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.
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.