The pop musical is a nightmare form which refuses to die. Its shoehorning of either pre-existing or tailor-made songs into plots which are heavy on corn demands that it ought to be treated as a relic or anachronistic cul-de-sac in what might be thought to be more conceptually artful times. Yet from Tommy through Absolute beginners to Mamma Mia! and Taboo, the jukebox and staged productions keep on coming. There’s even been one about Liverpool’s Eric’s.
So it was with a mixture of trepidation and a perverse kind of pleasure that I learnt about Stuart Murdoch’s God help the girl project. It was about time an adventurous lyricist stretched his wings by taking on such a challenge, but I had not expected to be putting God help the girl on repeat. I never expected it to be as intriguing, or as beautifully played, scored and recorded. It seems to me that Stuart has taken Vic Godard’s dream as outlined in ‘I’m going to write a musical’ and brought it to fruition, even if a version for the screen is still only at the planning stage. (Vic has only ever got about half way to a musical – Blackpool – and even then, it had to be in collaboration with Irvine Welsh, though you could certainly theme one (or several) out of the songs he has written – narrative links between, say, ‘Spring is grey’, ‘Nice on the ice’, and ‘Malicious love’ are certainly there for the taking.)
If there’s anything approaching a problem with God help the girl, it’s that there are no songs such as Vic’s – outward looking songs that might be rendered properly choral (‘A down and dusky blonde’ aside) in contrast to the somewhat introverted thread of the narrative. But it succeeds on the terms Murdoch has set himself, for he has assembled a host of singers whose voices suit the straightness of the smooth musicality on show. Scored for orchestra by Mick Cooke, the music is beautiful if rather traditional, with flavours of the Velvets’ ‘Sunday morning’, Nancy & Lee, sweetly-strung Motown, sixties girl groups, and the kinds of cinematic musicals that played regularly on telly to seventies kids. With its just-so chorus, ‘Hiding neath my umbrella’ might even slip seamlessly into the running order for The sound of music.
The introductory character notes as outlined in the accompanying booklet may be a little too reminiscent of nervous breakdown classics like The bell jar or Girl, interrupted, but the songs avoid that familiarity, leaving a musically-refined set whose lyrical conceits are precise and generic enough that listeners can unpick their own versions of the story. It’s a return to the character depiction and puppeteering of ‘Lazy line painter Jane’; it’s If you’re feeling sinister, staged and from a predominantly female perspective. Isobel Campbell’s ghost haunts God help the girl, and haunts it all the harder for the singers chosen by Stuart being convincing in the way that she never was.
At first the accomplishment of the chosen singers, especially Catherine Ireton in the lead role of Eve, seems as problematic as it is impressive; Stuart is easily the least competent, yet his much slighter voice seems the one with most character in it. He has picked his female leads on the basis of their technical proficiency, excellence or vocal prettiness; you wonder whether no singers with grit, snag, bite or bile in their voices presented themselves. But having a beautiful voice doesn’t preclude singing with emotional power, and with repeated listens this comes through, though not quite in the way that Monica Queen sang ‘Lazy line painter Jane’. In Brittany Stallings’ hands, ‘Funny little frog’ is transformed from Belle And Sebastian’s quirky and idiosyncratic original into a thing of soulful beauty and universal application. Even Neil Hannon does a good turn, giving us suave in spades, and tempting me to go check out his Duckworth-Lewis Method long player.
Singing songs written by Murdoch, and under his direction, the performers – Hannon aside – adopt his vocal intonation and inflexions (‘please stop me there, I’m even boring myself’), but convey them with surer touch and greater vocal purity. It’s as if each singer is having a dream that she is Stuart Murdoch fronting the pre-Brit award Belle And Sebastian. And God help the girl is a strong reminder of why we fell for his group in the first place.