Belle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian’s Gentle and Unsettling Outsider Pop

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 01.22.15 in Features

At the beginning of God Help the Girl, the film written and directed by Belle and Sebastian‘s Stuart Murdoch, our despondent but undaunted protagonist Eve gets out of bed, jumps out the window at the psych hospital where she’s being treated for anorexia, and immediately starts to sing. “I’m bored out of my mind, too sick to even care,” she sighs into the camera as a musical accompaniment that fuses folk, light jazz and Broadway show tunes swells around her. Whimsical in tone if not always in subject, God Help the Girl follows the rhythms and logic of mid 20th-century Hollywood: Attractive young people burst into song every few minutes; there’s dancing, bright colors, witty repartee and, of course, romance. By the end of the song, “Act of the Apostle,” Eve has boarded a train to Glasgow and created a new personality for herself as a math scholar. Eventually, she ends up in a nightclub, where she hopes to engage with the glamor of pop music. But because the film is masterminded by Murdoch — rock poet laureate of the estranged — and not Stanley Donen, darkness soon clouds Eve’s dreams.

That same juxtaposition of optimism and despair runs throughout Belle and Sebastian’s catalog. This isn’t coincidental: Like his Girl heroine, Murdoch also struggled with debilitating illness. While at the University of Glasgow, the budding musician was struck with myalgic encephalomyelitis, more commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. School was put on hold; unable to fully interact with people, Murdoch retreated into a fantasy life documented in the songs he wrote to fill the void. After years of isolation, he and bassist Stuart David recorded a few demos at Glasgow’s Stow College; those few songs eventually grew to become an entire album, Tigermilk, which was initially released as a final project for Belle and Sebastian drummer Richard Colburn’s music business class. Five months later, Murdoch released the ensemble’s first internationally distributed album, If You’re Feeling Sinister.

On Sinister‘s wry opening cut “The Stars of Track and Field,” Murdoch positioned himself squarely on the sidelines as he documented the enviable lives of sporty extroverts. “You liberated a boy I never rated,” he notes, “and now he’s throwing discus for Liverpool and Widnes.” A work of observant wonder, delivered with almost religious seriousness and tempered by rhyming drollery, Sinister introduced the world to Belle and Sebastian’s highly particular bathos. Using exemplary levity to offset the weight of ordinary existence, Murdoch celebrates peculiarities that lurk behind the humdrum.

Just as God Help the Girl pivots between commonplace plights (depression, near-terminal shyness, physical longing) and sweet artistic intoxication (band friendships, collaborative songwriting, first gigs), Murdoch’s songwriting combines the folksy with the fanciful. On “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career,” the first song on 1997′s The Boy with the Arab Strap, Murdoch spells out a grim fate for his three protagonists, each of them having “a stroke at the age of 24.” All of them follow lofty aesthetic pursuits, yet they all fail to make good on the promise of their early work — a failure Murdoch no doubt feared while following up the universally lauded Sinister.

‘Together, the group creates a gentle yet sometimes unsettling alternate universe — one that lies outside the roar of social media and the hum of reality shows.’

He needn’t have worried: Although the next few releases sometimes lacked Sinister‘s immediacy, albums like 2000′s slower and more considered Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant proved B&S’s staying power by combining heartrending lyrics with disarmingly sincere performances, suggesting lurid passions only hinted at by the polite, understated vocals of Murdoch, his then-paramour/cellist Isobel Campbell, violinist Sarah Martin, and guitarist Stevie Jackson. Although the bandleader’s authorial voice dominates, Fold Your Hands and the albums that followed argued that if B&S aren’t exactly democratic, they’re nevertheless much more than Murdoch’s solo project. Together, the group creates a gentle yet sometimes unsettling alternate universe — one that lies outside the roar of social media and the hum of reality shows.

Though he’s mining emotional truths, Murdoch embraces artificiality. After four albums with Scottish indie rock producer Tony Doogan, the band employed Trevor Horn — the studio mastermind behind opulent ’80s milestones by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ABC and Art of Noise — for 2003′s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, a Mercury Prize-nominated album that largely abandoned the ensemble’s characteristic downcast folk in favor of perky pop-rock. Horn’s slicker surfaces enabled Murdoch to approach familiar themes in a fresh context. As its title suggests, “I’m a Cuckoo” is Murdoch’s most upfront admission of mental illness. Name-checking classic ’70s rockers Thin Lizzy as it recreates their trademark harmonic guitar leads, the U.K. hit ranks among the most musically upbeat tracks in the B&S canon. Lyrically, though, it seems to deal with Campbell’s abrupt departure from the group, and its devastating effect on the bandleader: “We lost a singer to her clothes/ My trouble raised its ugly head/ I was revealed and I was home in bed/ I was a kid again.”

Catastrophe also documents the courting of Murdoch’s future wife Marisa Privitera in the song “Piazza, New York Catcher,” and her entry into his life prompted a seismic shift in the band’s sonic temperament. “When I was sick and alone, songs came out fully formed,” Murdoch told The New York Times in 2009. “I became obsessed with writing about people in terrible situations, people who didn’t have a voice. Then I tried to get happy, that happiness you feel when you start acting like a 12-year-old again. I started thinking about girls. The sad songs don’t come as fast anymore.”

