I’ve been obsessively listening to the new Belle & Sebastian album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. It’s strange the way I’ve been listening to it. I keep telling myself that it’s actually not so good and then keep pressing play again and again.
There’s a kind of story I tell myself about the album. I have no idea if this story has any relation to reality or is simply pure projection. The story is that it’s an album made by artists overly conscious that their best work is long behind them, who are contemplating what it now means to continue making work when you find yourself in this particular situation, how to keep pushing oneself now that the initial rush of youth and inspiration is long gone. This probably says much more about me than it does about Belle & Sebastian, as Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance has become a kind of stand in for me for the kinds of artistic question I’ve been asking myself for (at least) the past twenty years.
There are a few lines in the song Allie that always hit me pretty hard: “You made a list of all your heroes / And you thought about what they went through / Yeah, you thought about what they went through / It's much darker, much harder, than anything that happened to you…”
And then I was thinking about when I first started listening to Belle & Sebastian. It was most likely 1996, the year If You’re Feeling Sinister came out. They were starting out and I was also starting out. I think about the other bands I listened back then: Pavement, Palace Brothers, Smog, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Silver Jews, Jim O'Rourke, Pulp, Squarepusher. Probably so many others I can’t remember at the moment (it's almost twenty years ago now.) And Belle & Sebastian is the only one I’m still listening to, or at least still listening to their more recent material. Actually, I stopped listening to them for about ten years and just came back to them this past summer. So maybe I’ll come back to some of the other stuff sooner or later as well. (I do really like that Bill Callahan song Riding for the Feeling.)
But I feel there’s something in the way Belle & Sebastian have reinvented themselves starting with 2010’s Write About Love. A way of re-inventing themselves that (for me) admits they’re never going to be as good as they were when they started, but that it’s still possible to do something now, and this something has to do with taking as much time as possible to make each record, with quality control, and with using all of the available resources to make the kind of real start-to-finish albums that perhaps people aren’t making anymore. And yet I still can’t help but feel Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance isn’t actually that good, which is another way of experiencing my constant anxiety that my own work is not as good as it used to be, or won’t be as good in the future as what I'm currently doing now.
Something else: many of the songs speak of Stuart Murdoch’s younger experiences with chronic fatigue syndrome and I had similar experiences, perhaps during the exact same years he did.
Then I read the review in Pitchfork and there was this passage that made me almost angry:
A flippant comment to Pitchfork about how listeners would rather lose themselves in Nina Simone than Beyoncé shows not just a flagrant misunderstanding of how people listen to Beyoncé, but to the artists they love. He means well, but it faintly stinks of snobbery that's gotten other indie acts in trouble when they've tried to explain their theory of pop with, well, a lot of theory. Tom Krell of How to Dress Well raised hackles when he told Pitchfork he wanted to be "pop, but not populist." But what's wrong with trying to appeal to as many people as possible?What Stuart Murdoch actually said was:
I don’t hear that kind of honesty so much in pop nowadays, because it’s so processed. When I used to listen to records in the '80s as a teenager—by Morrissey or the Slits or the Raincoats—they were singing to you and telling you stuff about life you didn’t know. It was in the lyrics and it was in the feeling. I don’t mean to sound like an old fuddy duddy, but when you have your headphones on and you’re away for a long walk on the countryside, you want to be controlled by Nina Simone—you don’t want to be controlled so much by Beyoncé.So really I just want to say that I feel there is something wrong with ‘trying to appeal to as many people as possible’ if it’s an end in itself, if it takes over. And if you don’t know the difference between Nina Simone and Beyoncé, between what they represent, than something has really gone wrong with the current state of criticism. They are like different worlds and we need different worlds, now more than ever. I have absolute nothing against Beyoncé, I like listening to Beyoncé (as I’ve previous tweeted I really like that part in Drunk in Love where she sings surfboard several times in a row.) But there is a kind of soul, depth, resistance, rebellion and all-too-human fucked-upness in Nina Simone that I hope can still exist today.
I don’t know if there is nearly enough soul, depth, resistance, rebellion or fucked-upness in Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, but perhaps it’s an album made by people who know what they are missing yet continue trying to get there anyway. Which is the least any of us can do.