I recall a compilation advertised on prime time television not so long ago that was pitched solely at those wanting to use music to enhance whatever depressing experience they were crawling through at the time. The suspects were usual enough - Mr Acoustic Sings A Ballad From A Film About Girls, Big Band Gets Introspective And Discover Feelings, Breakthrough Artist Realises Dollars Are To Be Made From Plundering His Little Sister's Diary - and no doubt Mr BuysFiveRecordsAYear dutifully obliged, but what if you really wanted to compile a Slit-Yr-Wrists Greatest Hits? Joy Division and Smog? Perhaps some Bright Eyes? In my best Scottish burr, fuck that; just buy this.
It's not that Malcolm Middleton's second solo album is particularly bleak - the music is often absolutely gorgeous, with glorious pop hooks passing through My Bloody Valentine-style walls of guitars and back into cheap and chattering disco beats. Instead, it's a deceptive beast that buries its bruised heart beneath layers of pristine smiles and happy high spirits. Play Into The Woods while, for example, washing up or cleaning the bathroom or driving through country lanes with screaming kids kicking the back of the seat in, and you'll hear nothing but the aesthetic gloss; it's when you spend a little time with Middleton that his songs really hit home, through headphones on quiet trains with the unreachable outside world racing by. Well, 'hit home' is selling this record short - at its darkest, when Middleton's pained reflections reach their feverish peaks, it spears the heart and tears it out of your chest, spilling blood and splintering bone without so much as semblance of sadism.
"I never seem to make the right decision any time," muses Middleton on 'Monday Night Nothing'. If he did, perhaps it wouldn't make a difference: "It's only a matter of time before I feel like shit again," he sighs later on the same song. Thematically, Into The Woods largely treads water amongst the flotsam of failed relationships, lost to the depths of despair, but even when Middleton sings of love that lasts he does so with the pessimism of a man scarred so many times before - "Stay with me..." he pleads on 'Bear With Me', "...I'll always stay with you." Despite such obvious underlying feelings of commitment and honesty, Middleton proceeds to dissect his imperfections across these twelve tracks to the extent where any partner wouldn't be able to see anything but the ugly and unwanted. It's truly, deeply saddening when he near-whispers "How can you like me, with this head and these arms? How long can I be myself before you get up and go?" on genuine standout 'Devastation', so much so that the equally cheerily-titled 'Loneliness Shines' (those MBV walls) sounds totally euphoric. He goes further still on the otherwise cheerful dance beats 'n' clicks of 'A Happy Medium': "My face is a disease."
The variety, and quality, of Middleton's compositions ensures that his heart-weary stories never grow as tired as his laconic voice might imply; indeed, some six or seven listens later I'm still discovering new facets to songs that initially sound simplistic. The subject matters may not vary wildly, but Middleton's engrossing and imaginative lyrics are worthy of published poets; his tone may not wobble from mumble to shriek, but his near-monotone conveys more colourful emotion and simple fuckin' passion than any hyperactive floppy-fringed frontman. Only the boisterous 'A New Heart', the album's final chapter, steers clear of melancholy long enough to comprise something of an uplifting closer.
"I wasn't meant to feel this way," he says, his voice stumbling into silence. The truth: we wouldn't want him feeling any other way if such ill feelings produce such stunning music. So forget your made-for-television angst and your soulless songtresses weaving woeful tales of ones that got away - this is the real, raw, warts-and-all deal.
8Mike Diver's Score