With ten years spent as one half of Arab Strap plus five solo albums to his name, Malcolm Middleton has chosen to title his new, largely instrumental project after the German version of board game Frustration (‘Mensch ärgere Dich nicht’).
It seems obvious that this is his attempt to shake off some of the negative connotations of the 'miserable singer-songwriter' tag that he has picked up over the years. When I saw him perform a Human Don't Be Angry set last year it was entirely instrumental and in fact over the course of this album only three of the nine tracks feature his conventional vocals.
The music here is more upbeat than many people might expect, and in terms of song titles and some of the instrumentation, the 1980's of Middleton's childhood isn't far away. Opening track 'The Missing Plutonium' immediately recalls Back to the Future with that title, and the drum programming of producer Paul Savage (Delgados) recreates a retro -80s feel, whilst some really great guitar playing carries the melody along. The 'HDBA Theme' is reminiscent of an instrumental Arab Strap mixed with computerised voices and drum machines, whilst the intriguing 'First Person Singular, Present Tense' is the first to feature his vocals. They are slightly effected but familiar from his other work, yet in the lyrics he is caught up in a puzzle, with the words "looking for the person" repeated irregularly over a pulsing tune complete with acoustic guitar chords.
'After the Pleasuredome' could be the come down track after a Frankie Goes to Hollywood power ballad, but it's much more subtle and delicate to live up to the '80s bombast that might suggest.
'Monologue: River' and 'Asklipiio' are conventionally structured songs that could fit on any of Malcolm's other albums; pretty but downbeat with piano and acoustic guitar to the fore. It's almost as if he needed to connect this new direction with his past work, and it does actually fit very well.
There is another obvious 80s reference on '1985' which is driven along by a sampled voice repeating 'ha', much like Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman', except here the underscore is interwoven guitars which further underline what a good guitarist Middleton is.
In fact, although this does come across as a distinct and different musical project, it should please long term fans of his work as well. The great shadow of Arab Strap isn't far away, and Aidan Moffat provides some live drums as well as apparently designing the sleeve of the vinyl release. It's not all business as usual though, because on earlier albums it would be safe to assume a song with a title like 'Getting Better at Feeling Like Shit' would be bleak and bitter, here it is a gentle instrumental guitar piece.
This is one of those albums that has impressed me more every time I've played it. It has managed to make Malcolm Middleton's musical range wider by showing how well he can work with instrumental melody lines whilst underlining what a fine guitar player he is. I suspect that Human Don't Be Angry may well be more than a side project for him in the future.