[21 August 2005]
Oh, I’ll settle down with some old story about a boy who’s just like me.
—Belle and Sebastian, “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”
Like many Belle and Sebastian fans, I often wondered about its frontman, Stuart Murdoch. Having first fallen for his lilting tenor back at university, I imagined him a bit like myself: a bookish, urbane kid who played football and was looking for love (in mostly the wrong places). I was immediately hooked by his lyrical phrasing, and, as time passed, my interest in the man only grew. Now, eight years and six albums later, despite fronting one of indie-pop’s most beloved ensembles, Murdoch, to many, remains more myth than man. Only with the release of Paul Whitelaw’s Belle and Sebastian: Just A Modern Rock Story, a collaborative biography of the band, do we finally have some answers.
Since their inception in 1996, Belle and Sebastian have lived a curious existence. Driven by Murdoch’s talent for melody, Belle and Sebastian rose quickly from music class project to cult-pop phenomenon. But famously frustrated by a series of dim interviews after the release of their first CD, Tigermilk, Murdoch imposed a media embargo in 1997, leaving the band only to communicate with fans through songs, liner notes, and a rambling online diary. It was not until the release of Dear Catastrophe Waitress in 2003 that the band first engaged in a real press campaign, released singles, or appeared together on an album sleeve. Just A Modern Rock Story marks the first release of an account chronicling the years lost to the silent treatment and beyond.
Of course the timing is not incidental. Recently the band has gone through a media renaissance of sorts, releasing the Fans Only DVD and a stunning two-disc collection of their previously recorded EPs and singles. So when approached in late 2004 with the prospect of penning the first record of Scotland’s most bewitching band, self-avowed “Belle and Sebastian apostle” and music editor at the UK daily Metro, Paul Whitelaw, grabbed the opportunity. Using original interviews collected over six months, photographs taken by the band, and a gorgeous autumnal cover designed by Murdoch himself, Just A Modern Rock Story is the definitive, if frustrating, biography of Belle and Sebastian for fans and non-fans alike. It’s not your ordinary rock biography. Where other biographers might thrust their characters under a microscope and examine their complexities, Whitelaw opts for a wide-lens approach. He opens the book with chapters devoted to introducing each of the band’s founding members, and in so doing captures the mis-en-scene of the full group. But amidst the panorama, he exposes little. Tracing only their personal and musical trajectories he answers many questions, but never delves below the surface. The book begins to feel like a product of Whitelaw’s personal fandom and respect for privacy as he reveals few details about the band members’ personal lives instead focusing on rebuttals of perceived misconceptions of them.
In the great lengths he goes to dispel the myths that Belle and Sebastian is much more than just a doe-eyed indie-pop ensemble he tests the limits of absurdity. Did you ever consider Belle and Sebastian punk? Probably not. Will you after reading Just A Modern Rock Story? Probably not, although Whitelaw would like you to. Does playing football, drinking beer, and almost naming an album Cock Fun really mean Stuart Murdoch is punk? Well, if so, count me out. Refusing to concede that Belle and Sebastian may in fact be a bit twee (and the word is noticeably absent from large sections of the book) is in itself quite cunning—and it is precisely this charming, self-effacing style that keeps his exaggerations wholly enjoyable. But it is altogether unconvincing. Not only does Whitelaw provide Murdoch et al., a pulpit of sorts to preach their side of the tale, he unabashedly joins the choir.
And that is the only the start. Whitelaw spends the second act of the book narrating the rise of Belle and Sebastian on the merits of their first full-length album, Tigermilk, and it is here where he shines. With the intimacy of a true fan and the validity of a music critic, he weaves the fascinating story behind its release and the band’s response to their newfound critical acclaim, including the only known correspondence between Murdoch and Morrissey, doppelgangers as they may be. His obvious studying of every word and the timbre of each note allows him to create some of the most enjoyable passages in the book by intertwining Murdoch’s lyrics with reflections on the band. The reader will learn something in these moments, laugh aloud, and want to listen again like it was the very first time. He continues by addressing each subsequent release directly, his words reading like an intimate director’s commentary to the self-created soundtrack of their lives. As he takes the reader on the exhaustive song-by-song journey through their back catalog and personal lives you will be compelled to cue up the tracks and listen along, embracing the broader view of the band you already loved.
However there is a conspicuous shift in tone as Whitelaw discusses Belle and Sebastian’s flawed third and fourth albums, The Boy With The Arab Strap and Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant. Where the book excels in providing an account of the music, it struggles a bit in dealing with the relationships that lie beneath. It is clear that Whitelaw and the band (and virtually everyone else) felt that they “were treading water” with these releases, but there is little exploration of how it truly affected them. Too many quotes go unquestioned; too few people are interviewed, and too little is really learned. Such is also the case with Murdoch (not Sebastian) and Isobel (not Belle). There are plenty allusions to some of the infamously rumored struggles between the two bandmates, but scant insight to the true depth of what was clearly a complicated companionship. While there certainly could be more—and perhaps someday there will be—for a retrospective account of a vibrant group of musicians with at least one classic album, Just A Modern Rock Story is exactly that.