Review Summary: The Be Here Now of twee.
Although its origin has been debated, the term “the Disease of More” is generally considered to have been coined by noted Los Angeles Lakers/New York Knicks coach and current Miami Heat Sith Lord Pat Riley in his 1988 non-fiction bestseller Showtime
. Riley was using the phrase to discuss the problems that crop up in a team attempting to follow a championship year – in his case, the 1980-81 Lakers – with equal success. The problem with reaching the pinnacle of basketball for that supremely talented team, Riley found, was that everyone wanted a greater slice of the pie: more run, more shots, more money. As Riley succinctly put it, “success is often the first step toward disaster.” The Disease of More is not confined to basketball of course; in a consumer-driven society, it has almost become the norm. With the Lakers it was selfish attitudes and a subversion of the team-first play that had led them to the top; for a Wall Street trader it may be a greater, stronger high, finding new ways to enhance returns and snort up the accompanying greater and greater dividends over the weekend. For Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, his symptoms have resulted in Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
, an unwieldy record that has a vague idea of where it wants to go and what it wants to be but spends most of its bloated runtime taking so many paths to get there that the end result is a confused mess.
You can see where Murdoch is going with this. Aside from being perhaps his most immediately arresting song, with lyrics that strike at the heart of Murdoch’s lifelong battle with chronic fatigue syndrome and the blossoming of his musical talents, opener “Nobody’s Empire” is a blast of unvarnished power-pop, augmented by swelling instrumentation and an easy melodicism that have been hallmarks of Belle & Sebastian since 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress
. Unlike many of the songs here, you don’t realize that the track runs beyond five minutes, so organic and captivating is the hook and Murdoch’s storytelling. Sadly, “Nobody’s Empire” quickly becomes the exception that proves the rule. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
is a record far more concerned with trying out flashy new costumes for Belle & Sebastian rather than focusing on anything substantial. Consider “Enter Sylvia Plath,” for example, a bouncy disco-flavored hit that has an ABBA-worthy synth line yet stretches incomprehensibly on for nearly seven minutes into a Euro-pop blur, Murdoch’s lyrics buried under a repetitive, thudding groove. “Play for Today” suffers from the same pretensions, burying a simple rhythm under layers and layers of sound, adding and subtracting over the course of seven-and-a-half minutes before retreating into a narcoleptic outro, floating strands of backing vocals and lyrics tossed lazily off between Murdoch and guest vocalist Dee Dee of the Dum Dum Girls. Cuts like your standard mid-tempo B&S numbers “Allie” and “The Book of You” seem haphazardly tacked on to a record that seems intent on building a new identity out of sequins and cheesy Eurovision pop, a wonky guitar solo barely distinguishing the latter at the end, an oddity for the sake of being odd. It’s the musical equivalent of grasping at straws.
Belle & Sebastian have always been a playful band, and Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
is, at its best, an eminently entertaining record, one that filters common B&S themes – love, loveliness, a forlorn appreciation for things past – through producer Ben Allen’s gorgeous glitter machine. First single “The Party Line” has the kind of stomp and winking sexual vigor that the rest of the ‘80s-influenced tunes here lack. “The Everlasting Muse,” on the other hand, is deliciously weird in an entirely different, unexpected way, meandering along through a jazzy lounge before locking rigidly into a stridently folksy march. Best of all is “The Cat with the Cream,” a dreamy piece of atmospheric strings and Murdoch’s wisp of a voice that burns slowly, solemnly, allowing the full weight of one of his more politically charged lyrics to sink in, heavy and foreboding. Tracks like these and the general breadth of songwriting on display make it clear that Belle & Sebastian are far from washed up after their long break. Yet Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
never comes across as anything more than a number of different statements, as if Murdoch and company had trouble paring down all the ideas of the past few years and wanted to get it all out now, as if it would be otherwise lost. In trying for everything, they’ve highlighted the disjointedness of the end product, turning a fully-fledged transformation into an erratic collection of middling-to-great Belle & Sebastian songs. For a band that has had trouble articulating a consistent identity for nearly a decade now, at least one thing is clear: more is not always better.