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Malcolm Middleton - Waxing Gibbous

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Artist: Malcolm Middleton

Album: Waxing Gibbous

Label: Full Time Hobby

Review date: Aug. 11, 2009

Malcolm Middleton’s fifth (and, according to some interviews, last) solo album revisits A Brighter Beat’s vertiginous juxtapositions of self-doubt and synthesizer pop, of jangling indie rock and foul-mouthed depression. This is, after all, the songwriter that hitched one of his jauntiest hooks to a chorus of “We’re all going to die now,” and made some want to dance to it. With Waxing Gibbous, he’s back at it, sitting morosely, like a poison spider, at the center of tweener-pink concoctions of pop, electro, folk and rock. And he’s so good at the bitter-sweet, happy-sad connection that it may take a spin or two before you hear much beyond good-time pop.

What’s changed – from Brighter Beat to now – is that Middleton seems to have given up on love as the consolation prize for failure and insufficiency. “Red Travellin’ Socks,” the album’s feel-good rocker, sounds what seems like a familiar theme: being on the road, away from loved ones, is no fun. Yet after an instrumental break, the mood changes, and Middleton wonders if the unnamed she is “sick of my face.” Bring them on, those traveling socks. The road may be lonely, but so is home, at least some of the time.

There’s a refusal to believe in the happy-ever-after here, even in “Carry Me,” the prettiest of Middleton’s waltz-time ballads. The main melodic chorus seems to hope for connection, as it asks “Will you carry me / when my legs are gone / will you carry me home?” Yet the long-spoken word intervals hint at a never-was glamour that draws Middleton away from ordinary life and love and home. “I was convinced I’d be living in hotels and breaking in houses by now. I was under the impression that they’d be partying in Rio and yachts,” Middleton mutters. “Every day I check for my super power or special ability, but it’s still in the post.” The simple person-to-person settling of the chorus is no match for dreams of being a rock star or super hero or special agent. You get the sense that this character would almost have to lose his legs, in order to allow himself to be cared for.

Jenny Reeve is, once again, the spoonful of sugar that makes the strychnine go down, her soft, breathy soprano weaving solace around Middleton’s cigarette ash cynicism. Barry Burns from Mogwai joins in the deception as well, plinking gospel chords and twinkling piano runs into bouts of self-laceration. And Middleton, as well, has a knack for musical buoyancy amid crushing depression. His “Ballad of Fuck All,” surely the darkest of these tunes, is couched in lovely folk-ish harmonies and flurries of picked guitars, a church-like calm surrounding lines like “I’m so bored / soul destroying gloom / the walls are closing in all around.” “Take my hand…” ventures Middleton in his cigarette-and-whiskey voice, and Reeve answers angelically, “Dragging me down.”

The combination of bile and hook, of wiry, mistrustful intelligence meshed in danceable synth pop works throughout the album, the contradictions bristling without overwhelming the tunes. Still, “Subset of the World,” the disc’s last uptempo rocker, is definitely the best. Here, the guitars drive, the bass rumbles, the drums pound, and Middleton sings “weeping in a rocking chair / going nowhere.” The song couldn’t be more infectious, even as it upends expectations and puns and dances around subjects like mortality, disconnection and self-absorption. No one else can do this with quite the same corrosive charm and humor, and if this really is Malcolm Middleton’s last go at it, what a shame.

By Jennifer Kelly

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