Belle and Sebastian’s audience divides into two camps. From 1996, with the 1,000-copy release of “Tigermilk”, Stuart Murdoch’s softly sung stories travelled by word of mouth and on bootlegs passed between fervent fans. Murdoch found magic in minor characters, shining a sharp light on beautiful school athletes who grew into sad City boys, or sneaky priests who recycled their flock’s confessions in trashy novels. Early converts struggled to discern much about Murdoch himself, as he hid away in a caretaker’s flat above a church in Glasgow and wrestled with chronic fatigue. A shift came around the turn of the millennium and was cemented when Belle and Sebastian signed with Rough Trade in 2002. Pop producers were wheeled in, arrangements polished. The new direction hinted at an ego at work, and not in a bad way: sensing his chance, Murdoch aimed for big stages and a younger set of fans who had heard the band mentioned in indie films like “500 Days of Summer” and “Juno”.
Almost 20 years on from “Tigermilk”, the new Belle and Sebastian album “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance” feels like the work of a different band altogether. (Which is not so far from the truth: two early members, Isobel Campbell and Stuart David, left around the time of the Rough Trade deal.) On “Nobody’s Empire”, Murdoch sings for the first time about falling ill—“I clung to the bed and I clung to the past”—and the faith healer who started his recovery, as trumpet fanfares and gospel choirs crescendo to a finale. A four-to-the-floor rhythm runs through new experiments in disco on “The Party Line” and Europop on “The Power of Three”, which could have been written by Abba. These are wide-angled songs with a whiff of newsprint, speaking of “bombs in the Middle East” (“Allie”) and people who “bet on the boom and got busted” (“The Cat with the Cream”). Whether this will win over the old fans remains to be seen. Spot them loitering at the back, waiting for the cult hits, while Murdoch pushes on, pleasing their kids with his glossy big-hearted pop. ~ Hazel Sheffield
Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance Matador Records, Jan 19th (Europe), Jan 20th (North America)
Belle and Sebastian on tour North America, March 30th to April 3rd; Europe, May 3rd to May 25th
ROCK AT A GLANCE
Paul Simon and Sting (touring Australasia, Jan 30th to Feb 22nd; Europe, Mar 12th to Apr 18th). Not the most obvious couple: asked what they had in common, Simon had to resort to the fact that both had written reggae songs. He could have added that both have had spats with their original comrades. But, by all accounts, the pairing works. They split a 160-minute show into nine segments, doing two each solo and five together. If Simon has the greater oeuvre, Sting has the stronger presence. Simon sings lead on “Fragile” and lets Sting have a crack at “Bridge over Troubled Water”.
Royal Blood (touring Europe, Dec 19th to Jan 17th; Asia and Australasia, Jan 21st to Feb 8th; Europe, Feb 22nd to Mar 23rd). Two boys from Brighton who have decided that a hard-rock band can be boiled down to bass, drums and a Jack White yelp.
FKA twigs (touring Singapore and Australasia, Jan 24th to Feb 8th; Europe, Feb 19th to Mar 6th). Tahliah Barnett is a dancer-turned-singer who has found fame on two different levels. The broadsheets admire her spiky electro-pop, while the tabloids only have eyes for her romance with Robert Pattinson.
Philip Selway (touring Europe, Feb 2nd-14th). On his first solo album, Radiohead’s drummer wrote and sang engaging folk songs; with his second, he moves on to silky adult pop.
The Staves (album, Feb 2nd). With Justin Vernon of Bon Iver producing, the Staveley-Taylor sisters’ second album, “If I Was”, could be even better than their beguiling debut. ~ TIM DE LISLE