Sex. Death. Tears. Love. The march of time and the flight of foxes.
What couldn’t Arab Strap write a song about? Their seventh studio album, 'As Days Get Dark', retains the mordant wit and scrumptious miserabilism that’s kept them the pride of Falkirk.
But don’t arrive expecting the old comedown ballads. Though they were roused back to life by 2016’s heroes-welcomed reunion tour, 'As Days Get Dark' doesn’t deal in the old material. It declares its stance from the first lines: “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”.
Maturity doesn’t mean mediocrity. It’s turned their focus widescreen, though the beady eye doesn’t spare its glee for the gory details. It’s just bigger, in every way. Musically, texturally, lyrically. Working with long-term production ally Paul Savage of chem19, they’ve infused old templates with fresh instrumentation, pulsating electronics and some mad jazz flourishes.
It’s older and wiser. And that’s trite, but true.
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Night’s the filter through which we view the imagined city. ‘Kebabylon’ imagines a happy-hour kingdom where people shed their skins and free themselves,“chasing down the ghosts of indiscretion and lust”. Slashed with strings, tension built through a murk of guitar and electronics, a flurry of free-range trumpet takes us to a chorus you can imagine belted out as someone’s carted home. The “moonlight maids” of cleaners and street-sweeps clear the evidence before morning.
Moffat captures the chancer’s charm of the seasoned Romeo, as he operates under cover of darkness (“a doyenne of deception, sometimes he wonders if he could’ve been on the telly”).
More domestic rituals are observed on the strummed Another Clockwork Day, as a bored man slips from his sleeping wife, treading a well-worn file path to look at his “lo-res memories, buried in folders within folders”.
But humans aren’t the only nocturnal animal, and concerns are more than base.
‘Fable Of The Urban Fox’ is a contemporary Aesop – an allegory of foxes fleeing a cruel country to seek refuge in the city, finding instead a thankless place full of “hostile architecture and hostile faces”. It isn’t too much of a leap to imagine the parallel drawn, especially as a ‘bull-dog’ spits: “Fuck off back to Foxland, these streets are fucking full.” - It’s one of the finest songs they’ve ever written. Sensitively orchestrated, the hurried, frantic violin line symbolic of the hunt to find a place that’s home.
‘Tears On Tour’ sets glacial 80s goth electronics behind a Moffat monologue, listing all the times he’s cried. “What do you call the opposite of a comedian? That’s what I wanted to be...I even planned the merchandise: 100% cotton handkerchiefs, embroidered with tour dates.” Twinned vocal and guitar lines build to crescendo, before an angsty solo steals the show. Middleton has never sounded better.
The singles are enormous: the insidious riff of 'Compersion P1'. burrows into the brain; ‘Here Comes Comus!’ demolishes its swaggering central barfly - a man who promises you the night, if only you’d follow your nose.
But ‘The Turning of Our Bones’ is where the real spirit lurks. A four-minute rhapsody on love, death, resurrection and shagging, where bongos beat and sax squalls add to the melee.
Willing of flesh and weary in spirit, Moffat encourages us to embrace the freedom of revelry: “Take my hand and be brave, we’ll say goodbye to this grave/ Tonight we salsa, we rave/ We are upcycled and saved!”
The marriage is back on the table, and lessons have been learned. Taking the time apart (“it was great to split up”, said Middleton, wryly) gave them space to reassess their back catalogue and refine their individual talents. Reunited, each is the perfect foil for the other.
Arab Strap are back with a vengeance. And it’s fucking glorious.
Words: Marianne Gallagher
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