Review Summary: A slight change of tact for Stuart Murdoch produces a solid, if slightly underwhelming album.
In his recent press for new project God Help The Girl, Stuart Murdoch hasn't promoted the group so much as he's defended the decision to form it, and that defence has, without fail, used the word 'glamour'. For the past 3 months, it seems to be all he's talked about. There's no glamour in being in a pop band. No glamour is being a member of Belle & Sebastian. No glamour in being a Brit award winner, even; no glamour in being the man who so spectacularly conquered Steps. Nope - for Murdoch, the true glamour he craves only exists in the girl groups of the '50s and '60s. That, in a nutshell, is God Help The Girl
- it's The Ronettes and The Shirelles as re-imagined by a pasty Scot with one of the most distinctive songwriting voices of our time.
It fails and succeeds in equal measure. Where it succeeds is largely in Murdoch's playful attitude to sexuality, which comes right to the fore here. It was hinted at previously, sure, in tracks like "The Wrong Girl" and "Seeing Other People", but it's exploited to full effect here. When Murdoch really gets it right, the women here present themselves as being attainable but just enticingly out of reach, and knowingly so, as if they're flirting with you even though you never had a chance in the first place. He chooses which Belle & Sebastian songs to appropriate well, and how to copy them, too - the almost unbearably cute "Funny Little Frog" is played straight, while "Act of the Apostle" is almost completely rebuilt from the ground up to the point where it's basically a different song with the same title. And, of course, his wry lyrical prowess remains a potent weapon, with "Perfection As A Hipster" possibly its best showcase.
But despite the strengths here, it's obvious that Murdoch hasn't yet grasped a true identity for God Help The Girl. I've often joked, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, that Murdoch is a spiritual successor to Paul Heaton, but here that comparison becomes a serious reality - his dry Northern wit, combined with dusky female voices, frequently sounds like The Beautiful South. That in itself is not a bad thing - the South remain one of the most critically overlooked bands of the 90s - but it does throw into sharp relief where Murdoch's faults lie. To be blunt, Murdoch doesn't understand women the way Heaton does. Maybe that's Murdoch's vision of 'glamour', but it a weakness all the same; the album's final track has a woman proclaiming 'I'm not a brunette/I'm a down a dusky blonde'. Compare that to the The Beautiful South's UK #1 hit that started life as "Don't Marry Her (*** Me)". Maybe it's my fault for hanging around with whores, but I know which of those the women I know are more likely to say. The only time the album crosses over into any kind of real sexuality is on "I Just Want Your Jeans", and even that's just a bit of wordplay - I just want your genes, indeed. Sadly, that might not even be intentional. Given the sex appeal that the girl groups Murdoch worships could muster, and the fact that his idea of 'glamour' seems to stem from images of Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page as much as anything, it seems odd that this album is so sexless.
This remains, however, a good album, and another triumph for Stuart Murdoch. It seems at this point that the Belle & Sebastian lynchpin can pull quality from the ether without even really trying, because you'd have to go back as far as his last film soundtrack, in 2002, to find the last time he put a bad song on an album. God Help The Girl
is a part of that unexpected late-career renaissance, and for that, as well as a welcome change of scenery, it's worth owning.