This is a stark and startling revelation. A musical slap in the face that leaves an intoxicating tingle. A set of songs, so jauntily fatigued, so open and brutally honest, so aching and bright. Malcolm Middleton has spent so long framing the mildew melancholia of Arab Strap in nicotine-stained sepia that the sheer blistering thump and rush of Into The Woods is dizzying.
Against a set of beautifully realised backdrops, Middleton sings ofthe dark spaces and empty places on the flipside of happiness. His voice is warm and ragged, a Falkirk burr adding fragile humanity to his musing.
The single Loneliness Shines is a bloodrush of memory and melody, built around an acoustic guitar that slices like a switchblade through the swathes of My Bloody Valentine swirling ambient pop. Controlled heartbreak, a platinum plated howl. Bear With Me opens with sharp clusters of white noise before it expands out into a brittle early New Order shuffle, all melodic bass and desolate strings. It then morphs again into a delicate reverb drenched coda.
No Modest Bear is slinky and funky. A keyboard riff booms out, as Middleton twists his words around the vigorous rhythm. It’s like Stevie Wonder‘s Superstition with a Buckie induced hangover. A Happy Medium is collision of sharp beats and jangling guitars. Choir is perfect off-kilter pop, edgy warped disco beats and synth hand claps dragged along by an undertow of sparse piano notes and elegiac cello. Solemn Thirsty is like the rush of wave up a shingle beach in winter. Clangingsnares and a gloomy bassline tussle with a bright plaintive guitar riff as Middleton sings of his self doubt and the fears of aging. Real death disco.
Eastenders gets a name check on the grim anti-Christmas hymn, Burst Noel. A gentle finger-picked guitar and chiming Christmas bells back Middleton’s bitter ruminations. The piano-led Autumn opens with a powerful lyrical stab that we shouldn’t spoil, its spills from the speakers like morning-after bile. The music sways around a circling piano and cello motif, until an anguished guitar solo briefly cuts through. Middleton: resentful of the painful memories that autumn always ushers into his mind.
Lyrically this is magnificent stuff. The lines are endlessly quotable. They cut through to the marrow of love and loss with a rapier-like aim. Self-deprecating, self-flagellating, bitter, humble, funny, bleak, hopeful. It would be unjust to Middleton to rip them out of context. There is no attempt to sugar-coat his observations, his eye is unwavering, his pen unforgiving. The darker more uncomfortable edges of thematerial are made palatable by the beauty and breath of the music. In a world where Chris Martin’s empty clichés escape criticism, it’s refreshing to hear someone pen words so original and execute them with such verve.
Into The Woods is an album to lose yourself in, to cherish and warm your soul.