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The Lead Review

Life As We Know It: As Days Get Dark By Arab Strap
Bernie Brooks , March 11th, 2021 09:04

Arab Strap are putting their age to good use on the brilliant As Days Get Dark, says Bernie Brooks

Photo by Kat Gollock

First off, I've been a fan of Arab Strap for ages. Literally decades. Let's get that out of the way.

Secondly, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton aren't much older than me. According to Google, both are 47 – younger than a lot of the cousins I grew up with and many of my friends. But the thing is, even when we were all legitimately youthful, some 20, 25 years ago, Arab Strap seemed old. They seemed tired.

Sure, they had the energy of youth. They hit the clubs, they went out and got pissed, leched about, fucked relationships up beyond repair in ugly ways – or at least a semi-autobiographical version of Moffat did. But even then, they sounded almost sick of it, all the endless drunken cycles. And even on early-ish tracks like ‘New Birds’, were clearly nostalgic for something more innocent that they couldn’t get back. Obviously, they conveyed this all through song or something close to it. Mostly thickly accented sing-speak over guitar and drum machines, with friends popping by to sing or sit in on drums or whatever. In any case, they documented a decade of debauchery and regret and the wryly mundane and, eventually – cue the inspirational Muzak – grew up a bit, before bowing out with a best-of, Ten Years Of Tears. Their “final” proper LP, The Last Romance, was as caustic out of the gate as anything that had come before, while somehow evincing genuine emotional growth and ending in a place of real, albeit perverse, hope. In the States, it came out a week or so after I met my partner of 15 years. In a way, it was sort of perfect.

So, full disclosure: When Arab Strap announced As Days Get Dark, their first LP in upwards of 16 years, I was both surprised and a little bit leery. Arab Strap were such a perfectly Gen X proposition. How does that work in 2021, now that we’re all firmly middle-aged and fatter? Another disclosure: When Arab Strap announced As Days Get Dark, I hadn’t listened to their music in a long, long while, so I went digging through my CD collection to get reacquainted. 

I still have five Arab Strap CDs: Mad For Sadness, The Red Thread, Monday At The Hug & Pint, The Last Romance, and Ten Years Of Tears. I don’t know what happened to the rest. Over a couple major break-ups in the early-to-mid 00s, my CD collection was whittled down in ways I still haven’t fully reckoned with. Their extra-strength live disc, Mad For Sadness, was the first one I bought, and forced to choose, it’s my favourite, although Monday At The Hug & Pint and The Last Romance are in the running.

Anyhow, as I listened and listened, the band’s creative arc seemed basically complete. By the end, if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted another Arab Strap record. What was there to add?

Life, I guess.

There’s this line about halfway through the new record – at the beginning of album standout ‘Tears On Tour’ – that hit me like a cinder block dropped from five storeys: “I cried the day my grandfather no longer knew my face. I wept by the window when he died. And when my mother called long distance to say her mother passed away, I blubbered on the bus. I couldn’t hide.” Hearing it for the first time, Middleton’s groaning synths and funerary beat dovetailing with Moffat’s words, I was back in 2008, my grandmother’s dementia rapidly worsening; it was in 2010, when she finally passed, followed shortly thereafter by my grandfather. All that life in between 2006 and 2021 came swiftly into focus, the things we keep and the things we lose and the things we throw away. That, I suppose, is what Arab Strap have to add.

There’s a funny thing that happens on this record. Wretched misdeeds and thoughts slip more thoroughly into the third person. There’s a sense of remove. Aged, the lecherous scumbags seem more pathetic than ever. They’re much too old for wherever they are and whoever they’re creeping, just barely louche at best. You can almost smell the flop sweat of the dude in ‘I Was Once A Weak Man’ as he tries to convince himself that his behaviour isn’t deeply, deeply embarrassing – at minimum. Other tracks are nightmarishly parabolic. A grease-stained god of nocturnal dalliances sweeps up the nightlife in ‘Here Comes Comus!’; doomed foxes seek refuge; the past haunts a train traveller in the first-person ‘Sleeper’. Is it possible there are lessons to be learned here? Maybe even a little bit of wisdom?

The backing on these tracks is varied and just about ideal. It’s hard to imagine ‘I Was Once A Weak Man’ without its resonant booms and lush, mournful strings; or ‘Bluebird’ without its repeat-o guitar figures and plinky drum machine and keys; or the vaguely John Carpenter vibe of ‘The Turning Of Our Bones’ – that is, if ol’ John was down with congas and shakers. A whiff of Kansas, a whiff of Eagles permeates the first third of the kind of gross, yet weirdly tender ‘Another Clockwork Day’, but even that somehow works. I’m not sure how, but it does. There are some things that only Arab Strap can pull off. Some things they do, coming from anyone else, would be unforgivable.

As an American college kid, there was an undeniably voyeuristic and strangely romantic, vicarious thrill that came with listening to Arab Strap. It was another world laid bare. I didn’t do the things Moffat recounted in his deep Scottish brogue. I’m glad I didn’t. Now, years later, that romance is gone. So is the thrill. A lot of those old songs just seem sad. Or sadder, anyway. They still work for me, but for different reasons. Yeah, the new tunes are almost equally seedy and off-putting, but they feel emotionally rich and complex in a way that only comes with experience, that has to be earned. I’d be lying if I said As Days Get Dark is entirely enjoyable in the traditional sense or an easy listen, but it’s absolutely an essential one. Arab Strap may sound older than ever, but they're putting that age to good use.