Malcolm Middleton: Into the Woods

Brandon Arnold

Arab Strap's multi-instrumentalist ventures out on his own for the second time, and the results may surprise you. Into the Woods is a penetrating rumination on life, love, and the pursuit of something approaching happiness. It's easily his most mature, sonically adventurous work to date.

Malcolm Middleton

Into the Woods

Label: Chemikal Underground
US Release Date: 2005-08-16
UK Release Date: 2005-06-14
Amazon affiliate

If the whole of Scottish duo Arab Strap's career can be summed up as a long walk home from the bar, Malcolm Middlton's second solo effort, Into the Woods is the morning after, waking up slightly hungover, sipping your coffee as the sun creeps into your apartment. There's a cautious optimism in Middleton's latest collection of songs that moves beyond the two dimensional explorations in despair that characterize much of his work with Aidan Moffat in Arab Strap. Into the Woods seems to be his treatise on the fragility of happiness.

Into the Woods has less in common with Middleton's last solo effort, the oddly-titled razor-blade symphony 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine, than it does with Arab Strap's 2003 LP Monday at the Hug & Pint, an underrated record that pulled the duo's music up from the slippery slope of mope with songs featuring melodic hooks and even a few dance beats. Into the Woods goes a step further in proving Middleton's talents as a pop songsmith. A long time follower of his past output might be taken aback by an unapologetic new wave rager like "No Modest Bear", or a simple acoustic pop number like "Break My Heart", but it's a logical next step for Middleton. Emotional honesty has been a constant through his work, and the clouds must lift eventually, if only for a little while.

That isn't to say that he's all roses and daisies now. The songs remain unflinchingly self-aware and self-deprecating, all resonating with a cynicism that is palpable. With lines like "you're gonna break my heart, I know it/ I'd rather have you than sing these shit songs," you feel certain that Middleton, almost speak-singing in his thick Scottish brogue, is not writing from a character's perspective. There's an uneasy voyeurism listening to Middleton's songs.

Most of the songs on Into the Woods reveal a man in constant struggle with self-doubt and a general mistrust of all those around him, but desperate for some sort of connection. The lyrics of "A Happy Medium" ("Woke up again today/ Realized I hate myself/ My face is a disease") seem almost unbearably bleak, but these lines are sheathed in a maniacally catchy pop song. This tonal complexity is where the brilliance of this record lies. Middleton manages to craft tunes that are both heartbreaking and life affirming, without being overly melodramatic.

Middleton is not alone in these woods. Unlike his last solo effort, a minimal record featuring the artist accompanied by little more than an acoustic guitar, Into the Woods is a lush, multi-textural album, helped by appearances by upstanding folks of the Glasgow music community, including members of Mogwai, The Delgadoes, Reindeer Section, and the other half of Arab Strap, Aidan Moffat (on drums for the album's closer). Musically, Middleton gives his compositional muscles a full work out, exploring styles from synth pop ("Loneliness Shines") to rocked-up bluegrass ("A New Heart"), and there are enough solemn dirges ("Devastation") and bone crunchers ("Bear With Me") to satiate the appetite of Arab Strap devotees.

Ultimately, Into the Woods is a misleading title. Unlike much of his previous work, it doesn't feel as if Middleton is leading us into a dim, dank place of dread. Instead it's a measured walk in the direction of light. Though his warning "it's only a matter of time before I feel like shit again/ I'm a happy army marching to defeat" on "Monday Night Nothing" may prove true, at least he's shown us that he's capable of something besides misery, and crafted some of the best music of his career in the process.





Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.


The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.


'The Kill Chain': Why America Might Lose Its Next Big War

Christian Brose's defense-nerd position paper, The Kill Chain, inadvertently reveals that the Pentagon's problems (complacency, inertia, arrogance) reflect those of the country at large.


2006's 'Flat-Pack Philosophy' Saw Buzzcocks Determined to Build Something of Quality

With a four-decade career under their belt, on the sixth disc in the new box-set Sell You Everything, it's heartening to see Buzzcocks refusing to settle for an album that didn't try something new.


'Lie With Me': Beauty, Love and Toxic Masculinity in the Gay '80s

How do we write about repression and toxic masculinity without valorizing it? Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is equal parts poignant tribute and glaring warning.


Apparat's 'Soundtrack: Capri-Revolution' Stands Alone As a Great Ambient Experience

Apparat's (aka Sascha Ring) re-imagined score from Mario Martone's 2018 Capri-Revolution works as a fine accompaniment to a meditational flight of fancy.


Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers Merge Haitian Folk and Electronic Music on 'Vodou Alé'

Haitian roots music meets innovative electronics on Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers' Vodou Alé.

My Favorite Thing

Weird and Sweet, Riotous and Hushed: The Beatles' 'The White Album'

The Beatles' 'The White Album' is a piece of art that demonstrates how much you can stretch, how far you can bend, how big you really are. The album is deeply weird. It has mass. It has its own weather.


Sarah Jarosz Finds Inspiration in Her Texas Roots on 'World on the Ground'

By turning to her roots in central Texas for inspiration on World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz has crafted some of her strongest songs yet.


Hinds' 'The Prettiest Curse' Is One of Victory

On The Prettiest Curse, Hinds create messy pop music that captures the vibrancy of youth without being childish.


12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.