Music often speaks in code. It means less as time goes by (and gigabytes multiply), but in the age when possession equates to intent, a glance through an album collection sketches an image, however unfair, of its owner. By that measure, the avowed listener of Scottish pop group Belle and Sebastian was a stereotype with some teeth: bookish, sweater-bedecked and, above all, “sensitive.”
Bands change, and so too, does taste. For nearly the past two decades, Stuart Murdoch and his cohort have followed their whims, from quiet ’60s folk to glam-lite rock, to their benefit and ours. “Girls …” is their ninth album and first in five years, and marks yet another minor iteration away from the fey sounds of their mid-’90s youth, this time to the disposable pleasures of disco.
Featuring new producer Ben H. Allen (Animal Collective, Cut Copy), the album (whose very title speaks to temporary frivolity) has the air of a rejuvenating experiment rather than a substantive new direction, but there is more than enough familiarity to please.
Beginning with the nakedly personal “Nobody’s Empire,” about a period of formative illness suffered in Murdoch’s university days, there is a delicate synthesizer sheen to accompany the notable depth.
After “Allie,” a more brazen take on classic B&S, the wispy disco of “The Party Line” fades in, but even this straightforward thump is studded with poetic asides, as when Murdoch “steps off into the dark.”
The elegiac dreaminess of “The Cat with the Cream” shows a middle-aged patience, but the dance floor beckons for “Enter Sylvia Plath,” an arpeggiated anthem that recalls the great track “Blind” by Hercules & Love Affair. This newfound interest in rhythm surfaces once more in the hypnotic, “Sinnerman” pulse of “Perfect Couples,” which is the least like the band of old.
But in the end, the hairstyles might be sleek and new, but it’s the same lovable lonelyhearts below.