A story set to music (apparently)

Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch has always specialized in vivid character portraits. His songs depict social outcasts—Judy, Lisa, Antony—who shun religion, seeking comfort in medication, sexuality or music. But despite his knack for characterization, Murdoch’s songs have rarely been narrative; rather, they are fragments, full of rich detail but lacking structure or progression.

God Help the Girl changes that, slotting Murdoch’s songs into an album-long narrative. Theoretically, at least, since it isn’t always clear what the story’s actually about. The liner notes help to illuminate the main character, Eve, but don’t sufficiently explain how all of the tunes fit together, nor provide any insight into the album’s secondary characters. The characters are voiced by a variety of hired guns, and Murdoch himself plays the role of James, singing on two of the album’s 14 tracks. Backing instrumentation is provided by members of Belle & Sebastian, as well as a full orchestra.

The best moments on God Help the Girl are those that sound closest to typical Belle & Sebastian. The title track could have fit nicely on The Life Pursuit, and describes a character—Eve, the titular “Girl”—who is more or less interchangeable with Judy (from “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” as well as other songs). The song describes Eve’s descent into reclusive depression, but it’s propelled by a buoyant melody and plenty of witty lyrical jabs: “You have been warned I’m born to be contrary / Back when at school I wrote from right to left”.

Unfortunately, not all of God Help the Girl is able capture the same magic as the title track. The album is hampered by its vocalists, most of whom are unable to convey the fragility of their characters. Eve is voiced by newcomer Catherine Ireton, whose powerful performance isn’t quite fitting for her wounded character. Listening to her sing a song like “Act of the Apostle” (a recycled version of “Act of the Apostle II” from The Life Pursuit) is a bit like listening to Joss Stone‘s cover of “Fell in Love with a Girl”—sure, it’s an impressive performance, but why bother when the original songwriter does such a better job? For this reason, the best fit (apart from Murdoch himself) is Asya of the teenage trio Smoosh, whose gently lisping vocals make her perfect for the role of Eve’s friend Cassie; her contribution to the countrified waltz “I Just Want Your Jeans” is one of the collection’s highlights.

The album is also hampered by a few clunky lyrics that seem more like vehicles for the story than effective stand-alone songs. “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” is clearly intended to be played during a nightclub scene, and it comes off as an over-literal play-by-play of events: “Shuffle to the left / I kick the boy behind / To make a little room / Boogie to the right.” The movie version of God Help the Girl is due to start shooting next year, so perhaps tunes such as this will work better in film.

Ultimately, God Help the Girl is a pleasant diversion for Belle & Sebastian fans, but the overall effect is similar to that of 2000′s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant: a few moments of brilliance interspersed with disappointing experiments and awkward vocals. Hopefully the planned movie version doesn’t distract Murdoch too much from getting to work on the next B&S album.
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  1. By Any Murdoch is better than no Murdoch on October 25, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    [...] seeking comfort in an array of supporting characters (each voiced by a different singer). As I discussed a few months ago, it’s an intriguing listen, but lacks the same personality that Murdoch has [...]

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