Nearly twenty years after the seminal ‘Tigermilk’, Belle and Sebastian for me became a band perhaps a little too comfortable in their own skin. If twee-indie pop and heartfelt melancholy lyricism is all you desire from your music, then by all means take residency next to a pile of dusty Belle and Sebastian records. But in our eyes it’s just not a sustainable diet. It’s the musical equivalent of chomping away on celery sticks - clean and pure but somewhat lacks substance. Fortunately, as Shuf pressed play on their latest effort (produced by Ben H. Allen III who has worked with Animal Collective and Raury) our concerns that the band would employ the same folk-pop formula washed away. With this politically fronted yet spiritually propelled record, the Glaswegians embrace a well-overdue reinvention. Disco-pop appears to be their chosen avenue.
‘Nobody’s Empire’ marks the beginning of the album with a sincere tale of introversion. Embellished with a delightful piano arpeggio progression and a triumphant brass backing, the track sounds remarkably uplifting considering the sombre subject matter of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that lays at the heart of the song. Lead man Stuart Murdoch confesses this track is one of the ‘most personal’ songs he has ever written and it certainly proves to be a promising start to the record.
The album swiftly transitions in to ‘Allie’, a track written from the perspective of a young woman who attempts to break free from her middle class anomie that appears overwhelmingly detached from global affairs. With the tricks in her head proving to be a lie, Murdoch channels Ray Davies before the band rip in to uncharacteristically raucous guitar solo. However, it is not until ‘The Party Line’ that the album’s disco disguise is revealed. Led by the dictatorial order “jump beat of the party line”, we’re more than happy to oblige as this hip-shaking number feels so right on a 2015 Belle and Sebastian record. It’s a fresh slice of delicate disco that steers clear of sounding brash or contrived. In fact, it feels so innately natural that it makes you wonder why they haven’t made a track like this before.
Following the stomping single, Murdoch and the gang continue to embrace this newly discovered disco/euro-pop tinted sound with ‘The Power of Three’ proving to be an apex moment on the record as it fuses crystallised synth tones with emotive orchestral movements that croon gracefully. ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ also employs this novelty sonic-palette and although it opens with a questionable synth melody that treads a thin line between ‘Pet Shop Boys’ and ‘tacky 70s Eurovision track’, it blossoms in to a solid dance number that oddly captures the legacy of the post-war poet in a dreamy euro-pop soundscape. Like ‘The Party Line’, the dance-inducing tale of relationship envy ‘Perfect Couples’ also nails the fresh Belle and Sebastian sound that we were yearning for. Lined with a tropical marimba melody, percussive pops and a nonchalant vocal line, it harnesses a Toro Y Moi sound which is no surprise considering Chaz Bundick’s feature on their 2012 Late Night Tales mix.
Whilst ‘The Everlasting Muse’ (with its klezmorim chorus) and comfort zone track ‘Ever Had A Little Faith?’ prove that their willingness to embrace the new is still punctuated by reluctance, the band appear to be reinvigorated. Consistency was so key in their success but there’s no doubt that this convention had an expiry date. Whilst ‘Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance’ may leave some fans weeping and returning to their Belle and Sebastian back catalogue, it's left Shuf with a newfound sense of anticipation as Murdoch and the gang finally begin to fully embrace an ‘Electronic Renaissance’.
Words: George Hemmati