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Malcolm Middleton - A Brighter Beat

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Artist: Malcolm Middleton

Album: A Brighter Beat

Label: Full Time Hobby

Review date: Jun. 13, 2007

It's a good thing Malcolm Middleton doesn't live in America. He'd be drugged to the gills on Prozac or Zoloft, barely able to hold a guitar aloft, and completely unequal to the sort of wry, ruminative epiphanies that lurk in every corner of A Brighter Beat. His third solo album – and the first since Arab Strap went dark in 2006 – is a landscape of depression written from the inside, full of people who can't leave their houses, yet who struggle feebly for love and meaning.

That sounds depressing, but the record really isn’t, for a couple of reasons. There's a leavening sense of humor that holds off the self-pity, for one thing. Middleton breaks the litany of self-loathing and doubt in "Superhero Songwriter" to call himself a "super cliché chorus finder" ... and in the midst of a fairly soaring chorus, too. Moreover there's something funny about titling a song "Death Love Depression Love Death,” then making the cut one of the disc's fastest and most upbeat, at least musically.

That brings us to the second factor that saves A Brighter Beat from emo-indie whining: it rocks. If you didn't speak English, the songs wouldn't even sound sad, let alone depressed. Take the title track, easily the disc's best and most conflicted. Mordant lyrics battle it out with synth bounces as Middletons sings, "Now you've gone and left me and there's nothing here / But a tenner in my pocket and a fridge full of beer / There's an army round the country / They're all stuck in a room / It takes a lot of preparation / To make a move." Downbeat, sure, but there's a lift here, too; you can hear it in the slant of eighth note guitars, the ratcheting drums, and in the sardonic twist of Middleton's Scottish burr. It sounds like he'll find a way out the door, down the street, and to the pub eventually, not matter how difficult it may be.

The second half of the album is more acoustic, less buoyantly rocking. But even here, there's a damaged honesty that keeps things from turning maudlin. "Fuck it, I love you," Middleton murmurs into a cell in the song of the same name, exhausted, disgusted, lonely and frustrated, but also so honest that you feel like you're on the other end of the call. Later on "Four Cigarettes," he plots an unlikely deliverance from inertia. "Four cigarettes away / I'm gonna leave the house," he murmurs indolently, against plaintive piano, and makes it sounds like an unrealizable dream.

Depression, stasis, domestic claustrophobia, it all sounds so good on A Brighter Beat. It's the kind of album that makes you wonder whether mental stability isn't over-rated, if people don't lose something essential when they medicate away all doubts and personality problems. Middleton's visible struggle – through late night cigarettes, rented room six-packs and halting cell conversations – is bitter and maybe wrongheaded sometimes, but so human.

A Brighter Beat hits stores in the U.S. on July 24

By Jennifer Kelly

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