“Let’s have some upbeat music for a Saturday night”. Malcolm Middleton was once part of the incredibly fun, cheery Falkirk pop duo Arab Strap, who had the knack of combining post-rock intricacies with spoken word passages- raw, visceral, dripping with gut-wrenching emotional honesty. If The Pogues were James Joyce for the punk generation, Arab Strap were Irvine Welsh for the slowcore crowd, torrid tales of chemical romance and infidelity, comedowns and overdoses, drunken musings and reflections imparted by Aidan Moffat which were backed by Middleton’s atmospheres and soundscapes, essential to the charge and tension within the band’s material. They, along with fellow Chemikal Underground labelmates The Delgados, Mogwai and Bis showed a new wave of independent music from Scotland following a fallow period after the 1980s indiepop boom. Malcolm has also strode out as a solo artist following the retirement of Arab Strap, showcasing new album Bananas within his set along with older favourites.
Support for Malcolm comes in the form of Richard Lomax, operating under the name Granfalloon (“Gran like yer nan, falloon like a balloon but with an F”)- a folktronica act making use of a very unusual instrument in the form of an Omnichord, named George. The omnichord, played through a looper to create a discordant, decaying sound which matches up perfectly with Richard’s soulful voice and plaintive guitar, starkly picked and harshly strummed not unlike Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album, or the works of Mark Kozelek. Richard’s lyrics are brimming with cold fury as he opens up, playing highlights from his album Down There For Dancing. The primitive analogue drums and twinkling Omnichord give an extra dimension to Granfalloon, with vividly detailed worldbuilding, romanticising misery with a large dose of gallows humour.
On first glance, the setup for Malcolm Middleton is also a little unusual with an acoustic guitar, double bass and electric piano- a significant move away from the drum loops and processed electric guitar of The Week Never Starts Around Here and Philophobia, but with ‘Yours Sincerely, Born In Anstruther’, Middleton’s work feels like the natural extension of Arab Strap, once the drink and drugs have worn off but the pain, the boredom, the misery hasn’t receded- if anything, in the harsh light of the daytime it has amplified, surrounding you unrelenting. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a level of humour in Malcolm’s lyrics, “There’s nothing worse than a successful Scotsman”, the opening line to “Twilight Zone“, a song closer in style to The Delgados album The Great Eastern– musically upbeat, completely at odds with the heartrending words and flat, unaffected vocal delivery.
Material from Bananas is very well-received, but when Middleton plays selections from his back catalogue, a myriad of albums, standalone singles and collaborations, with “Blue Plastic Bags” getting something of a singalong going. Trading his acoustic for an electric guitar (naturally, a cry of “Judas!”), this portion of the set felt much closer to the sadcore of his former outfit, teetering on the sound of the likes of Red House Painters, with Malcolm’s half-sung/half-spoken maudlin voice always clear in the mix.
There is something cathartic about sadness in music. Not the usual I’m in love with a girl who doesn’t know I exist sadness, but the real, honest emotion brought in by depression and melancholia. When Malcolm sings “Man Up, Man Down“, it feels like a very real reaction to the classic (wrong) mentalities of the stiff upper lip and that boys don’t cry. The defeated, monotonous refrain in “Buzz Lightyear Helmet“, “We’ll have fun, fun, fun on the east coast” feels at first reaction to be pure lip service, a fraudulent statement, but at the same time there’s a glimmer, a microcosm of hope- the hope that if you close your eyes and repeat a thought to yourself enough, things might turn out the way you want, even for the briefest of times- it’s not going to be enough to make the sadness disappear, but a day of distraction is a victory, and we need to take these victories, however small, whenever we can. It’s how we keep going. The other way to keep going is purely out of spite- “Love Is A Momentary Lapse In Self-Loathing” takes the ideas from “Buzz Lightyear Helmet” and rips them inside out, with Middleton taking a perverse joy in belting out “Fuck off wi’ yir happiness!” taking a rant of misery into a defiant cry, a twisted piece of advice to keep going through the bleak outlook, to continue on purely to prove that you can.
Malcolm, like Arab Strap before him, feels like listening to a close friend read from their diary- their fears, dreams and darkest secrets. But unlike Aidan Moffat’s lurid stream-of-conscious lyricisms, Middleton feels more calculated and sober (literally and metaphorically), but still direct, open, unflinching. There are few people who can sing phrases like “I’m halfway between useless and potential” and “I’m only happy when I’m sad” completely free of irony and entirely straight-faced, and quite frankly it’s a refreshing experience. Sometimes we need some sadness, and Malcolm Middleton delivers this experience perfectly.
Photography and words by Liam Moody.