Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 19

Malcolm Middleton – Bananas

‘Love Is A Momentary Lapse In Self Loathing’ might just be the most perfect Malcolm Middleton song title (at least until the next most perfect Malcolm Middleton song title comes along) for it is one that essentially captures the themes of pretty much all his work (that same one song he’s been writing all his life, as he points out on the wonderful album opener ‘Gut Feeling’). For whilst there is light and tenderness on many of Middleton’s records it is inevitably counterpointed by great swathes of bleakness washing through the songs like sea fog advancing imperiously from the North Sea. Yet it is to Middleton’s credit (though I suspect from listening to ‘Bananas’ that he’d not be particularly open to accepting that credit) that he manages to cloak this mainly pessimistic worldview within a music that plays around with glorious Pop hooks that often feel at odds with the lyrical content. Middleton deploys these hooks with care though, and in the mostly lengthy songs on ‘Bananas’ these barbs of delicious melody often emerge as sequences punctuating structures that are diverse yet wholly cohesive. Indeed many of the songs on ‘Bananas’ feel like miniature suites, each with distinct movements, inevitably making the eight tracks feel like many more.

There is too a gallows humour about many of Middleton’s songs and this is certainly present in spades on ‘Love Is…’. There is also something of the potty mouth to Middleton’s songs, but whilst his collaboration with David Shrigley just felt irritating and irrelevant (perhaps this was the point, in which case job done but I just don’t want to listen to it thanks all the same) the more measured use of swearing on ‘Bananas’ feels altogether more human and real. “Fuck off with your happiness” Middleton sings on ‘Love Is…’ and a million misanthropes sing along. Well, maybe not a million but a few, certainly, and since when did we miss an opportunity to indulge in some alliteration when writing about Pop? That would be akin to never repeating yourself.

As he’s/we’ve noted Middleton certainly repeats himself, except that musically he does enjoy exploring different avenues, and after the more electronic backings to the ‘Summer of ’13′ collection ‘Bananas’ employs a greater wealth of instrumentation. There has often been lovely piano work in Middleton’s recordings and it is to the fore on much of ‘Bananas’. At times it puts me in mind of Elton John performing with Lenny Bruce on Blue Night and there is nothing wrong with that after all. There is more orchestration on ‘Bananas’ too and this works in tandem with the aforementioned ‘mini-suite’ structure of many of the songs, notably on the wonderful eight minute ‘Buzz Lightyear Helmet’. “How the fuck am I going to make a Buzz Lightyear helmet from this cardboard box and a roll of tape?” wonders Middleton in a song where he positions mental health in the awkward junction between the desire for isolation and the weight of responsibility. It’s another song of almost manic oscillations between light and shade and even as we revel in the closing chorus of “we’re gonna have fun, fun, fun on the east coast” we are already setting up for a half minute of plaintive piano receding out into that North Sea fog. ‘Man Up, Man Down’ meanwhile is the number where the electronic echoes of ‘Summer of ’13’ come back most obviously, driving the song through its central element with an almost motorik insistence. There is a moment here where Middleton talks about checking his tie in a mirror and “wondering ‘what would Ian say’” and is it just me or this is an Ian Curtis reference? I mean, there are lots of men called Ian, but when Middleton follows this not long after with the repeated “isolation” then it does all rather feel like a nod and a wink.

I’m not sure if there is also a nod and a wry wink to Joy Division in ‘Love Is…’ but you could certainly make the connection and it would fit sweetly next to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on a mix of love songs that dwell on the shadows cast by that particular emotion. It’s in those shadows that Middleton scratches out his art, making terrific mementoes such as ‘Bananas’. It’s in the records, in the songs, in the shadows where Middleton makes sense of (his) existence and like all artists we certainly feel the question of where the individual ends and the artist begins. The individual informs the art and the feedback loop of the art informs the individual. Middleton acknowledges this in Love Is… as he escapes to “hide in a song”, cloaking the ego in the artifice of creation.

Fuck off with your happiness indeed.

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