sun 18/08/2019

Malcolm Middleton, Brighton Festival review - mordant brilliance | reviews, news & interviews

Malcolm Middleton, Brighton Festival review - mordant brilliance

Malcolm Middleton, Brighton Festival review - mordant brilliance

Rare gig from the Scottish singer-songwriter is stark but mesmeric

Looking things square in the eye

Before starting this review a decision was taken: that the over-used description of singer-songwriter Malcolm Middleton as a “Scottish miserablist” would not appear. However, this has proved impossible. Middleton is renowned, to the coterie who enjoy his music, for songs ripe with dejection but the first half of his set tonight is especially heavy with stark soul-searching. From the opening number, “Gut Feeling”, which contains the line, “I’ve got rows of wankers in my head shouting my gut feeling down”, to a song called “Love is a Momentary Lapse in Self-Loathing”, he assays a stark, poetic and often drily comic exploration of depression.

The set focuses, perhaps overly, on material from a forthcoming album that sounds as if it will be one of his best. Cards on the table: I’m a huge fan. I don’t understand why he’s not more widely known. He is the Glaswegian Leonard Cohen, his soul-flaying verses perfectly spiked with the juxtaposition of everyday detail and mordant asides. “Is everyone having fun?” he mumbles into the mic not long after a number called “Have Fun, Mister”, a lacerating existential crisis in song that posits of life, “I don’t think there’s an after, but no one really knows.”

If Shaw is explicitly amusing, Middleton’s humour is woven amid the darkness of his themes

Middleton’s new album will be his seventh. That figure excludes his work with Arab Strap and under his experimental moniker Human Don’t Be Angry, as well as his collaborative work with the artist David Shrigley, Guest Director of this year’s Brighton Festival. It is Shrigley who curated tonight’s gig and is present, introducing the performers and manning support act Iain Shaw’s merchandise table, somehow a strangely affecting thing to see.

Among a few other albums and CDs for sale is a 7” made by Shrigley and Shaw called “Listening to Slayer”. It is this that Shaw is playing as I arrive. Alone with his acoustic, as Middleton will be later, his set is comedic, featuring much material created with Shrigley, including a very funny acted skit about the game Twister that he plays from his phone. He has a bad cold but maintains a steady wit. “I’m a level five vegan,” he announces at one point, “I don’t eat anything that casts a shadow.”

If Shaw is explicitly amusing, Middleton’s humour is woven amid the darkness of his themes. “Self-preservation threatens us all/Health deterioration comes to us all,” runs the closing chorus to “Choir” from his 2005 album Into the Woods. He plays one of my favourite of his songs, “Blue Plastic Bags” (“The whole world’s going home with blue plastic bags/Six bottles of Stella, Jacob's Creek and twenty fags”). It’s a number that perfectly encapsulates what he does and it’s brilliant.

Middleton is no longer very keen on performing like this, with his acoustic guitar. David Shrigley persuaded him this evening but it’s becoming a rarer and rarer treat. At the end of his encores, he closes, as he always does, with “The Devil and the Angel”. It’s a blackly playful song about the struggle for a sense of self-worth. The closing line is typically bleak; “I'll never amount to anything/I'll never achieve anything/I'll never be good at anything/And my songs are pish.” Bathed in a glow of pale blue light, beneath a giant adorned crucifix in this early 19th century church, he leaves a pause before the final word and someone in the front row quietly but firmly interjects “alright”, instead of “pish”. He smiles. The applause starts.

Below: listen to "The Ballad of Fuck All" by Malcolm Middleton

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