A Brighter Beat
alcolm Middleton’s latest album, sinks, in the best way possible, like a stone. Aurally, the record—Middleton’s third solo outing, and first since Arab Strap’s dissolution—begins buoyantly enough. The first few tracks float along jauntily, yet Middleton’s lyrics suggest otherwise: we’re not skimming across the surface here; we’re treading water for dear life. “You’re gonna die alone,” Middleton enthuses on the first track, later declaring, “When you can’t sleep at night / And there’s no one to hold you / Remember I’m going through the same.” That’s the kind of salvation offered by A Brighter Beat: we’re all alone together, Middleton insists, and if you’re going to drown, it’s nice to have a witness.
Really, the closest Middleton comes to togetherness is in the winsomely woeful, truly outstanding “Fuck It, I Love You,” where he sounds resigned, sure, but maybe a little bit pleased, too. “Three little words on a four by four,” goes the chorus; it’s not much but it’s something. Still, he remains alone: “When are you coming home?” he asks, and nobody answers. Absence is a dominant presence on A Brighter Beat, as in the title track, where we become, to Middleton, “just the ghosts of the people they once held dear.” It’s this kind of liminal instant—the moment when the living dissolve into the dead, when the shallow end drops off into the deep end—that most marks Middleton’s work. This is not life, Middleton suggests, but the movement towards death: here we are, always becoming something else.
The motion mapped by each song is mimicked, on a larger scale, by the album itself. If the first few tracks stand as the epipelagic layer—here the sunlight pierces the water, here we see shoals of silver fish—Middleton’s words serve as a kind of anchor. As the album progresses, the songs begin to drift downward, wearing their sadness on their sleeve. “Stay Close Sit Tight” is despondently claustrophobic in its tight, repetitive structure; the first 28 seconds of “Four Cigarettes” are the most delicately gloomy 28 seconds in recent memory.
Scientists refer to the bottommost region of the sea—the water that fills the deep ocean trenches—as the hadopelagic zone, a name derived from Hades, the Greek underworld. Middleton draws us to this depth on the final track, “Superhero Songwriters,” which begins, appropriately, like a funeral dirge, takes us through a few satisfyingly strident verses, and ends not with a bang but a whimper. The same can’t be said for A Brighter Beat, though: for an album about all the bad things that can happen to us, it sounds pretty damn good.
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Gumport
Reviewed on: 2007-06-28