late to capitalise on the latter crest, but even so there's plenty of reason to play up its prospects. Indeed, having written, directed and soundtracked his own indie musical in last year's delightful God Help the Girl
, Murdoch's creative juices certainly appear in fine fettle, and having suffered the unfortunate yet tinder-like effects of a fatigue relapse it's tempting to speculate the Glaswegian's ninth LP has surfaced with good timing.
It seems they're conscious of this too. Something of a leftfield turn, this record's sound is that of a band eager to seize their window, trading simple, masterfully-crafted pop songs for colourful splashes of disco and a wider expansiveness scarcely even hinted at in their esteemed past.
From a group hardly renowned for pushing the envolope, it's little surprise the results are a tad mixed. Though they may be viewed a departure by some, the pulsing electro of 'The Party Line' and 'Enter Sylvia Plath' find them occupying something of a sweet spot - particularly Murdoch, who jumps at the opportunity to channel his inner Neil Tennant. The reality, in fact, is they're a culmination of previous dabbles in synth as opposed to genuine upheaval, with real inventive flutters saved for elsewhere. Perhaps the most salient example, Stevie Jackson's 'Perfect Couples' emerges with a flurry of bongo rhythms, a quirk which proves enjoyable - at least until the song begins meandering aimlessly and vastly outstaying its welcome. Sadly, with the record clocking in at over an hour, this is part of a wider theme, being just one of a phalanx of cuts which are uncharacteristically drawn-out yet fail to justify their run-times.
At times it feels as though Murdoch's youthful obsession with Yes has finally got the better of him, but amid the seven-minute romps and hit-and-miss experiments it's no coincidence the standout is a trademark melodic gem. Described by the singer as "absolutely the most personal song I've ever written," 'Nobody's Empire' may also be his most transparent, detailing his toils with illness in a vivid, cathartic manner previously unexplored, even in the remarkable therapeutic chimes of Tigermilk
. It almost makes you wish he would follow the advice of his character on 'The Everlasting Muse' (be popular: play pop!), yet it's also a moment which gives hope that this latest so-so chapter is merely another blip, and not indicative of any wider decline.