Last year Malcolm Middleton described how, much as he’d felt when Arab Strap hit their dead end as a band in 2006, he was now beginning to feel the same way about his solo identity – and how it was clearly time, as his confidence wobbled and faith in his own material faltered, to make a change if he was to continue as an artist.
Human Don’t Be Angry, both an album title and a new pseudonym for Middleton, is the change he’s made; and while it never veers far from the path he so slowly and drunkenly etched out with Aidan Moffat in the ‘Strap years, it does step up considerably from the kind of ambient miserablism he’s been dishing out more recently. Not that Middleton’s solo stuff hasn’t been good – it really has – but, as he admitted himself, once in a while it may have called for a little quality control that he wasn’t able to self-impose.
Human… is shaped imperfectly and purposefully – a jagged, horn-peaked mountain carved from bedroom beats, beholden to bloody noses, broken bottles and bare bones breaks as it builds from the bottom up and trails back down from its various climaxes on its own sufficiently satisfying terms.
It takes its time to hit its stride. Opening pair ‘The Missing Plutonium’, a pleasing minor key instrumental, and ‘Human Don’t Be Angry Theme’, a Kubrickian, robo-voiced delicate doomer with its near-metal guitar and piano-laced repetitive drive, are undoubtedly pleasing, but it’s when Middleton’s spare, strange vocals hit on the tender ‘First Person Singular, Present Tense’ that the album really rises. Treated to the point of being alien, and replete with the cryptic hook “I’m looking for the person looking for the person looking…” Middleton’s voice is the world-weary groan it ever was but approached from an altered perspective – an almost sci-fi alienation rather than the usual beer, sadness and arguments kind.
‘1985’ is not only the album’s centrepiece and axis but also one of the finest things Middleton’s ever been involved in – speaker-switching human voice samples are set against a sweet stream of guitar notes and the whole track evokes the kind of longing, nostalgia, even minor tragedy that only processed beats clashing with more organic sounds can trigger. When it hits a stadium chanting climax it seems entirely natural – and moreover, wonderful.
This is only bested by ‘Askliipio’ a Red House Painters chord progression strapped to an obsessive devotional lyric (“I’m coming your way… I propose you hand yourself over to me”) that sweeps along on a spectral wind and clatters to a close in heart-stopping, shuddering style. Again, it’s bleak and superb.
On Human…’s more leisurely moments like the slowcore, half-asleep wooze of ‘After The Pleasuredome’ and the spidery bedroom drawl of ‘Jaded’, the material is still strong but a little more predictable – unlike the Full Massive Power Ballad (almost) of ‘Monologue:River’ which is the sound of a thousand indie bands growing a heart, sprouting souls and writing an awkward, empowered anthem.
Middleton has made a warped and weird record here, and one with rough, angled edges to match the disassociated concept behind it. The key thing to remember about reinvention is the necessity of ensuring that you are creating something that’s a worthy successor to your previous incarnations. In this case Middleton has made the transition a beautiful, worthwhile and powerful one.