Catastrophe was not a fluke: Produced by former Beck/Air sideman Tony Hoffer, 2006′s The Life Pursuit employed a similarly modern production sheen while experimenting with decidedly retro styles like glam, jazz-funk, Northern Soul, and ’70s pop. Murdoch still wrote about outsiders: The rebellious protagonist of “Sukie in the Graveyard” doesn’t differ much from the sexually liberated vixen who animated “The Stars of Track and Field,” but here she’s celebrated with a sassy bass line by Bobby Kildea — a far more assertive player than his predecessor — along with equally outgoing organ and piercing guitar riffs that would’ve been unimaginable on any B&S album in the previous decade.

That anything-goes, variety-show aspect of Pursuit presaged the first incarnation of God Help the Girl, which was as a 2009 album on which B&S served as the backing band for an imaginary act fronted by Irish pop-jazz singer Catherine Ireton. Her nuanced and knowing delivery brought Murdoch’s crew closer than ever to the razzamatazz of Broadway and the West End. In the album’s extensive liner notes, Mudoch tells the story of Eve, a promising college student whose interest in pop music, her newly adopted (though unnamed) big city and her rigorous physical self-discipline distract from her studies. Eventually, she drops out of school, becomes anorexic and suffers a protracted breakdown, causing her parents to put her in a mental hospital. There, she reassambles her body — if not always her mind —according to the institution’s rules.

The songs throughout the album version of Girl don’t always match Murdoch’s notes: The title track depicts the protagonist as a backward girl who “wrote from right to left,” while Murdoch’s story describes “a very bright star at school.” The 2014 film version draws from both sources. It also adds three new songs, many incidental themes and a far more developed narrative in which Eve’s romantic curiosity vacillates between Anton, self-assured frontman of local band Wobbly-Legged Rat; and James, a meek but highly opinionated songwriter who introduces Eve to his songwriting student, posh Cassie. Eve, James and Cassie form a band, God Help the Girl, a meta girl-group in which non-traditionally masculine James — paralyzed by fear and awe of Eve — is essentially one of the gals.

Although Eve’s illness parallels Murdoch’s real-life plight as a young adult, in other ways James functions as the bandleader’s stand-in: Throughout his career, Murdoch has designed Belle and Sebastian largely as his celebration of young women. They adorn nearly every album sleeve, and they typically dominate his observational character studies. In Murdoch’s world, females act while guys watch and listen. “Have a seat at the bar/ Tell me all about your men,” exclaims the narrator of “Come on Sister” from 2010′s Write About Love with barely concealed envy.

‘Life still enslaves Stuart Murdoch, but his belief in the beauty of art’s pursuit breaks its shackles, and ultimately cures his ills.’

In the film’s end, James’s passivity makes possible Eve’s ultimate independence. Like Murdoch himself, Eve sings and writes her way out of sickness. Although it begins quite seriously, with the interaction between her and James strained, God Help the Girl soon softly echoes the aesthetically mischievous ’60s films of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, a longtime Murdoch inspiration. Shot by Giles Nuttgens, cinematographer for Deepa Mehta, the images start out shadowy but grow brighter and more colorful as the bonds between the trio strengthen and their art blossoms — an outward manifestation of Eve’s inner recovery.

“This is my idea of a summer that never was,” Murdoch told Times while still writing the script. “It’s what I imagine that I missed when I was sick.”

That idealization shows up once again on “The Party Line,” the first single from the band’s new album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. Opening with a phased crescendo effect lifted from Daft Punk, the unabashedly rhythmic song alternates between shiny waves of synthesized Motown and more spacious disco verses in which Murdoch pares his words down to modern pop-song scale. But some things never change: “I am happy to look around,” the singer admits while Washed Out producer Ben H. Allen’s strobe-like studio effects flash behind him.

Playing synth on every cut but one, Allen becomes a member of Belle and Sebastin in the same way that Brian Eno had once been a virtual Talking Head. Although his synths give the song’s the instant impact of dance music, the mellifluous grace of Murdoch’s songwriting maintains the group’s essential character. With more than half of its 12 tracks breaking the five-minute mark, Girls is, at an hour-plus, Belle and Sebastian’s longest album; it’s paced not like a vinyl LP or collection of downloads, but an old-fashioned, expansion-conscious CD. Its choruses are concise, but Murdoch pens even more verses than usual. “Enter Sylvia Plath” may be set to stormy Eurodisco recalling Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin,” but its lengthy lyrics — possibly written from the perspective of the titular heroine’s husband and poetic comrade Ted Hughes — don’t repeat until the final stanza. Hashtag pop this is not.

Enchanted by the capriciousness of “The Everlasting Muse” and flummoxed by seemingly “Perfect Couples” who nevertheless splinter, Murdoch at 46 still measures himself against what he’ll likely never be — carefree, secure, “normal.” He gets to the heart of this alienation on the opening Girls cut “Nobody’s Empire” by revisiting his sickly early adulthood. Yet the tune is confident, the rhythm surefooted, and Murdoch brays with similar resoluteness even while raising uncomfortable questions. “If we live by books and we live by hope/ Does that make us targets for gunfire?” he asks. Once again there’s the push-pull of faith and despair, lightness and its opposite. Here, though, they’re reconciled by the singer’s happy sadness. Life still enslaves him, but his belief in the beauty of art’s pursuit breaks its shackles, and ultimately cures his ills.