Malcolm Middleton – Summer of ‘13
“Won’t someone please come on and diagnose me with something,” urges the curiously uplifting opener Steps. “I’m not making progress, and all of my time is running out of my lungs.”
Such lyrical candour is precisely what we’ve grown accustomed to with a Malcolm Middleton record; his has always been introspection cannily framed. And while you don’t have to always take this pithy brand of fatalism at face value – irony is a useful weapon, after all – his post-Arab Strap career tends to be understood with a little more clarity when the honesty is left unfettered.
If there’s an argument that the themes behind Summer of ’13 haven’t necessarily progressed from 2002’s 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine, its apparel couldn’t be more different; this record is pop. Unapologetically pop. Unashamedly primary-coloured, flaunting its ‘80s-influences like Boy George wears his hats these days.
It’s unexpected, and may arrive bereft of context if you haven’t been playing close attention of late (the temporary retirement of the Middleton ‘brand’ after 2009’s Waxing Gibbous; two albums of predominately instrumental lo-fi post-rock as Human Don’t Be Angry; the scatological bedtime stories comprising 2014’s Words and Music LP, Malc responsible for the latter, tall tales courtesy of artist David Shrigley). Also, Malcolm has never shied away from the inert joy of the great pop record – the love of Pat Benatar; covers of The Saturdays and Girls Aloud with tongue very much not in cheek – and by engaging the production services of Miaoux Miaoux (alongside input and ideas from Lone Pigeon, De Rosa's Martin John Henry and Scott Simpson of First Aid Kit), Summer of ’13 is very much Middelton’s Pet Shop Boys moment.
A brave juxtaposition of cathartic, downbeat lyrics and dance-inclined electronica. And not one that always works on its own terms, what with sad expressions usually unwelcome down the discotheque. The highlights – Steps, You & I, the football chant of Like John Lennon Said, working as if a short essay that Foucault might have written if he was really going for a 'hit' – are all-too-frequently lead astray by synth-pop patterns which are ill-suited to his vocal presence (the title track in particular, featuring a slowed-down/speeded-up vox, sits awkwardly in the narrative).
Middleton is to be commended for trying something beyond his comfort zone; never let it be said he follows the path of least resistance. The production is pristine, the nostalgic references – Paul Young’s version of Wherever I Lay My Hat on Big Black Hole, for example – both witty and elegant; they do work. But for any listener beholden to folk-aligned contemplation behind the rest of the similarly-monikered canon, Summer of ’13 is an anomalous curio, bringing to mind an ‘80s hit not mentioned here: Eddy Grant’s I Don’t Wanna Dance.