Songs to Love: Beautiful by Belle and Sebastian (1997)

Oh, Lisa. How I wish I could help you.

She thought it would be fun to try photography,
She thought it would be fun to try pornography,
She thought it would be fun to try most anything;
She was tired of sleeping

It is quite fun to reimagine Belle and Sebastian’s discography as a ficticious universe full of its many whimsical characters: “Lazy Line Painter Jane“, “Photo Jenny“, “Mary Jo“, Judy (who dreams of horses), and of course the two protagonists of Belle and Sebastian. Each of these peculiar characters teach us many lessons on the eternal search for and identity. 

Of all the personified projections Stuart Murdoch and co. have presented in their 20+ years of twee-ing, there is none quite as striking as “Lisa” from their song Beautiful, which can be found on their immaculate 2005 singles compilation, Push Barman to Open Old Wounds.

Beautiful tells the tale of a troubled and misunderstood young woman (much like their “Mary Jo”whose physical beauty overshadows her turbulent inner life. Her health is deteriorating and she constantly needs some excitement to distract her from her sorrow.

The doctor told her years ago that she was ill
The doctor told her years ago to take a pill
The doctor told her years ago that she’d go blind if she wasn’t careful

From the first chorus onward, Murdoch warns us that something bad is going to happen to her; she is going to go blind, whatever that means. The people in her life her seem dismissive of the severity of her troubles and cannot make sense of who she really is outside of her beauty.

Everyone she knew thought she was beautiful
Only slightly mental
Beautiful, a bit temperamental
Beautiful, only slightly mental – beautiful

Lisa thought that she would feel better if she made herself a pair of orthopedic shoes (for her now limping body) to feel more fashionable or took on some new hobbies (photography, pornography?) to be more active. Yet, neither of these activities, nor the pills prescribed to her by her doctor really helped her feel better, but just even emptier. No matter what, she was hurting and lonesome. What was really missing from her life was love and kindness.

000 3
An artist’s interpretation of “Beautiful” from “Put the Book Back on the Shelf”, a comic book inspired by Belle and Sebastian songs.

Eventually, Lisa goes “blind”, per her doctor’s predictions. Whether it was from crying too much, or her going blind is a metaphor for her dying – or worse, her suicide – is left to the listener to ponder on, adding to the song’s mystique. Murdoch’s words are very protective of the character, as if her fate could have been prevented if only someone had listened to her sorrows.

They let Lisa go blind,
The world was at her feet and she was looking down 

The song is vivid enough to make one feel both conflicted and identified. Lisa lives in every one of us. I could have helped and protected her if I had known her.

Its simple arrangement, mainly based around the vocals and an acoustic guitar, emphasizes the importance of the lyrics and the loneliness of its main character. As her story comes to an end, we hear a trumpet and strings join along, framing her demise as they grow in intensity.

She’s looking like a queen,
But if you knew what’s going on in her life
There’d be a thousand barren mothers there to talk to her
If you knew what’s going on in her life
There’d be two-hundred troubled teenagers to sit with her
And to talk to her
If you knew what’s going on in her life
There would be a documentary on radio four

Beautiful is a moving portrait of someone conflicted by their own sadness. It is the old tale of “What are they sad about? They have it all!” What made Lisa beautiful all along was not just who she appeared to be, but her resilience. Ignoring and dismissing the pain that makes us and others human will only make us go mad, or worse – blind. 

Full lyrics.

Author: Pat

Patricia Cárdenas is a writer, wannabe garden mom, and 80's enthusiast from Miami. She dreams of eventually moving somewhere colder where she can wear lots of sweaters, adopt a fluffy pet, and just drink lots of rooibos tea.

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