Fans have spent many years, many desperate conversations defending Belle & Sebastian. And, really, there’s a lot to defend. Sure, the music is utterly testosterone-free, but who doesn’t love a sweet, sensitive guy? Especially one who can pull fascinating literary references seemingly out of mid-air and has a wit akin to a kind-hearted Morrissey.
Stuart Murdoch has a distinct knack for creating wistful melodies and music that feels weightless – refreshing, even. The band’s masterful 2010 effort “Belle & Sebastian Write About Love” displayed a perfect balance of the delicate tunes the band founded itself on and a heavier, fleshed out pop sound that it has slowly been careening toward over the course of the past 20 years.
Five years later comes the release of “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance,” a title that aptly summarizes the music within: somehow inconsequential. It’s easy to dance if there’s nothing to fret about, and it’s easy to create an overwrought pseudo dance-pop regurgitation of everything you’ve created before if you’re not feeling motivated to charge into new artistic territory but owe fans a new record.
The album, produced by Ben H. Allen III, really feels like it was produced by Ben H. Allen III, the man involved with career-altering maybe-mistakes like Animal Collective’s mildly disappointing “Centipede HZ” and Cee-Lo Green’s “The Lady Killer.” It’s important to know that Allen’s ability to steer an artist’s material toward the more widely accessible also had a hand in churning out Animal Collective’s monumental “Merriweather Post Pavilion” and Deerhunter’s masterful “Halcyon Digest.”
Opener “Nobody’s Empire,” might be the highlight of the album, and it sounds like it could have been plucked from just about any place in the band’s discography – whether that’s a good or bad thing, that depends on the listener.
Murdoch has always been able to bring even the most diehard fans to the edge of wincing in embarrassment without ever actually making them furrow their brows. Yet songs like “Enter Sylvia Plath” and “The Cat with the Cream” are just cringe-worthy. And who wants to feel sensitive and embarrassed?
There are interesting moments thrown willy-nilly throughout the album, even if those moments are only a couple of seconds in duration. The opening of “Perfect Couples” sounds like the Tropicalia instrumentation of Paul Simon’s “The Rhythm of the Saints” and then steers straight into inoffensive whisper-pop. “Play for Today” has some funny synth action going on, which could become addictive in a trashy, poppy sort of way.
In the end, the album feels overworked, too much attention paid to details that shouldn’t have mattered in the neurotic sort of way that they must have seemed like they did. Some of that charming effortlessness, the kind that defines Belle & Sebastian’s early discography (“The State I’m In,” “Like Dylan in the Movies,” “Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying,” “I’m a Cuckoo” – the list goes on and on) would nicely lighten things up for a band that sounds like it’s taking itself too seriously.
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