Jack Black’s character in the film High Fidelity famously poured scorn on the band, and judging by their new album he would still prefer meathead rock. Rock critic Graeme Thomson’s review of Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, the band’s first under their name in five years, included a line which said if the band broke up, nobody could replace them because nobody does what they do.
Belle and Sebastian have always been a band for music fans; in frontman Stuart Murdoch’s own words, “It was a group of misfits”. In an age where the misfit can have millions of followers on social media, the band will always be out of fashion and yet clutched to the chests of pop fans of a certain sort.
Yet this is their most populist album. The first thing the listener hears is the famous ‘Four Chord Song’ progression four times to introduce Nobody’s Empire. “Laying on my bed”, the first words, remind us of the band’s insularity and ‘indoorsiness’ and focus on childhood. Instrumentation is, as always, surprising and fun; on the opening track, there is a neat syncopation in the melody, and pretty glockenspiel midway through the song. Track two, Allie, starts off like a typical Belle and Sebastian song from 1998, all cute ‘ba-ba’s, before exploding immediately into life, with added flute.
Murdoch has spoken of the seven years he spent with ME as a child, which has resurfaced recently, which means he spends a lot of time indoors wearing headphones. This sort of intimacy is evident on The Cat with the Cream; its gorgeous strings section and steady backbeat underscore a ballad set at a kitchen table. The chords are gorgeous, and it’ll be a heartstopper moment in their live set. Closing track Today (This Army’s For Peace) has a soft shuffle, glorious chord progressions and quiet strings: “Come out into the light” sings both main voices, which is hard not to see as autobiographical. Play For Today is a screenplay set to a hooky synth-pop backing, where the protagonist “hides in attics when the sun is up”, another ME reference.
The band’s last albums have been light on synthesisers – their early albums were so light they could have soundtracked Morris dancers – but here they want, as per the album title, to make people dance. Enter Sylvia Plath is a throbbing synth-led track that puts them in the St Etienne and Pet Shop Boys bracket, building on the poppier The Party Line, a topical song to bring out in an election year even if one lyric asks “if you’re single, going steady”.
The Book of You is a jaunty track with a fuzzy bassline. It includes the album’s best moment, a squealing minute-long guitar wig-out that brings a stompalong song to a full stop. The Everlasting Muse puts the bass line first too, and two minutes in the music takes a surprise turn for the better. It is the best song on a good album, and a shrewd choice of single; the vocal is strong and the ending of the tune is triumphant.
Ever Had a Little Faith? has Murdoch attempting a Lou Reed or Bob Dylan drawl over chords that recall the Velvet Underground classic Sunday Morning. “Something good will happen, wait and see…” continues the hope for the future found in The Power of Three: “Nobody can tell what’s down the road for us” is the satirical line in the latter song, which has some suave, Gallic synths, punchy bass and breathy vocals amongst the numerology.
Long-term fans won’t fall head over heels for this album (we swooned over The Life Pursuit from a decade ago), but it is still a good addition to the Belle and Sebastian canon.