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'Belle and Sebastian: Illustrated Lyrics' — gorgeous book from Scotland's finest

The art of songwriting and the art it inspires into one book
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Belle and Sebastian (lyrics by Stuart Murdoch, illustrations by Pamela Tait)

Illustrated Lyrics

(Thames & Hudson)

Have we really been listening to Belle & Sebastian for more than a quarter of a century? And do they really still sound as good today as they did way back when? Well, this year’s A Bit of Previous is as good as most of their output, and if the debut Tigermilk remains an unassailable jewel, 2015’s Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance runs it close.

If you need to compile a “best of” collection, though, or knowledgeably curate a Spottyface playlist, the contents of Illustrated Lyrics would be a fabulous place to start.

It’s not a vast book - 128 pages, 9” x 6” on the shelf. But firm boards and quality paper give is a misleading heft, and the cover is so brilliantly bright that you’re never going to lose it in the household clutter. Inside, twenty of Murdoch’s lyrics - personally chosen by him, of course - are accompanied by more than twice that many hand-drawn illustrations that appear to spring from a demi-monde located somewhere between Maurice Sendak and Edward Carey. According to his introduction, Murdoch stumbled upon her work while searching a different Pamela Tait altogether, a serendipity that is matched by the grace with which her art accompanies his lyrics.

Her work is fabulous. It’s not creepy, exactly, but it’s not not-creepy either, lots of disembodied heads and faces tumble-weeding through the pages, spotlighting individual lyrics, or encircling entire verses, and sometimes sitting in contemplative isolation, daring you to figure out how the words on the facing page (and full marks here to the lay-out gang) could possibly relate to the art.

As for the lyrics themselves, if you know Belle & Sebastian, they need no further introduction; if you don’t… it’s hard to say if you should, before you read this, Fans are automatically going to attach the tune to the words they’re perusing; non-fans will come to them fresh and expectant. Much, one imagines, as we did back in 96, when Tigermilk was first split over our turntables.

In fact, if this book has any failing, that’s it - the sheer weight of history and past releases that have now passed us by, to be boiled down to just twenty individual songs. In an age when tottering towers of “complete lyrics” telephone directories appear to be the norm, less coffee-table books than coffee-table substitutes, anything less could be regarded as a disappointment..

There again, this is not intended to be a straightforward collection of song words. As it says at the back, these lyrics “have been abridged to allow for typographic freedom and better integration with the illustrations they inspired.” And not only is that a very different beast altogether, it’s also a wholly compulsive and utterly intriguing one. Because ultimately, it means that not only do you you not have to be a fan to enjoy it, you don’t even have to treat the words as lyrics.

Because then you can enjoy the package as a whole.