Belle and Sebastian wants to dance, which might surprise fans of the infamously mopey Glasgow band. But the Nile Rodgers-style guitar lick on “The Party Line,” the lead single from Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, their first album in five years, suggests they had recent radio trends on their minds while in the studio. This isn’t your dad’s disco though, nor is it Daft Punk’s. Frontman Stuart Murdoch uses the genre to his own ends, inserting his usual playfully sardonic worldview into the lyrics. While most dance music traditionally works to unite listeners, Murdoch points out both the conformity of the dance floor and its paradoxical loneliness: “Jump to the beat of the party line/There is no one in here but your body dear.” And the undeniably thrilling beat, not to mention cowbell, makes the commentary go down easy.
All of which is to say that Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is less of a 180 turn than one might expect. Only a few songs fully commit to dance, and they’re among the least convincing anyway. To wit, the seven-minute, relentlessly effervescent “Enter Sylvia Plath,” a tribute to the poet, is marred by dippy lyrics about talking “only in verse”; Murdoch trades lines with violinist Sarah Martin, who also contributes main vocals to “The Power of Three” and “The Book of You.” Martin’s voice is pretty, but somewhat anonymous, and producer Ben H. Allen III’s overuse of reverb and electronic effects only makes both her and Murdoch seem even more remote, in what could pass as a parody of Sally Shapiro’s sullen bedroom-pop.
The album’s best songs fit more comfortably into the B&S canon of Beatles-indebted chamber-pop. The band has been described as “twee” throughout their nearly 20-year career, as if they were toppers on a Wes Anderson wedding cake. (It’s a modifier, it should be noted, that could just as easily apply to, say, “Blackbird” or “Hey Jude.”) But the meticulous instrumentation isn’t merely ornamental, and Murdoch’s words are never poetic for poetry’s sake. “Nobody’s Empire” opens with a simple piano melody and Latin percussion before encompassing guitar and horns, reflecting the progression of the lyrics: Murdoch free-associates images in a narrative about his battle with chronic fatigue syndrome (“I clung to the welcome darkness”) before shifting to a loving tribute to the woman who helped him get better. “Did I do okay, did I pave the way?/Was I strong when you were wanting?” he asks her, in his plainest and most sincere tone. Thematically and musically, the song is complex and layered, and one of Murdoch’s most affecting to date.
From a nod to the “islands divided” on “The Party Line” (a promo photo shows the band members holding newspapers with headlines about the failed Scottish emancipation movement), to an indictment of the careless practices and self-interest that led to the global financial crisis on the quietly devastating “The Cat with the Cream,” Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is the most overtly political B&S album to date. But Murdoch is still most interested in characters and how they react to the world rather than regurgitating liberal talking points, and he hasn’t lost his satirical edge one bit over the years. The jangly rocker “Allie” takes jabs at its self-loathing title character: “When there’s bombs in the Middle East, you want to hurt yourself,” taunts Murdoch, who remains an equal-opportunity offender in his barbs, going after powerful institutions, yoga-exercising yuppies (“Perfect Couples”), and even himself (“The Everlasting Muse”). If dance music doesn’t seem like a good fit for B&S, it’s likely because it requires some level of fantasy, and the band will always, thankfully, tell it like it is.