Okay, the two things that anyone reading "Just A Modern Rock Story" really wants to know:
1. Is Stuart Murdoch Straight? (Yes.)
2. Was he romantically involved with Isobel Campbell? (Yes.)
So now that all of you indie gossips who only wanted the dish from this book are sated, on to the review:
A biography about a band that's still making music is always a tricky thing. First of all, the end of the book can't really be the end; it has to leave itself open to the rest of the group's career, while still leaving the reader with a sense of closure. It's fortunate then, that Belle and Sebastian, while being so high profile since the beginning, have managed to stay relatively mysterious to their fans. Their well-documented reticence in the press is addressed here, as is pretty much every aspect the group: from histories and inter-personal relationships to recording sessions and characters within the songs.
Author Paul Whitlaw is nothing if not thorough, which at best gives us insight into the methods of this inscrutably methodical band, and at worst turns the proceedings into he said/she said arguments for the 'record.' Whitlaw is obviously a fan of the band, yet has no problem letting their insecurities and contradictions inform the reader's opinions of the subject.
As mentioned above, Stuart Murdoch and Co. have long been interview-shy, and while this led to their mystique (or whatever), it also made listening to the music—especially the less-than-stellar stuff—rather difficult. Because we didn't know that recording of Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant was fraught with a number of obstacles, we're left to think that it's just a not very good record, that the band is slipping because of their fame. When in reality the recording felt the brunt of the growing pains of an independent band given the freedom to explore new aspects of their sound. But, really, the fact of the matter is, even when B & S are fucking up, they still make some of the most beautiful music out there (see Don't Leave The Light On Baby from Fold Your Hands… or the unmatched EPs that pepper their catalog.)
From that standpoint, "Just A Modern Rock Story" is a great read. So much detail is given to the songs; it's hard not to get all fuzzy when reading about the origins/recording sessions of beloved cuts like "My Wandering Days Are Over" or the book's namesake, "This Is Just A Modern Love Song."
But the other story that carries this book is, of course, the story of Stuart and Isobel. Though a lot of time is given to this subject, it's still never clearly defined as to what went down. In interviews, there's a palpable level of ouch in their responses—on more than one occasion, Isobel alludes that a verse or bridge may be about her; when questioned about it, Stuart invariably, defensively, almost overzealously, scoffs at the thought. Though this is truly none of our business as fans, it does serve to endear us to them both, it makes them just another two kids who couldn't work it out. We're left to imagine the bus stop bench, 'We Rule The School' scrawled in the well-worn seat, and both of them walking away in different directions.
And the thing is, with a band like Belle and Sebastian, still capable of making devastating pop music (see "I'm A Cuckoo" from 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress—some of Murdoch's most touching words wrapped in a confectionary's sugar-hook; with musical AND lyrical nod to Thin Lizzy to boot,) we need a bit of the romance, a little something to prove it's okay to do something pretty while you can.