The last time we saw Malcolm Middleton he was sipping a beer with his former bandmate Aidan Moffat, as the two sat alone and pouting in a room full of balloons, confetti, and empty chairs. Arab Strap had finally called it quits, and the Scotsmen felt an image of mock self-pity most appropriate for the cover of their greatest-hits compilation — a petulant send-off to ten long years of hard liquor and hard luck.
It would also be entirely appropriate for Middleton’s third solo effort, A Brighter Beat. Its ten tunes testify both to the futility of self-obsession and its profound attraction. Middleton flirted with this synthesis on 2005’s Into the Woods, but the majority of those songs fell into woe-is-me solipsism. On his first LP since parting ways with Moffat, Arab Strap’s former multi-instrumentalist finally finds the humor in all that doom ‘n’ gloom. A Brighter Beat defines Middleton as a solo artist in the starkest sense of the word: a musician writing by himself and always, painfully and humorously, about himself. Middleton’s description on his MySpace page says it all: pop/folk/comedy.
Take the opener, “We’re All Gonna Die.” If the ludicrous title didn’t make it clear enough, then the lines “You’ve gotta laugh into the dark/ We’re all one in a million” is proof that Middleton understands that existential crises are best endured with a wink and grin. The real tip-off, though, is the music. A Brighter Beat’s bald-faced ambition and muscular production (courtesy of Glaswegian-scenester Tony Doogan) ensure Middleton inhabits his tunes, not his head. The album is simply too much fun. The record’s finale, “Superhero Songwriters,” is rife with big, bold Sgt. Pepper-isms: bleating horns, swinging piano, crashing cymbals, “la la” choruses. And “Fight Like the Night,” the best of the bunch, is power-pop bliss, an endearing, go-for-broke duet between Middleton’s chesty guitar with Jenny Reeve’s honey-soaked vocals. Pat Benatar, I dare say, would be proud.
There are moments when Middleton regresses — the tedious “Four Cigarettes” is undoubtedly one of them — but A Brighter Beat is a marked achievement for a markedly undervalued songwriter. For Middleton’s courage in transcending Arab Strap’s misery folk and Moffat’s prodigious vocal influence, for his impeccable guitar playing, and for his refusal to temper that tart Scottish brogue, A Brighter Beat deserves a toast or two. It’s an honor that Middleton would certainly appreciate.