It's a given that Belle and Sebastian may never fully escape the twee-pop reputation that's followed them for nearly two decades. But the Glasgow band's latest album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, is a decidedly chimey and uplifting affair, especially on colorful musings like "Allie," "The Cat With the Cream," "Ever Had a Little Faith?" and the Pet Shop Boys-ish "Enter Sylvia Plath."
And during the quirky art-pop combo's upcoming Red Rocks show on June 17, those songs will benefit from an added lushness courtesy of the Denver Symphony, whose accompaniment should make the newest material fit seamlessly alongsidepast catalog favorites.
One track that does stand apart from previous outings is the unabashedly autobiographical opening track, "Nobody's Empire," which finds bandleader Stuart Murdoch reminiscing about a debilitating disorder with diary-like honesty: "From this hiding place, life was way too much," he sings with an oddly summery lilt. "They took me to a place where they checked my body, my soul was floating in thin air."
What inspired the singer to look back on a youth sidelined by chronic fatigue syndrome for seven unproductive years?
"Well, the curious thing is, actually, that time was good for me, now that I look back on it," says Murdoch with a good-natured laugh. "After 20 years or so, the memories don't feel so bad anymore. So even though they may SEEM like bad things, the things that I went through were more like an adventure that shaped me. So I think songwriting sometimes has a way of becoming a fable, and a fable is often quite scary, like in kids' stories."
In the beginning, Murdoch tried to describe the symptoms he was experiencing to the people around him, but his tired and listless condition wasn't taken seriously.
"I wasn't believed as a kid at school," he recalls. "That's where my individualism and stubbornness was born. And it was a defiance that I carried forth in my fledgling band."
These days, though, Murdoch is exceedingly productive. In fact, he wrote and directed his first feature film, which premiered at last year's Sundance. God Help the Girl, which concerns a local band that makes good but then implodes, stars Emily Browning singing Murdoch's original compositions.
"This character just came alive inside my head, and she just stayed there," Murdoch says. "And the character inspired me to write songs for her, and eventually, the other two characters came into my mind, as well. So I started writing dialogue for THEM, and I never really looked back."
The aspiring female protagonist represents the naïve optimism of youth, he reckons. "She's represented as somebody I perhaps wanted to be," he says. "I wanted to write something really hopeful."
Murdoch never intended to get so serious, he says. But he recently had a slight relapse of his illness, which got him thinking deeper thoughts. But he now sees a light at the end of a once-dim tunnel.
"Basically, you're forced to withdraw from life, because you have no energy, so you have to be careful about how you spend your time," he sighs. "But I got out of it before, and I'll have to find a way out of it again. It's given me a whole new sense of empathy that I've never had."