[23 June 2009]
Stuart Murdoch’s latest project requires some explanation. It’s not a Belle & Sebastian album, but the members of Belle & Sebastian perform on it, and two of the 14 tracks are covers of the group’s songs. Murdoch sings on it, too; but doesn’t take the lead role that he does in his main gig. But just as much as Belle & Sebastian, and as much as the material he’s put out under his own name, God Help the Girl is a Stuart Murdoch project. This album—the first of a planned two from the recording sessions completed so far—is being billed as a “musical narrative”. What this means may be some combination of feature film, documentary, or just a fancy marketing-friendly framing of what is essentially a lovely stand-alone album. In any case, there’s a story.
The original advertisement, placed in the local paper, read “Girl singer needed for autumnal recording project. Must have a way with a tune.” And gave some clues: “Ballpark, Ronettes, Friend and Lover, Twinkle”. To put that in context Friend and Lover were a husband-and-wife folk duo from the ‘60s; the Ronettes were, of course, the seminal girl-group of the ‘60s; Twinkle and Ballpark are too obscure for me. Murdoch’s original idea may have been to create a ‘60s girl group in modern incarnation, but things have thankfully turned out somewhat closer to Murdoch’s own indie-literate sound. Well, when your backing band is Belle & Sebastian, you’re not going to stick to “Be My Baby”.
Murdoch’s music brings a warm familiarity; you often find yourself wondering where you’ve heard his songs before. God Help the Girl isn’t helped in this odd quality by the fact that two of the songs are well-recognized Belle & Sebastian favourites. “Funny Little Frog”, and “Act of the Apostle”, both from The Life Pursuit, are slowed down and jazzed-out here. Their timbre, and the differences from the originals, really defines God Help the Girl. Where we had earlier upbeat indie pop and Murdoch’s brittle tenor, the new versions are more expansive, and more reliant on piano and strings. The switch to female voice is almost revelatory. It clarifies the character, especially on “Act of the Apostle”, in a way that’s completely consistent with the rest of the album.
The characters in Murdoch’s songs are never as straightforward as they first appear—in other words, they’re human. Often, they’ll declare one thing and be shown to embody the opposite; characteristically, this contrast is played for subtle irony instead of existential disillusion. On “God Help the Girl”, surely one of the best pop songs to be written this (or any) year, Catherine Ireton begins “There is no way I’m looking for a boyfriend.” She’s upbeat and contrarian. But it’s all a bluff, because she sits “for hours just waiting for his phone call”. Later, “If You Could Speak” introduces a different character, lovely and lonely but content in a “checkered shirt and a dress”. Like much of Murdoch’s music, the melodies fit like a comfy sweater, pulled down over your hands in front of the fire. Or at least, they conjure up this romantic, pastoral vision. Yes, there’s whistling and fingerclicks. Don’t hate on the form. We fall in love with these melodies because, in a large part, we are caught up in the characters Murdoch’s created for us.
The vividness of these characters bodes well for a future film (if it is made), and hearing these songs in the setting of an indie hipster-musical would surely be something to get excited about. It is true that the songs have more of a musical theatre flavour than Murdoch’s previous work. Call-response duets make up a fair chunk of the album, and Murdoch allows his singers the latitude to warble, occasionally, in that declarative way of musical theatre. “Perfection as a Hipster” trades off lines of romance and rejection; “Pretty Eve in the Tub” swirls back and forth over a light piano quintet.
Over all this gloss, Murdoch’s created a set of perfect pop songs. It’s almost too lovely, but then lovely’s great sometimes too. God Help the Girl, old-fashioned and without artifice though it may be, is supremely welcoming. Its charm—and those tunes!—are likely to make it an album you find yourself returning to, again and again, for the simple joy of listening to it. I really hope God Help the Girl the film gets made, but if it doesn’t, this album and any that follow are more than enough indeed.