God Help the Girl
God Help the Girl
If you’ve heard anything about God Help the Girl, the latest project from Belle & Sebastian main man Stuart Murdoch, you know that he doesn’t sing much on it. In a somewhat unorthodox move, he held a kind of talent search and cast three female singers, two American and one Irish. Belle & Sebastian fans need not despair, as the album feels and sounds like a B&S album, albeit with mostly female vocalists. Conceived as a multi-media project, with a website and a planned film, God Help the Girl is a collaborative effort, the Scottish indie equivalent of those hip-hop albums that feature about 20 different people. Aside from the newcomers, there are members of B&S, Asya from teen popsters Smoosh, and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. Though the girls have gotten most of the press, for some of us the collaboration between Hannon and Murdoch is a dream pairing of indie pop royalty.
B&S have steadily, if slowly, evolved from twee, shy, bedroom indie to more confident, full-bodied pop. Their last two albums – The Life Pursuit and Dear Catastrophe Waitress – found them embracing strings, horns, bigger hooks and polished production, as well as seeming altogether more assured about touring and giving interviews. Such confidence and savvy pop instincts are also present on God Help the Girl.
Since it is meant to be a film, there are characters and a loose narrative about a girl named Eve, music and God; there’s a self-aware quality in lines like “I pick the soundtrack with immaculate care.” From the outset, B&S had a cinematic streak, from their album covers, which look like film stills, to song titles (“Like Dylan in the Movies”} to Murdoch’s knack for writing character-driven songs. I always thought they’d be a great band to soundtrack a remake of the 1960s British classic Billy Liar, and the video for the lovely single “Come Monday Morning” has a very British New Wave feel, albeit with less kitchen sink.
In an interview, Murdoch spoke about how he conceived of these songs with female singers and strings and how he would have liked to have been a 1960s songwriter who wrote songs for different singers. Here he seems to be channeling all manner of that decade’s touchstones, from Burt Bacharach to movie soundtracks to ye-ye to Phil Spector to Motown to blue eyed soul. Musically, it’s some of the richest music of his career. Although there are numerous singers, his keen observations and sardonic humor come through to give the album coherence.
Irish singer Catherine Ireton, who sings the lead character, is the strongest presence on the album and her clear, full, sweet voice carries much of it, from the opening song “Act of the Apostle” (also recorded by B&S), which has warm strings and a mild musical hall sway, to the simple, lazy summer feeling of “If You Could Speak,” replete with handclaps and whistles. Few male songwriters can write from a female point of view as sympathetically as Murdoch and it’s a logical step for him to hand over vocal duties to women. Ironically, the album’s weakest track, “Pretty Eve in the Tub,” is one of the few Murdoch sings lead on and is a rather dainty song, burdened by precious drawing rooms strings. It is a pleasure to hear the woefully underrated Hannon’s velvety, theatrical voice on the wry, girl group-like “Perfection as a Hipster,” though it’s disappointing that he only appears on one track.
Regardless of whether a film follows (too bad they can’t get a 1960s Julie Christie), God Help the Girl is one of the year’s most melodic, smartest and charming pop albums, an impressive, winning collaboration and a confirmation of Murdoch as one of his generation’s best songwriters.
by Lukas Sherman