God Help the Girl: God Help the Girl

Belle & Sebastian mastermind Stuart Murdoch's latest project is as likeable as anything he's done.

God Help the Girl

God Help the Girl

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2009-06-23
UK Release Date: 2009-06-22

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

Award-winning folk artist Karine Polwart showcases humankind's innate link to the natural world in her spellbinding new music video.

One of the breakthrough folk artists of our time, Karine Polwart's work is often related to the innate connection that humanity has to the natural world. Her latest album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance, is largely reliant on these themes, having come about after Polwart observed the nature of a pink-footed geese migration and how it could be related to humankind's intrinsic dependency on one another.

Keep reading... Show less

Victory Is Never Assured in ‘Darkest Hour’

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017) (Photo by Jack English - © 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / IMDB)

Joe Wright's sharp and only occasionally sentimental snapshot of Churchill in extremis as the Nazi juggernaut looms serves as a handy political strategy companion piece to the more abstracted combat narrative of Dunkirk.

By the time a true legend has been shellacked into history, almost the only way for art to restore some sense of its drama is to return to the moment and treat it as though the outcome were not a foregone conclusion. That's in large part how Christopher Nolan's steely modernist summer combat epic Dunkirk managed to sustain tension; that, and the unfortunate yet dependable historical illiteracy of much of the moviegoing public.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.