After a particularly prodigious decade together, Arab Strap created a batch of tracks that still rank pretty high on my list of most dour and depressing music. In the past couple years, the output has slowed a bit from the group, and both members of the group have taken up side projects. Aidan Moffat churns out lush ambient music under the name Lucky Pierre while Middleton released a debut album called 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine a couple years back that was created while on Prozac and after some bad personal experiences (including Pancreatitis and a relationship breakout) and the melancholy sounds of the release were musically appropriate given the above.
With Into The Woods, it seems that the mood of Middleton has increased dramatically, and while the album is by no means a breezy walk in the park, it's considerably more upbeat than anything he's had a hand in before. Musically, it's also much more adventurous. Whereas his debut album was mainly acoustic, here he encorporates all kinds of different instrumentation and enlists the help of several friends, including members of Mogwai, The Delgados, The Reindeer Section, and even bandmate Moffat.
Although it's one of the weaker tracks on the album in terms of lyrics, "Break My Heart" opens the release with bouncy guitar and piano melodies layered with cello, and Middleton adds vocals that sound much less slurred and thick than usual. "Devastation" is closer to his first album with more of a melancholy feel, but then it's onto "Loneliness Shines," a blistering guitar track that alternately strips things down and unloads with sheets of heavy guitar washes. "No Modest Bear" is even more playful, mixing bouncy analogue synth melodies with overdriven drum programming.
Other than a few more downcast tracks, one of the only things that makes the album recognizable as something from Middleton are the oft-biting lyrics. While things have brightened considerably, he still lets loose with plenty of pointed lines and a dark sense of humor. while "A Happy Medium" finds Middleton dueting with Jenny Reeve on an electronic pop track that sounds like The Postal Service until they get to the upbeat chorus of "Woke up again today / realized I hate myself." The album closes with "A New Heart," and the bluegrass inspired romper sounds like it was inspired by several listens to countrymates Son And Daughters. Hopefully the clouds stay parted for Middleton, as it seems to inspire even better music from him.