As half of the Scottish duo Arab Strap, Malcolm Middleton seemed the only stabilizing force in Aidan Moffat’s life. Against the slurred lunacy and ambling self-destruction of Moffat’s vocal persona, Middleton provided an even plateau of acoustic melancholy. Whether with the brutal minimalism of 2000’s Elephant Shoe or the baroque folk on 2003’s Monday at the Hug and Pint, Middleton’s arrangements had always given his blotto buddy a tune he could spill his guts over after everyone else had caught a taxi home.
Or at least that’s how it appeared if you hadn’t listen to Middleton’s own records. With 2002’s 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine and now with Into the Woods, Middleton has revealed himself as much of a fuck-up as Moffat, albeit one without the need to embarrass himself with every stanza. “Devastation,” “Monday Night Nothing” and “Choir” are instructive in their willingness to reveal Middleton’s crushing insecurities with utter sincerity. Moffat might hide behind a joke or a collapsing relationship, but Middleton flatly intones, “There’s a bear in my bed/ Wanting to be loved/ Eyes like marbles/ All he needs is a hug,” in that unmistakable Scottish brogue.
His honesty may be endearing, but Middleton’s tunes at these moments are often marred by his lyrical solipsism. Meditative acoustic guitar, plaintive piano and a few synths make quaint, entirely predictable sets for Middleton’s midlife dramas. However numerous his demons, though, Middleton is an able arranger. More often than not, Into the Woods breaks this weepy mold for some truly inspired tracks. With synths that pop and bristle or guitars that squeal and fuzz, “No Modest Bear” and “A New Heart” make our hero’s despair danceable and the tunes much easier to swallow. “A Happy Medium” with its skipping beat, sunny acoustic guitars and female back-up vocals, even makes Middleton’s near-laughable line, “Woke up again today/ Realized I hate myself/ My face is a disease,” seem the very essence of insight.
Into the Woods proves that Middleton is more than just a sad bloke with a guitar. Though he lacks the thrill of his partner’s graphic confessions, as a tunesmith, Middleton has assured us he’s no wee lad.