In light of Belle and Sebastian’s newest project, a trilogy of EPs titled How to Solve Our Human Problems, it might be well worth the time to revisit their last full-length album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. Idiosyncratic and whimsical in an unusual blend of rhythmic playfulness and lyrical depth, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is a precursor to Belle and Sebastian’s turn toward a transforming style. Released in 2015 after a five-year hiatus, the album diverges from the band’s past inclination for the subdued if not conversational offbeat tone, turning instead to a synthetic, techno pop sound that reels us into a sense of familiarity. Yet its brilliance rests in its ability to mold a style that is lighthearted and airy without being trivializing, digestible and catchy without being vapid. While it evokes the kind of radio music we typically dance to, it also reminds us of what lies underneath all that upbeat glamour.
The album opens with “Nobody’s Empire,” which lead singer Stuart Murdoch confirmed to be about his longstanding battle with ME (otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) since his college years. Beginning with a mellow rift, the song gradually rises to a final, triumphant climax, as Murdoch sings, “And he told me to push and he made me feel well / He told me to leave that vision of hell to the dying.” The verse is accentuated by a brisk flute accompaniment and concludes with a soaring drum note, mirroring Murdoch’s victory over the illness. Music and spirituality are what helped the singer carry on even at his lowest point in his struggle with ME, and the song becomes an exulting eulogy that bids farewell to the worst of times.
The third song in the collection, “The Party Line,” emerges as the album’s most popular track. The music is booming and magnetic with an electric tempo, as if inviting its listeners to dance in a club and forget their troubles, and we can’t help but tap our feet to the beat. But even in the most jubilant track of the album, the lyrics take on a mourning quality, because outside of the momentary safety of the dance floor, “people like to shoot at things with borrowed guns and knives,” and the double entendre in the song title comes through poignantly. Little tidbits of reality seep into these character sketches throughout the album in the same way, such as the unraveling of the façades we wear in life in “Play for Today” (“The backstage of your life / is filled with props and lines you should have sung / The backstage of your life / is filled with echoes of the ones you loved”), laying bare our private unfulfillment, or the offhand remark that “the news is always sad” in an otherwise high-spirited love ode (“The Everlasting Muse”), jolting us into a rude awakening. And in “Allie,” social commentary turns pointed and blatant (“When there’s bomb in the Middle East, you want to hurt yourself”), making its carefree chorus at the start of the song particularly unsettling. In these tracks, Belle and Sebastian plays skillfully with the irony between reality and imagination, words and sound, the logical and the visceral, and they force their listeners to come face-to-face with their own acts of escapism.
Meanwhile, “The Cat with the Cream” and “Today (This Army’s for Peace)” lay everything out on the table from the get-go, standing out as the only tracks in the album that are languid and haunting in their melodies, candidly reflective of the lamenting yet hopeful quality in their words. The former expresses apprehension (“I cover up my head and pray / I’m praying for the light”), while the latter offers comfort (“This army’s for peace / Come out into the light / today”). They lull us into a makeshift vision of the future and provide temporary relief from our dismay toward the current state of the world. They whisper to us that maybe, perhaps, everything will be alright.
Just as the polished sheen of the album art is markedly different from the band’s usual faded and monochrome cover designs, the songs in the record confront change in the modern era. In response, they take on structure without forgoing an experimental flair, providing a certain comfort for their listeners — in knowing what is to come musically, in anticipating the next note, in awaiting the next line, in being transported to a hypnotic, ethereal vision of the future. The album further acts as an introduction to the next phase of Belle and Sebastian’s extensive career. The first part of their newest EP, How to Solve Our Human Problems, was released last month, and it features songs that continue to deal with questions of time and change — such as “Sweet Dew Lee” and “We Were Beautiful.” Indeed, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance ultimately ponders a question that seems to guide the band in the time to come: “Ever Had a Little Faith?”