It’s easy to feel down. It’s easy to feel good, too. What’s difficult is doing them both at the same time. Enter Malcolm Middleton – formerly half of Arab Strap – whose third solo album, A Brighter Beat, is a clever fusion of melancholy lyrics and upbeat pop-rock. In a play off of one of fellow Glaswegians, Mogwai’s, album titles, this could very well be called Happy Songs for Sad People. Middleton covers a variety of standard Britpop methods from heavy, anthemic ballads to quick pseudopunk to slow piano strains – all with a pervasive, depressive cheekiness that make this a thoroughly lonely album.
Take the bustling fanfare of the opening track, "We’re All Going To Die". Middleton despondently harmonizes on refrains that spit out lament ("You’re gonna die alone") while light brass flare and drums gallop energetically behind him. His throaty delivery is remarkably similar to Nicky Wire’s on his solo album. They both sound pensive and let down by the world, tired and hopeless. A Brighter Beat‘s restlessly dark mood is set early in these lyrics, and through the rhythms that keep Middleton’s gloomy disposition afloat.
Despite all of the melancholy, there are a few key spots where you can see through the gloom. Several other Glasgow all-stars appear on the album, such as Barry Burns of Mogwai and Paul Savage of The Delgados. Reindeer Section’s Jenny Reeve lends powerful vocals to "Fight Like The Night", a spirited, electronic-tinged duet. "Four Cigarettes" is more elegant and slower, but similarly affecting. "Up Late At Night Again" flows through dense production and orchestration, offering solace rather than despondence. With these, Middleton demonstrates his ability to make powerful music highly personal.
A Brighter Beat is an album with two personalities. The musical side is, indeed, bright through its twists and turns. The vocal mood, on the other hand, is as low as Middleton can go. He’s surely one of the best at dampening the mood, but with the obvious difference between his downcast vocals and the upbeat music prevents it from being a truly cohesive album. It’s an interesting mix, however, that shows that depression doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in an obvious way.