It’s hard to imagine anyone being so ubiquitously tied to a single specific emotion as Malcolm Middleton. From his heyday as one half of Arab Strap to this, his fourth solo venture, the Scot has been such a dedicated purveyor of bitterness, cynicism, and despair that it’s rare to read anything about the man that doesn’t employ the word ‘miserablist’ at least once (clearly not a trend this reviewer wishes to eschew). This is, after all, a man who released a Christmas single reminding us all the transience of life and the inevitability of death, whose live performances rarely pass without occasional, unheeded shouts of “give us a smile, Malc!” and whose most buoyant-sounding album, last year’s A Brighter Beat, still included songs called “We’re All Going To Die” (the aforementioned festive number) and “Death Love Depression Love Death”.
So you might think it wise to approach Sleight of Heart, a release deliberately stripped back in response to its predecessor’s fuller sound, with a degree of trepidation, or a least a heady dose of Valium. After all, it was the bittersweet combination of poppy arrangements with Middleton’s deadpan self-deprecation that made A Brighter Beat a more palatable prospect in comparison to the inconsolable bleakness of 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine, the Falkirkian’s debut. In contrast, Sleight of Heart is a markedly organic album, centered on Middleton’s acoustic guitar throughout, albeit with frequent reinforcement by way of Barry Burns’s piano and the violin of Jenny Reeves. Thankfully though, the textures here are tender and inviting as often as they are bare and bleak, even when Middleton is exposing his old wounds.
“Week Off” exudes the most warmth, Middleton’s six-stringer tucked snug in the middle of Reeves and Burns’s tightly wrapped melodies to create a folky, almost jaunty backdrop, while “Blue Plastic Bags” culminates in an understated singalong of sorts. There’s even evidence of a spot of sanguinity creeping into Middleton’s self-loathing, depressive mindset, with “Week Off” exposing a demon-destroying determination to “kill the idiot in me, chase the bastard down”. “Follow Robin Down” suggests a similarly rehabilitative desire, insisting that “there is hope, like there is Hell, it’s like going home, it’s like getting well”.
Mostly though, Middleton’s desolation is still raw and exposed. On “Total Belief” he has optimistic intentions (“I just want to laugh, see smiles cross faces/See the clever people have a chat and unite us all races”) but is unable to surmount his “total belief in the depth of [his] unworthiness”, while even “Week Off”’, sprightly in comparison, underlines a weariness with life from which writing music can bring only passing relief. The scope of “Blue Plastic Bags” is less personal but no more positive, its social observations highlighting glum mundanities of British life—self-help books, media-driven insecurity, and the walk home from the off-license with “six bottles of Stella, Jacob’s Creek and twenty fags”. Though the song ends with an invitation to sing along, it’s to a “sad song” that he’s singing, and one that sounds like its futilely trying to break free of its minor key, as though Middleton wants to unite separate factions of despondency, from the heartbroken to the frustrated to the lonely, to share in his own despair and find some solace.
In other hands, such unwavering emotional destitution could wind up po-faced and overweight. But Middleton has a wry humour to his songwriting that sets his work apart from mere melancholic wallowing. Take “Total Belief”, for instance, where in lamenting even his cooking as a source of strife, he produces the wonderfully, self-conciously melodramatic “it only takes some pasta to remind me of my total belief of the depth of my unworthiness”, simultaneously epitomising his inescapable self-doubt and mocking himself for it. Even the song’s title is playful, the idea of Middleton having total belief in his lack of self-belief deliberately, ridiculously paradoxical. There’s a similar sense of irony to “Week Off”, too, where Middleton sings “I’ll write a good song/Just give me more time/It’s easy hating yourself/It’s hard making it rhyme”, succeeding in exactly the pursuit with which he claims to be struggling in the process. And it’s hard to imagine that he penned the line “we’re all listening to downbeat shite”, in “Blue Plastic Bags”, without knowing that that’s exactly how some people would describe his own music.
Given the essential role this tongue-in-cheek lyricism plays in Middleton’s music, it’s curious that three of the slightly undersized Sleight of Heart‘s nine tracks are covers. A misguided choice here could have derailed the album and sent it in an anodyne singer-songwriter direction, but Middleton’s picks are astute. Jackson C. Frank’s “Just Like Anything” hits just the right mood, its hope-tinged discontent—achingly poignant in light of Frank’s own life story—mirroring in some respects the pervasive tone of Sleight of Heart as a whole, and Scotsman sensibly plays his cover fairly straight. More revelatory is a rendition of Madonna’s “Stay”, which overcomes the initial feel of novelty to unveil an evocative, sorrowful narrative of a difficult, but entrancing, relationship, with Reeves’s grieving violin for once providing instrumental accompaniment that sounds more troubled that Middleton himself.
The album does suffer a dip in form in its final third, a comment that serves just as much—perhaps more—as a compliment to the first two thirds as it does a slight to the latter. Closer “Hey You” is a perfectly pleasant, stripped-bare number but it doesn’t achieve any real intimacy and lacks the tortured emotional punch of the likes of “Total Belief”. “Marguerita Red” is a far jauntier affair—it had to be, really, given that it’s a King Creosote cover and it features banjo, the perennial spry instrument—which while a welcome interlude on a persistently downbeat album, isn’t a style in which Middleton seems entirely comfortable. Meanwhile, “Love Comes In Waves” is a slow-burning, almost ethereal number, littered with metaphors of love and illustrations of Middleton’s continuing uncertainty. At over seven minutes it length and persistently hinting at a climax (though one that never truly arrives), there’s a sense that it’s deigned to be the album’s zenith, but it’s a little too understated to achieve such a status—that unseen crescendo might have come in handy.
But Sleight of Heart isn’t really that type of album. Middleton is an awkward, self-deprecating fellow with an ear for a decent melody as attuned as his eye his own and society’s failings, and that’s what this record thrives on. It’s bittersweet, downcast and intimate—and all the better for it. Middleton knows, no doubt, that he doesn’t have the world’s most flexible vocal chords, but his sincerity and personality is such that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Though Sleight of Heart might have served better as a mini-album or EP—35 minutes and 9 tracks (and 3 of them covers) is a tad on the light side—there’s no denying its quality.
“I hate everything I make”, Middleton sings on “Total Belief”, and certainly, it would be no surprise if he did—he created it, after all. But that’s fine; it’s that hatred—and his openness in writing about it—that makes his music what it is.
Long live the downbeat shite, then.