Well, quite interesting indeed, it turns out. You may already know Stuart Murdoch as the formerly-publicity-shy frontman of Belle & Sebastian. They were the band who swiftly amassed an army of fans in the late 90s, becoming key players in the indiepop movement in the process. Then they won a Brit award and changed tactics (sort of). If you’re familiar with their work, they’re either endemic of the worst excesses of the imaginary ‘twee’ movement, or one of the smartest, funniest and also most sensitive bands of the last twenty years. In either case, there’s a good chance that you feel pretty strongly about them.
For the yea-sayers, one of the strongest points of appeal has always been Murdoch’s lyrics. Melancholic, elegant and doused in a humour that is both bitter and sadly reflective, they draw comparisons to Morrissey for their intelligent take on a very specific sort of British life. Take the navel-gazing narrator of ‘My Wandering Days Are Over’, considering advice from a friend on the subject of talking to girls:
“You put me straight on the finer points of my speech rehearsed / In the mirror of my steamy bathroom / Where the lino tells a sorry story in a monologue.”
It’s pathos that he’s going for here, of course, and that killer line at the end tells us everything we need to know about his wretched life. Essentially, Murdoch’s a writer.
“Yeh yeh, get to the book, man!” The trouble here is that it’s hard to review The Celestial Café without making reference to Murdoch’s lyrics. They prove he’s capable of being an excellent writer when he puts his mind to it. But there’s a crucial difference between his songs and his blogs.
In songs like the above, we’re presented with characters – much like the way Ray Davies or Jarvis Cocker present their own take on modern-day frustrations by holding a mirror up to society, Murdoch’s at his most comfortable telling stories. Usually they’re tales of (or love letters to) girls lost in the confusion of adolescence or young adulthood, struggling to come to terms with their place in the world. Fumbled, forgettable sex is a repeated theme, as is identity crisis and the same sort of frustrated teenage ennui that Daniel Clowes depicted so well in his Ghost World series. It’s existentialism through fiction, allowing his characters to project his worries and fears that maybe this life isn’t all we want it to be.
His blogs, on the other hand, are much more confident. Murdoch still tells stories, of course, varying from taking pictures for Belle & Sebastian album sleeves to his opinions on the Olympics. But this time, he’s the focal point. And he turns out to be much funnier and more confident than you might have imagined. That’s not to say that he’s arrogant; he’s still self-deprecating at times, but it comes from a man much more comfortable with his own sense of self than his lyrics would suggest. Take this final summary of his feelings on one of the sciences, for instance:
“When it comes to physics, I’m an admirer. I’ll buy my ticket for the gig, line up and be entranced… I’d be a physicist if I could, but I’m not, so I’ll just have to be a fan.”
Here, Murdoch’s wittily compares a skill beyond his ken to his own art form. So even if it seems like he’s putting down his own ability to function in the world of science, there’s still an implicit reminder that other people buy tickets and line up to see Stuart strut his stuff. And, bien sur, a helluva lot of them are entranced by his music.
There’s little more to say about this book that it can’t say for itself – his anecdotes and externalised musings are extraordinarily well-written, with the odd reminder of his talent as a poet to boot. It’s a refreshing insight into his mindset too; t’ain’t all self-loathing, hairslides and cardigans in indiepop-land. But with no overall framework to analyse, or recurrent symbolic motifs to discuss, all we can look at are those self-contained diary entries that Pomona have thoughtfully decided to collect. And luckily, they’re a good enough read in and of themselves.
Any Cop?: Yes indeed. Belle & Sebastian completists will almost certainly love this, and casual followers might be interested to find out just what runs through the mind of their once-mysterious frontman. If you’re not a fan of the band, it’s unlikely that anything printed here will change your mind. The Celestial Café might just change your mind about Stuart Murdoch’s skills as a writer though.