Dirty Songs In A Digital Age: The Live Return Of Arab Strap
, October 18th, 2016 10:18
Arab Strap's filthy muse was the antidote to late 90s Britpop and joyless indie rock. Now they're back two decades on Luke Turner finds that their songs of love and sex gone awry are more needed than ever. Live photo thanks to Paul Fegen
"How many of you use Tinder?" asks Aidan Moffat from the stage of the Brixton Electric. "The thing is with Tinder is that you can't tell how someone smells. Scent, it's such an important part of physical attraction". The world has changed since Arab Strap first emerged two decades ago, back in the days before online dating, a torrent of 'tubed filth for every home, the often violent and virulent gender wars on social media. In a room heady with the whiff of 30-and-40-somethings, that's why this return is more than a bit of a laugh. "I've always wanted to be a heritage rock act," Moffat says, knowing and wry. But this is no trip down memory lane.
Everything's getting older, as Moffat had it on his 2011 collaborative album with Bill Wells. That it is, including the crowd, complaining that cans of shit lager at the bar are flirting with a fiver. There are far more women in the audience that you'd usually get at a gig like this, two of whom who are my friends doing the Vic Reeves Thigh Rub towards the singer throughout. Most of the blokes have beards that suggest they've been on an expedition to the back of the great beyond in a futile quest for an ATP refund. Unlikely sex symbol Moffat's grizzle is a little more stylish and sagelike, though somewhat undermined by shorts that go down just below the knee, as if he'd forgotten to get changed after a trip to B&Q for some shelving.
Arab Strap were never a terribly young-sounding band and I remember listening to them at 18 and thinking that these seemed to be portraits of the lives of far older people. That's actually continued for the next two decades, which might say more about the maturity of Luke Turner than the lyricism of Aidan John Moffat, but still. Tonight they're loud and raucous from the off, chugging and noisy, bagpipes and folk and lounge and all sorts. The electronic element, which in their earlier years could sound like John Shuttleworth after his first viagra prescription, is beefier than ever and for a group often pigeonholed as being dour it's all rather exuberant. On the souped-up 'First Big Weekend' Moffat wanders the stage reading from a sheet of paper as the snare tickles away in the upper decibels, somewhere between acid and speed.
I thought that the fragmentation and bringing together of everything (dating and pornography as much as music) in the internet age would have created a thousand Arab Straps. The unconscious brilliance of this group was that their music was the sound of all the places where the stories in the lyrics happened - the club, the gig, flirtation to a backing of pop, the record on when you've just got home, the bedroom, the Walkman soundtrack to the days of regret. Take the way that 'Girls Of Summer' goes from guitar racket to gloriously unfolding beats, that diving feeling as if you've just done another E only to see the person you're into walk out the door with someone else. It sounds entirely fresh, but Arab Strap always were the exception in indie rock, which has never done sex terribly well. Sure, there might be an eroticism to My Bloody Valentine and something visceral to, say, Sonic Youth's Ciccone Youth LP, but generally the genre is all coy eyes and overly-sensitive regret, or uncomfortably close to beta male misogyny. Arab Strap's directness set them apart from all their peers, even more wrong than Pulp at their most shagging-as-class-war seedy, for rarely has anyone sung the sticky honesty of sex as well as Aidan Moffat. I wonder why it's currently only female artists who are eloquently exploring the explicitly sexual in their lyricism, from Jenny Hval to Christina & The Queens. I don't think that masculinity is in crisis any more now than it has been at any other point in human history for men are fairly awful creatures after all. What has changed is the lack of dialogue around this particular 50% of the species, a refusal to accept (from all sides) that male sexuality is a hugely complex thing.
Given that in 2016 every song about sex has to come with a few million pixels of Think Piece, I'm not sure you could get away with writing a banger like 'The Shy Retirer' with the line "you could be my teenage Jenny Agutter swimming naked in a pond" now. But Jenny Agutter is still naked, and still swimming in that pond. I'm half surprised they're not selling Arab straps on the Arab Strap merch desk, for we supposedly live in more liberated times. But do we, really? I wonder if everything permissible and a discount on your dildo order from the Dan Savage podcast isn't in many ways an illusion. There's a difference between being open, and being honest. Are you sure that most aren't leaving bits behind, unsaid, sat there in the darkest recesses of the mind? Now that everyone has an eye on their personal brand I'm not convinced the modern man is always telling the truth, not like Arab Strap did. It doesn't take more than a cursory listen to Aidan Moffat's lyrics to spot that he always comes off worst, but not in that irritating woe-is-me bleat a la Drake. Most male discourse around sex is polarised between the pathetic, misogynist banter of the laddish keyboard warriors of the new alt-right and the sorts who suspiciously protest too much, loudly proclaiming their feminist solidarity every time one of us with a YY chromosome does something spectacularly awful. These two extremes ignore the grey areas that have to come with love, the essential scabs and scars and really fucking grotty bits, which is what Arab Strap were always so good at picking.
The atmosphere tonight, each dolorous minor chord greeted with ecstatic screams and roars and a pleasing lack of the faux-Scottish singalongs that have blighted previous Arab Strap gigs I've seen in London, suggests that this is a group who'll provoke a tingle. I've always wondered how it works with Arab Strap's audience. For how many is it a vicarious thrill? A confession: when I asked Aidan Moffat to be our Agony Uncle in the early days of The Quietus, most of those problems were mine, occasionally thinly disguised. Was there a divide between the voyeurs and those who did lead the lives that Aidan Moffat sang about?. The confessional is all the rage these days after all, in the age of social media oversharing, yet sex is too often exempt, prudishly "ew'd" at with a TMI. What it must be like for Moffat up there, reliving all this misadventure? Most people don't have to do it, aside from the privacy of their own thoughts, to friends with booze, or perhaps to a therapist, a pound a minute. I continue to wish, as I did back in the late 90s, that Arab Strap's honesty might improve the clarity of our dirty discourse.
Will they carry on? Who knows. But I have a suspicion that if Arab Strap were to start writing songs about where they are now, where their audience are now, with kids and 'date nights' (what a concept!), getting knackered and drooping and hairs in unexpected places, wearing shorts below the knees (really Aidan?) and all that, then they might well find they've a lot still to say. Arab Strap made very moral music, after all - grim fairy tales of what'll happen if you're led by the wrong part of yourself. 'Packs Of Three' ("you said you were careful / you never were with me") holds its weight in the age of antibiotic-resistant super-gonorrhea.
After the gig we go to a pub-cum-bar for a late drink before the last tube home. The dancefloor is already full, bodies connected by arcs of booze slopped from hands that'd rather be reaching than holding glasses. In the smoking area a man slapped with foundation seems to be trying to ascertain my sexuality by ruffling my hair as his pal sits next to me and pushes her thigh against mine. Her sister tries to cadge a menthol off my friend who's smoking rollies, showing her her "butt selfies" on her iPhone. Inside the air is sickly and thick with Sambucca shots, sweat and freshly topped up perfume and people glance with envious and hopeful anticipation at a couple pushed up against a dirty mirror, tongues scouring each other' cheeks. Perhaps things haven't changed that much after all.