It was a couple of years back when I was told, by an impeccable source, that Arab Strap were back in a studio looking at the possibility of making a new album, which would be their first since The Last Romance back in 2005. I got excited, but then calmed down quite quickly as I didn’t imagine anything ever seeing the light of day, especially with both Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton investing so much time and energy into their solo projects.
The confirmation that things were going well came around this time last year, just before the first lockdown period kicked in, with the same source telling me that the new songs were ‘outstanding’ and would be real treat for those who enjoyed what the duo had been up to in the past decade and a half. The release in September 2020 of the video for the lead-off single, as mentioned on the blog here, really whetted the appetite.
It’s now been 20 days since As Days Get Dark was given its official release, and I must already be getting close to wearing out my copy from over-playing it. It is, and I use the word advisedly, a masterpiece.
Arab Strap have made a lot of very good albums over the years along with at least two great LPs, but most times there’s been one or two tracks that dip a bit. Not, however, on this occasion. The music and lyrics throughout are outstanding; the former in particular, which to my ears leans heavily towards the sort of things that have been coming out via the solo records, and in particular the largely instrumental Human Don’t Be Angry material.
There was a superb review on clashmusic.com, penned/typed by Marianne Gallagher:-
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.
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.
Fable of The Urban Fox is, as the reviewer has said, one of the finest songs they’ve ever recorded, and while the story has (spoiler alert) a sad and indeed tragic ending, it is delivered with acidic wit taking a swipe at the those in the middle and privileged classes who don’t exactly practice what they preach. Put the words ‘Jolyon Maughan’ and ‘foxes’ into an Internet search engine to get the gory details……
It’s too soon after the release of the album to offer up any mp3s, and I’ve already posted the video to Turning Of Our Bones. Here’s what the duo have made available via video channels:-
I was stunned to see that part of the Comus video was filmed just a few hundred yards from Villain Towers…..I’ll never be able to walk under that bridge again without humming or singing the tune.
Album of the year? Absolutely.