Malcolm Middleton, previously one half of gritty Scottish miserabilists Arap Strap, establishes the modus operandi for his fourth album Sleight of Heart right from the get go. When he sings “We’re having a week off/We’re having a rest” from “Week Off”, he means it; Sleight of Heart is a lighter, more relaxed record than his previous effort A Brighter Beat.
Weighing it at a slender nine tracks, Sleight of Heart was originally intended to be an EP of cover versions, indeed three of the songs are covers, but the initial idea was expanded with original material to form a full album. Not wishing to spend another protracted stint in the studio, a la A Brighter Beat, Malcolm recorded these songs in a mere four days. However don’t assume this brevity in the studio equates to lack of quality or polish, on the contrary this collection is richly produced and extremely accessible.
Over strummed acoustic guitars, subtle piano, smatterings of violin and, occasionally, drums and bass, Middleton sings of a nation’s preference for having a boozy night in rather than going out (“Blue Plastic Bags”), self-doubt and inadequacy (“Total Belief”) and state of mind (Jackson C. Frank’s “Just Like Anything”).
Madonna’s “Stay” is interpreted as a lover’s dark, desperate plea, while King Creosote’s “Marguerita Red” is a jaunty romp which belies its tale of bitterness. Special mention goes to the catchy chord progression and relative optimism of “Follow Robin Down” and the seven minute break-up epic “Love Comes in Waves” where a lovelorn Middleton warbles “Love is for TV and movie stars/Love is for songs on slow guitars…Love is a Lie/I’m a liar/Love is a lie/You’re a liar”.
Sleight of Heart could’ve have been a overly depressing listen but is saved by Malcolm Middleton’s frank, sardonic observations and ability to write (or cover) a cracking tune. What started as off-cuts from A Brighter Beat stands on its own as another rich, rewarding accomplishment in Middleton’s impressive reverie.