Aidan Moffat & Bill Wells
Everything Is Getting Older
, May 18th, 2011 08:17
Everything gets older. Everything fades, decays, and eventually is gone. You can rage against the dying of the light, or accept its gentler glow as merely mellower and less intense, but it makes no difference ultimately to the inexorable progress of the laws of thermodynamics: in a nutshell, it's all turning to shit.
Back around the turn of the century, Aidan Moffat was best known as the voice of Arab Strap: a band who, perhaps as much for accident of geography and accent as lyrical subject matter, became closely identified with the fortunes of the media-styled "Trainspotting Generation." In partnership with Malcolm Middleton, Moffat came on like a Glaswegian Bukowski, the cynicism and misanthropy leavened by youth and a fistful of disco biscuits perhaps, but still with the downbeat, disappointed worldview of the persistent romantic, pissing in the gutter but with a head full of stars.
Moffat first recorded with Bill Wells in 2003, on Arab Strap's fifth album, Monday at the Hug & Pint. It was then, too, that the oldest track on this present album was recorded, 'If You Keep Me In Your Heart,' making this a project eight years in the making. Wells, of course, is a long-time fixture of the Glasgow scene, bridging the gap between chamber jazz and DIY indie-rock. Self-taught, and resolutely operating outside of the limited and snobbish confines of the jazz establishment, the highly-accomplished bassist, pianist and composer has gigged and recorded tirelessly with the Bill Wells Octet, the Bill Wells Trio, and in collaboration with Future Pilot AKA, The Pastels and Isobel Campbell among others.
Together, the pair have made an album that deals unashamedly with the most taboo subject in rock and pop - getting old. It seems that you can write about all the sex, violence and blasphemy you like, but real life is the one thing that still has the power to shock. When Aidan asks, "can you hear the creak of my weak knee?" the temptation is to laugh, to treat it as comedy. But the themes of aging and gradual physical decrepitude are just as valid a subject for the serious singer-songwriter as the angst and energy of youth. And one can forgive the occasional dip into barroom sentimentality- as on penultimate track, 'The Greatest Story Ever Told'- for the willingness to explore, without flinching or hiding behind blokeish, Nick Hornby-esque platitudes, the potentially rich landscape of modern middle age.
It's powerful stuff. Wells' instrumental settings are understated but enormously affecting, drawing on traditional forms but never corny or cosy, instead subtly experimental and quietly challenging. The spare, sad bass and piano duet of 'Let's Stop Here,' is the perfect backdrop for Moffat's account of meeting up with a girl he fancied when they were teenagers, but never got together with, where the chance to consummate his desires after all these years finally presents itself. But while she is "older, wiser, sexier and free," he is "spoken for, attached, under the thumb; I've settled down." The tense modern jazz of 'Cages,' sharp and percussive, contrasts the squalid hedonism of youth with the banal responsibilities of adult life, and finds little to choose between them. 'The Copper Top' with its mournful trumpet solo, finds Aidan drinking alone after a funeral, and reflecting on the passing of time and the inevitable changes it brings. And strange childhood memories surface on 'Dinner Time,' as handfuls of black piano notes spill over a shaking, sinister bed of electronic grumbles, cymbal patter and sliding double bass.
The other theme running through the album is an ongoing debate on the nature of freedom. The alcoholic existentialism of Arab Strap days is complicated by responsibility and commitment, and an awareness that nothing comes without a price.
"Are we ever truly free?" Moffatt asks on 'Cages', while on 'The Sadness in Your Life Will Slowly Fade' he ruefully wonders "is this how it feels to be free?" as the pills and the booze are vomited into the toilet bowl once again.
'If You Keep Me in Your Heart,' recalls the sort of bossa-nova-ish jazz pop that was briefly in vogue in the early 80s, except that Aidan's vocals are far from smooth, going down more like sandpaper and Buckfast as, on the bedsheets, "the map that we used to draw has long since washed away." 'Ballad of the Bastard' nods appropriately to Sinatra, while 'The Sadness in your Life…' casts Moffat as a Falkirk Lou Reed, spinning a seedy 'Perfect Day' for aging hoolies and yesterday's ravers. And while it may be inspired, as Moffat told The Quietus last month, by Arthur Schnitzler's 1890s sexual morality play La Ronde, the clapping rhythm, squelching synth stabs and driving drums of 'Glasgow Jubilee' –along with its promiscuous subject matter- are also highly suggestive of Separations era Pulp. And it's not the only moment to make me think that this is the kind of serious, nakedly honest and well-observed album that Jarvis Cocker could still be making, if he'd continued along the trajectory of This Is Hardcore, and not allowed himself to become the lovable national institution "Jarvis"- the cock, like the Cocker, safely hidden from view.
Ten years on, the teens and twenty-somethings who raved their way through the 90s and beyond are all into their thirties and forties now; maybe married, maybe divorced, maybe with kids of their own, almost certainly weighed down by responsibilities, debts, mortgages and memories. Moffat's no exception: just like them he's wondering what happened, punch-drunk from the repeated hits of the years slamming by with increasing speed, and trying to figure out just where it all went. Crucially, though, he's lost none of his talent for picking out the telling detail, his unsparing eye for the unpalatable poetic truth or his black sense of humour and irony. His gift for incisive narrative remains intact, as does his ability to find the redeeming gleam of hope and humanity in even the bleakest of situations. Which is just as well; as our lives are taken over by "shopping lists and school runs, direct debits and tax credits, nasal hair, fungal nail infections, dishwasher tablets and Ceebeebies," we surely need our truth-telling poets more than ever.