Song of the Day #186: ‘Mary Jo’ – Belle & Sebastian

tigermilkI’ve decided to dedicate future theme weeks, at least for the time being, to five songs by the same artist or band. And to get us started, I’ve chosen everybody’s favorite Scottish septet, Belle and Sebastian. (Is there a Scottish septet you like better? If so, please let me know).

If I was forced at gunpoint to pick a favorite band (unlikely, sure, but it could happen) I wouldn’t hesitate too long before naming Belle and Sebastian. R.E.M. would be a close second, and of course one can’t forget The Beatles, but I have experienced more awe, joy and pathos courtesy of this group than any other. Over the course of seven albums and more than a dozen EPs, they have crafted some of the finest music I’ve ever heard.

Today’s song, ‘Mary Jo,’ is the final track on the band’s debut album Tigermilk. Lead singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch says the song’s main character came to him when he locked eyes with a sad-looking woman entering her apartment across the street.

I love the instrumentation here… the flute and piano intro is unexpectedly lovely and blends seamlessly into the more traditional acoustic guitar and bass that accompanies the opening lines. The drums shuffle along subliminally and that little electric guitar (I think) bit over the penultimate verse is a perfect touch.

Lyrically, the song is a real treat. Murdoch is expert at painting flesh-and-blood characters in a few rhyming verses and the lonely dreamer Mary Jo is a fine example. I particularly like the final verse which so vividly describes her internal life: “Life is never dull in your head: A sorry tale of action and the men you left for women, and the men you left for intrigue, and the men you left for dead.”

I also like the reference to ‘The State I am In,’ which reaches back to the album’s opening track of the same name, narrated by a fellow just as sad and lonely as Mary Jo. Those two songs bookend the album and either spread the hopelessness or provide a glimmer of hope that perhaps there is somebody for everyone — your choice, I suppose. I’ll opt for the latter interpretation.

Mary Jo, living alone
Drinking tea, on her own
She wants… I don’t know what you want

Mary Jo, living alone
Drinking gin, the telly’s on

She wants
The night to follow day and back again
She doesn’t want to sleep

Well who could blame her if she wants
The night to follow day and back again?
She doesn’t want to sleep

Well who could blame her if she sleeps?
Well who could blame her if she sleeps?
Well who could blame her if she’s sleeping?

Mary Jo, back with yourself for company
Keep telling yourself you’re young
And it’ll happen soon

Mary Jo, no one can guess
What you’ve been through
Now you’ve got love to burn

It’s someone else’s turn to go through hell
Now you can see them come from fifty yards

Yeah you can tell
It’s someone else’s turn to take a fall
And now you are the one who’s strong enough to help them
The one who’s strong enough to help them
The one who’s strong enough to help them all

Mary Jo, you’re looking thin
You’re reading a book, ‘The State I am In’
But oh, it doesn’t help at all
Cos what you want is a cigarette
And a thespian with a caravanette in Hull

Your life is never dull in your dreams
A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it
Life is never dull in your head
A sorry tale of action and the men you left for
Women, and the men you left for
Intrigue, and the men you left for dead

6 thoughts on “Song of the Day #186: ‘Mary Jo’ – Belle & Sebastian

  1. Dana says:

    Wow–best group, huh? Over the Beatles? Over Ben Folds Five? Over Elvis Costello and the Attractions/Imposters? High praise indeed. I admit that, every time I hear them, I love what I hear, and so perhaps if I immersed myslef (as you have) in 7 CDs+ worth of material, I might draw a similar conclusion. Hard to imagine taking down the Beatles though, really!

    Another wonderful song, and I am looking forward to at least a week’s worth of immersion.

  2. Clay says:

    I consider Ben Folds and Elvis Costello solo artists more than members of bands. The Beatles are sort of in their own class, and their status is amplified because of what pioneers they were in so many ways. But in terms of consistency across albums, I think B&S’s catalog stands up very well against The Beatles’.

  3. Dana says:

    Well, certainly, there are Beatles clunkers (or at least lessers), but I would argue that the great (and groundbreaking) work of many, many Beatles songs should give them the higher marks over any other band who put out consistently good/very good, but not revolutionary, work.

  4. Clay says:

    I appreciate that argument (I’ve even made it myself) but at the same time I think that’s the same thinking that puts Citizen Kane at the top of every ‘Greatest Movie’ list, because not only is it a great movie but it broke so much ground.

    Of course The Beatles’ music is strong enough apart from the ‘revolutionary’ aspects to put them on a par with anybody, but I don’t think they should get an extra edge by default because they were revolutionary… at least not in a list of favorites. In a list that is designed to account for historical context, absolutely.

  5. Dana says:

    Well, my point was not only about the revolutionary aspect, but also the diversity of the output.

  6. Amy says:

    Sheesh… is there anywhere on this blog where you two aren’t having this same argument? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    That flute intro. was very unexpected indeed. I checked twice to see that I had started the song and that I didn’t inadvertantly have another tab open, from which was emanating this twee sound. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Lovely song. This music goes down very easy. I could easily imagine listening to one of their songs after another (save that “Fox in the snow” outro). It has enough going on to provide interest but not so much to overwhelm. In other words, it could easily be background music but rewards close attention. A nice feature in a desert island band ๐Ÿ™‚

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