‘Last night when I was sleeping a devil came to me.
She said “Malcolm… Malcolm… your soul belongs to me.
And you’ll never amount to anything,
You’ll never achieve anything,
You’ll never be good at anything… and your songs are shite.”’
Malcolm Middleton – ‘Devil & The Angel’
In Malcolm Middleton’s Faustian-infused lyrics for his track ‘Devil & The Angel’ – taken from the suburb début solo album of 2002, 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine – he is confronted by the dual voices of the creative process in the form of a devil and an angel. In classic Faustian rhetoric, the lyrics tell the tale of a devil that visits a sleeping Middleton, and confronts him with the anxiety all artists feel, namely, that their art is useless or worthless. The narrative then sees Middleton succumb to this anxiety, as he sees himself as ‘dishonest and dirty’, and critiques his own work as ‘shite’. Yet, the next night, Middleton is again visited upon in his sleep, as an angel arrives who comforts Middleton by stating, ‘Malcky… Malcky… salvation lies with me. Because you can amount to something, you can achieve anything, you can be good at something… and your songs are alright.’ The next morning sees the singer needing to choose his path, ‘It’s the devil or the angel, there’s only one way for me,’ and for Middleton that path is easily chosen, as he spits out the last lines with majestic self-debasing wit, ‘I’ll never achieve anything, I’ll never be good at anything… and my songs are pish.’ As the Scottish people are about to embark on a political Faustian decision of sorts in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence – I will let you decide which view represents the devil and the angel – this reviewer will seek to celebrate the majesty of this Scottish self-debasing wit, yet also, celebrate the ‘pish’ or ‘shite’ music of Malcolm Middleton, a performer who I have admired for a number of years.
Arguably, a defining trope of Scottish contemporary artists is self-debasement. In Middleton, his former band member from Arab Strap Aidan Moffat, author Irvine Welsh, comedians Frankie Boyle and Susan Calman, and numerous other Scottish artists, self-debasement in both national and individual terms is a reoccurring motif; as Welsh’s Renton from Trainspotting famously declares of his nation:
It’s SHITE being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonized by. We’re ruled by effete assholes. It’s a SHITE state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference!
For some, however, as Scotland is engulfed in the shadow of the independence debate, this self-debasement is no joking matter; as Calman discovered upon receiving online death threats recently after joking on a BBC Radio show about the independence debate, arguing that ‘at the moment it is just two people shouting, “Aye, we will have it”, and someone going, “No, we won’t”.’
Yet, for the most part, this trope of Scottish artistic discourse is revered, and, as is evident in Calman’s declaration that she would ‘keep laughing’ about Scottish politics, it is not going to go away; and this is a good thing. Political, national, and ideological self-debasement is an admirable trait, as despite the importance of conviction in one’s beliefs, it is equally important to see same beliefs in comedic terms every now and again. In equal measure, self-debasing wit is an endearing quality to others, as making fun out of your identity and/or beliefs can act as a way for others to accept your convictions. In national terms, this is equally a defining trope in Welsh national discourse, with good-natured self-debasing banter between countries a much enjoyed past-time; as is evident at yearly Six Nations encounters either in Cardiff or Edinburgh.
In individual terms, self-debasing wit acts in much the same way, endearing a person to others, and showing that a person does not take himself or herself too seriously. After all, self-worth is a good thing, but knowing and admitting every now and again that you did something ‘shite’ is also a noble trait; and one that saturates the work of Middleton. And yet, his work is far from ‘shite’, but by declaring it as such, Middleton allows others to engage in his art, and seek out what is not ‘shite’, and what is. Thus, by using self debasing wit, he allows his audience to not take his work overly seriously, and as a consequence his work is appreciated ever more. In essence, it acts in much the same way as reading a bad review before hearing an album, your expectation is low, so when the work is actually great, you enjoy it even more. Thus, when Middleton sings his work is ‘pish’ or ‘shite’ and you uncover this is far from the case, well then you admire it even more.
At this point, however, it must be recognised that a lot of Middleton’s self-debasement is not founded on a national character trait, but is a reaction to his own anxiety and struggle with depression, and as a consequence must be examined in a new light and not dismissed as wit. Yet, in equal measure, it must also be admired, as Middleton – as with Calman – uses his artistic medium to confront his mental health issues. This point is evident in much of his work, but perhaps best illustrated in his rather up-tempo track ‘Don’t Want to Sleep Tonight’ which is taken from the 2009 album Waxing Gibbous, with the lyrics, ‘I’ve made it through another day, I’ve gone and thrown another day away’, which beautifully embodies the sense of survival versus waste that many individuals with mental health issues struggle with.
In musical terms, Middleton’s work is wonderfully varied, with influence evident from a number of genres as varied as folk and techno, which leaves his collective work an impressive body; yet, despite the musical variation, there does seem an overarching narrative. As with all artists, Middleton’s work has stand-out moments – the absurdist fun of his Christmas release, ‘We’re all Going to Die’ (with companioning video of a drunk Middleton dressed as Santa), the hypnotic dance beats of ‘Happy Medium’, the despair of ‘Ballad of Fuck All’, the satirical attack on modern culture in ‘Blue Plastic Bags’, the haunting self-reflective prose of ‘Carry Me’, and the ‘do-dos’ of ‘Love Comes in Waves’ – yet the over-all message of his work seems to be that his work is, well, ‘shite’. However, is this is a bad thing? As I already indicted, I feel the answer is a resounding no, and for Middleton, the answer seems also to be no, as he asserts of his work on the track ‘Total Belief’, ‘and yes I hate it/ I hate everything I make, and this is shit and that is shit/ and being shit is great’, therefore, his majestic self debasing wit comes full circle, as despite the battle with devils and angels, Middleton seems content with his music. After all, if being ‘shit’ or ‘shite’ is great, then perhaps Middleton can follow the path of the angel and admit that his songs are alright. In essence, Middleton, like many of his fellow Scottish contemporaries, is able to use the endearing qualities of self-debasement to show not only the negatives of national, ideological, and individual worth, but equally to show the majesty of the work also; and lets hope they may long continue, after all being ‘shite’ is great.
For more information on Malcolm Middleton, check out www.malcolmmiddleton.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @M_Middleton_UK, and look out for upcoming collaboration album with the artist David Shrigley (@david.shrigley) coming out in November.