First off, an explanation: if you didn’t know by now, God Help the Girl, the debut album by God Help the Girl, is in fact the latest album by Stuart Murdoch, figurehead of indiepop heroes Belle and Sebastian. Envisioned as part of the soundtrack to an as-yet unfinished film (with further releases to apparently follow), the album is a strange and bold move for Murdoch, who is fresh from The Life Pursuit, Belle and Sebastian’s most successful album to date. Producing the album himself, and collaborating with outside vocalists for the first time since 1996’s imperial ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’, Murdoch’s story follows Eve, fresh out of a mental institute, in her quest to assimilate herself back into the world at large, discover pop music and find a boyfriend. Although different vocalists are on hand to represent the different characters, the songs themselves don’t make the plotline particularly clear, and most likely, don’t tell the whole tale (perhaps the sleevenotes that come with the finished album will make everything more explicit); however, they still contain most of the recognisable tropes of Stuart’s best material, and make for a very intriguing listen indeed.
Daringly, the album opens with one of its two revisits of older Belle and Sebastian tracks, ‘Act of the Apostle’; rather than part one, which kicked The Life Pursuit into full technicolour pop gear, here, the track is more of a gentle introduction, peppered with some classy brass arrangements and beautifully cooed backing vocals. It also introduces the listener to the vocal talents Catherine Ireton, who sings the majority of the album’s tracks; chosen during the audition process for Murdoch’s girl group, though a long-time friend of Murdoch’s, Ireton’s relaxed tone expresses Eve’s anxieties and doubts perfectly. Unfortunately, the other B&S track to make an appearance here, ‘Funny Little Frog’ is far less successful; slowing down the original to a lumpen funk, contest winner Brittany Stallings’ vocals are as overripe as Ireton’s are mellow, with the whole affair sounding more like an X Factor audition than the spry indiepop of the original.
In between these two tracks, the album’s first side seems to have been constructed purely to set the scene; the lyrically pervy ‘Pretty Eve in the Tub’ (“Please allow me to rub, please allow me to scrub”) is saved by its charming harmonies, as is the swoonsome chorus of ‘Hiding Neath My Umbrella’, but nothing else really leaves any lasting impression. The only real exception is the album’s title track from which the entire album’s concept sprang; for such a career-altering track, it doesn’t seem to deviate too far from Murdoch’s usual musical fare, coloured by an expansive strings arrangement and Stevie Jackson’s unmistakeably deft Telecaster jangle. Its lyrics, however, outline Eve’s sense of hopelessness and confusion back in the real world (“You’ve all been warned – I’m born to be contrary”), and allow Murdoch to show off his unique ability to write for female characters without having to give them his own voice.
Side two is where God Help the Girl really picks up as an album, rather than a character study. ‘Musician, Please Take Heed’, the album’s most dynamic moment is laced with Scott Walker-esque orchestral flourishes (crashing cymbals! Tubular bells!), and its sense of drama certainly befits its place on the soundtrack. Likewise, the album’s most girl-group style song is, amusingly, not sung by any of the album’s assorted female cast at all, but The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, cast as Anton, the man who leads Eve astray; opening with the classic ‘Be My Baby’ drumbeat, ‘Perfection as a Hipster’ suits Hannon down to a tee, with the girly call and response backing vocals (“I wouldn’t waste time dreaming about me…”) mixing in perfectly with his wry croon.
Meanwhile, what may be the album’s best track also happens to be the most atypical thing Stuart has written since the deep soul of 2000’s ‘Don’t Leave the Light On Baby’ (which this writer considers the B&S’s best song to date). Built on spiralling guitars, again courtesy of B&S guitarist Stevie Jackson, the sparse waltz of ‘I Just Want Your Jeans’ seems to focus on a friend of Eve’s, who has herself just left the asylum. The lyrics follow the same concerns as the title track (“For an hour in the park, or an hour on the couch/The boy of my choice always makes me go ‘Ouch!’”) but, coming from the delicate pipes of Asya from Smoosh, the effect seems even more fragile and – especially coming before ‘I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie’, an absolutely classic Murdoch floorfiller – sounds as out of place as the song’s character must do back in society at large. It works perfectly.
God Help the Girl is, at best, a fascinating mixed bag, and at worst, the most inconsistent record Stuart Murdoch has been involved in since his other foray into soundtracks work, 2002’s Storytelling. Like that record, there are inconsequential instrumental interludes and meta-narratives galore (just compare “Musician…”, a plea from a frustrated fan to her musical heroes, with “Big John Shaft”, a plea from a frustrated director to his dwindling audience). However, just as with Storytelling, the album’s various mis-steps only serve to make its best moments leap out of the speakers. So while it’s hardly flawless, there remains a lot here to love; and for those fans who still aren’t entirely convinced (God help you), if nothing else, there’s still the exciting prospect of a Stuart Murdoch-penned film to look forward to in the future.