Album Review: Arab Strap – ‘As Days Get Dark’

The divine push and pull between vocalist Aidan Moffat and instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton continue as they return from a fifteen-year studio hiatus. Investigating the corrosive reverberations of social depravity with Robert Fripp-like lashings of unravelling guitar, As Days Get Dark marks Arab Strap’s hypnotic return to vitality. Matt Taylor shares his thoughts.

It feels more than a little ironic that the return of Arab Strap, a band who’s inarguable hit once soundtracked the minutiae of ‘the first big weekend of the summer’, should make their grand return in a year when everything they once rendered in such vivid detail feels like a distant memory; there’s no twenty-four-hour café, no indie disco, and absolutely no gear-fuelled hugging and dancing. This is a band who’s songs have always inhabited the wee hours of the night, messily spilling from the dankest corners of clubs out onto the pavement bleary-eyed. Now their natural terrain is on indefinite hiatus, seemingly leaving them without new experiences to narrativise.

But on the other hand, perhaps it’s fitting given that, a full sixteen years after their last album, vocalist Aidan Moffat seem worlds removed from the hedonist he once (with alternating glee and regret) painted himself to be. He’s undoubtedly still as dour and incisive as ever, but his lyrics now feel tempered with the real lived experience to back it up; when he says “I’ve cried at many broken hearts, I’ve sobbed in countless drinks” on Tears On Tour, we truly feel the weight of the years behind it. It allows As Days Get Dark to feel like a sober, refocused step forward, eschewing the temptation to retell the same old pub stories in favour of sharp observations with real emotional depth.

‘[Compersion Pt. 1] proves that Arab Strap always embodied the idea of ‘death disco’ better than Public Image Ltd. ever could.’

There’s always that slight trepidation when hitting play on a band’s comeback album, but opener The Turning of Our Bones is one of the greatest examples of an immediate return-to-form that I can think of. Originally released some six months ago as a standalone single, it’s a thumping electro banger that continues the band’s longstanding tradition of energetic opening tracks (see also The Shy Retirer, Cherubs, Stink), something which has always felt informed by the scrappy DIY demo mindset; the idea that you only get one shot to make a first impression, so you might as well lead with your strongest material. In effect, that’s exactly the situation they find themselves in; after sixteen years, it’s time to make a first impression all over again.

The very first couplet (“I don't give a fuck about the past, our glory days gone by / All I care about right now is that wee mole inside your thigh”) is almost the Platonic ideal of an Aidan Moffat lyric, so concisely does it nail his canny mixture of plainspoken observations with uncomfortably intimate details; you can almost feel him wryly asking “did you miss me?” (Of course, it’s still a distant second to that iconic spit take of a first line on Philophobia opener Packs of Threes, but I digress). Instrumentally it’s among the most densely layered singles they’ve released, showcasing one of many great arrangements from instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton; where songs were once generally led by a single austere guitar, with additional elements layered on top for colour, we now have a far greater number of songs with robust and intricate frameworks replete with strings, pulsing synth bass, and a fantastically dubby saxophone break. This is also exemplified by lead single Compersion Pt. 1, which mixes shuffling hi-hats and an infectious lead guitar line with a depressing cautionary tale (one which I won’t spoil), and further proves that Arab Strap always embodied the idea of ‘death disco’ better than Public Image Ltd. ever could. They somehow even manage to make a 7/4 time signature danceable on Here Comes Comus! – an achievement in itself.

Early album highlight Another Clockwork Day, a hushed acoustic ballad, weaves a poignant tale from the secret midnight dalliance of a husband who goes seeking excitement not in the arms of another, but in the accumulated artefacts of his marriage. Old erotic .JPEGs “buried in folders within folders” in an external drive are referenced exquisitely in the album cover, a computer screen with a renaissance painting just barely covering an intimate photograph, like an internet tab frantically closed upon someone peering over your shoulder. This retreading of old memories suggests less of a need for arousal than a wistful longing for the vibrancy of youth and young love, desire, and existential dread irreparably tangled; it makes for a fascinating, nuanced narrative that unfurls slowly and deliberately. Lines that should come across as unwieldy (“IMG_4329, the flushed flesh of new love in summer / IMG_4457, wearing nothing but a new postcode”) have a surprising tenderness in context, one of many indications on the album that we are dealing with a more mature, controlled, and ultimately more complex creative voice.

The acerbic humour so characteristic of Arab Strap is still present, however, as in Aidan’s withering dismissal of modern pornography (“And it's all stepmoms and stepsisters now / What the fuck's all that about?”). It’s delivered with such deadpan wit that for a second I want him to pathologize all that has changed about society since they left us in 2006, to put the world to rights like an observational comedy set. While some ideas about the distancing effects of technology do hang over the album, thankfully it shows restraint and doesn’t the lazy route of pandering to the listener’s inner curmudgeon for more than brief moments at a time. For example, while Aidan has said that the title of Bluebird is an oblique reference to Twitter, there’s no forced attempt at contemporaneity beyond that; it’s chorus may well be informed by the feedback-loop validation seeking of social media (“I don’t want your love, I need your love / Give me your love, don’t love me”) but it’s delivered with such earnestness that it just as easily works as a genuine lovers plea. This, combined with the memorable chord progression melody, means that with a production overhaul it could probably pass for a starry-eyed Carly Rae Jepsen single (and I mean this as high praise).

‘“Dragging the corpse out and having a dance with it.” Broadly speaking, this is the conflict at the heart of all of their best work.’

In a recent interview, Aidan pinpointed the dialectical tension at the heart of The Turning of Our Bones, describing it as “dragging the corpse out and having a dance with it.” Broadly speaking, this is the conflict at the heart of all of their best work, in its constant push-pull between the world-weariness of the vocals set against the grinding amphetamine energy of the instrumentals; drums that pound like the spectral hangover headache that features in so many of their more debauched songs, always threatening to overpower delicately fingerpicked guitars and half-spoken asides. But in a greater sense, this image perfectly encapsulates everything the band has achieved on this remarkably assured comeback; if Arab Strap has appeared to be a corpse for well over a decade, very occasionally reanimated to play the old songs, As Days Get Dark proves that there’s still life in these old bones yet.

Written by: Matt Taylor

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Featured and article image courtesy of Arab Strap via Facebook.