Growing up, I considered myself a thoroughgoing introvert. And why shouldn’t I be? I was bookish, shy, with a strong intellectual and artistic bent and a revulsion of loud parties. Most of my adolescence was spent reading classic novels, listening to classic pop records, and pining over unattainable girls. (No wonder I fell in love with Belle & Sebastian the minute I heard them back in 2006.) As I’ve grown older, however, while I still revel in long walks in the woods and late-night headphone listening sessions, I’ve come to realize I never particularly enjoyed all that time alone as a teenager. Much of the time, it didn’t re-energize me; it was simply the only thing I knew how to do in the face of crippling social anxiety. Now that the anxiety is a little more under control, though, getting out to the clubs sounds a lot less abhorrent. I wouldn’t say I’m a full-blown extrovert, but I’m decidedly more extroverted than I initially realized.
It would seem that, sometime in the nearly two decades since Tigermilk (1996), Belle & Sebastian came to the same self-realization. Born out of Stuart Murdoch’s battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Belle & Sebastian had always assumed they were staunch introverts, sketching inward-looking characters so fragile and lovely, they sounded as though might float away on a afternoon breeze. But beginning with 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the band’s (that is to say, Murdoch’s) extroverted side has come more and more to the fore. The gauzy, gorgeous chamber pop with which they made their name was now augmented by punchy horns, booming drums, and dueling guitar leads, opening the door to the stomping glam-isms of The Life Pursuit and lush girl-group pop of God Help the Girl. Judy and her dream of horses hadn’t vanished, not by any means; she just had to share the stage now with Thin Lizzy-listening cuckoos and white collar boys.
Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015), perhaps more explicitly than any Belle & Sebastian record before it, lives and moves and has its being in the space between Stuart Murdoch’s long-established shrinking violet persona and his long-submerged inner extrovert. “Allie” tells the story of one of Murdoch’s classic female protagonists, fretting over news reports of violence in the Middle East while she lives her day-to-day life wrapped up in books. But instead of setting Allie’s inner turmoil to acoustic guitars and gentle strings, the band turns in one of the most propulsive rock n’ roll performances of their career. Meanwhile, “The Cat with the Cream” features a lush, insistent string arrangement, over which Murdoch delivers lines like “How I wish you’d read to me/Verses rich in swallows and trees” with quintessential feyness. But then the lyrics take a turn toward the political:
Everybody bet on the boom
And got busted
And in the government trusted
Grubby little red MP
Yellow flapping hopelessly
And then there’s “The Party Line,” which displaces “Your Cover’s Blown” as the closest thing to straight-ahead disco in the B&S songbook. Or the ABBA-meets-Pet-Shop-Boys dance-pop of “Enter Sylvia Plath” – but there, the title gives it away! Because if you just read the lyrics, about a young man who becomes infatuated with the eponymous poet, you would expect a musical backing nearer to “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” than “Go West.”
Certainly, if you asked me what I was anticipating from Belle & Sebastian’s new record, I wouldn’t have said that. And to be honest, it’s not entirely successful – the subject matter and its musical treatment are simply too strange as bedfellows. But if you go back to Tigermilk, their very first record, “Electronic Renaissance” was right there, a synthesizer-laden patch on a well-worn baroque pop jacket. Extroverted dance-pop has always been a part of Stuart Murdoch’s musical personality. It’s just that, as he’s matured as a songwriter and as a person, he seems to have grown more comfortable expressing that side of himself.
Ultimately, it was music that empowered Murdoch to engage in that self-expression and survive his battles with CFS. It’s been a constant theme in his work, from the girl who made life-size models of the Velvet Underground in “Expectations” to the story of Eve’s redemption-by-pop in God Help the Girl. And above all things, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is a valentine to music, its power to inspire and enchant, to bridge the gap between our inner and outer worlds. “Be popular, play pop, and you will win, my love,” Murdoch’s muse counsels him coyly on “The Everlasting Muse.” It is music, music pouring through headphones on a rainy day, that gives hope to the protagonist of “Ever Had a Little Faith?”: “Something good’ll happen, wait and see… You will flourish like a rose in June.”
Nowhere are the salvific potentialities of pop music more fully realized than “Nobody’s Empire.” It is, by Stuart’s own admission, the first time he has explicitly tackled his struggles with CFS in song, even though those struggles have long been his unspoken artistic touchstone:
Lying on my bed I was reading French
With the light too bright for my senses
From this hiding place
Life was way too much
It was loud and rough round the edges…
There was a girl that sang
Like the chime of a bell
She put out her arm
And she touched me when I was in hell
Someone sang a song and I sang along
Cause I knew the words from my childhood
Intellect, ambition, they fell away
They locked me up for my own good
Time and distance have enabled him to set this incredibly personal narrative to music that is brighter, bolder, “poppier” than any of those early records, themselves conceived in the midst of and in response to the “hell” described here. But it loses none of its intimate power for that. It is, quite simply, one of the finest songs Stuart Murdoch has ever written, the sound of a man seeking to integrate his personality, to craft an identity for himself here and now, that simultaneously honors his past as well as his present, his inner as well as his outer world.
In this regard, “Nobody’s Empire” achieves what Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance as a whole does not. The record tends to veer between intro- and extroversion rather than dwelling fully in either or achieving integrative balance. To say that it is an imperfect document is not necessarily a criticism, however. Identity (re)formation is always imperfect, always messy. But through the messiness, we still have the magic of pop music, beckoning us to “leave that vision of hell to the dying” and, as album closer “Today (This Army’s for Peace)” would have it, “come out into the light.” Amen to that.
- Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (trevorzaple.wordpress.com)
- Live Review: Belle and Sebastian at Santa Monica’s Apogee Studio (1/20) (www.consequenceofsound.net)
- Belle & Sebastian Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance Album Review (www.evigshed.com)
- Belle and Sebastian – The Party Line (immersedincoolmusic.wordpress.com)
- Belle and Sebastian – The Cat with the Cream (www.blackonthecanvas.com)