Malcolm Middleton was slow to become a comforting listening habit. I couldn’t really imagine a time when I wouldn’t find Arab Strap a gratingly relentless downer. That didn’t mean I didn’t absolutely respect Malcolm and the gang’s uncompromisingly miserable outlook. Think of that other Malcolm, Malcolm Tucker from the political satire “In the Loop.” The fact that he’s a bloodshot-eyed psycho, spasming with expletives — fuckity BYE — is applaudable, as he’s a Scotsman.
You may be aware that Scotland is quite far North. To me it’s perfectly understandable that Northerners would fight back against the misery of living through days of darkness and rain by adopting a hard-drinking, hard-ranting comic rage that would get them through the winter months. Having some eff and blind in you is a sign that you’re still fighting, which means at least that you’re not weeping in the corner.
As Morrissey once said of the British, “you wonder how we’ve survived so long.” Well, the answer is with a healthy dose of “Tourette’s”. I’m not talking about the real, often misunderstood syndrome, but the common idea of it which involves copious declamatory swearing.
Just for a second imagine the Malcolm Tucker endorsed “Tourette’s” as a cheap cigarette brand:
“He handed me a pack of “Tourette’s” – you know, the kind that old people smoke, the kind that suddenly made you wonder if you’d become hoarse and terrifying like them one day.”
Right there you have my own interpretation of a typical lyric from the Middleton universe. And if you’re game you also have a mechanism for survival: paint yourself as black (or as nicotine colored) as your surroundings, with excessive declamatory swearing and abusive self-deprecation.
Over the course of the eight albums Middleton has released since Arab Strap — nearly as many as he has with them – he has been engaged in a seemingly inevitable verbal bar-fight with his darker side. Malcolm Middleton records are hardly less mellow than Arab Strap ones, but over time it seems this process of dissecting his own misery has made him less of a ranter and more of a metaphysical poet of life’s shoddier choices (chicken or beef; cigarettes or beer; hangover or depression). This struggle may seem self-absorbed, but it’s apparent that it breeds humor in titles like Mad for Sadness, A Quarter Past Shite, and “You’re Gonna Die Alone” (a breezy number). Middleton’s darkside is so prevalent that it’s become acceptable — just like the messy, grandiose flatmate who wanders in and out through a sitcom kitchen. Also mercifully for his audiences, in musical terms Middleton refuses to be just a miserable songwriter with a guitar. He can move between the sparest laments, upbeat rock, dancier moments, and haunting piano interludes.
I won’t lie, every time I switch on a Middleton album I still brace myself for a bleak listening experience akin to the type of sky you see over power plants. But each time, the slightly dampened mood is worth it for throwaway examples of miserablism like the following: “I can’t even cook a meal without falling into stress/ It only takes some pasta to remind me of the total depths of my unworthiness” (from Sleight of Heart). If you can find drama and humor in such moments, though you may feel a little cursed at times, you’ll never be bored, you’ll never be satisfied, and neither will your listeners. And that’s what a positive attitude is really: a strategy for keeping on keeping on, no matter how shite it gets.