Album Review: Arab Strap – As Days Get Dark

[Rock Action; 2021]

If anyone came into the new Arab Strap album – their first in 16 long years – worried that it’s inherently gimmicky, they will be immediately assuaged by Aidan Moffat; “I don’t give a fuck about the past, our glory days gone by” is the first thing he growls. Then we are off, embarking into the darkly poetic recesses of lurid storytelling and flawed characters that might also constitute the band’s finest collection.

Arab Strap – Falkirk pair Moffat and Malcolm Middleton – released their debut album, The Week Never Starts Around Here, all the way back in 1996. Another landmark arrived from the Scottish landscape that year: 1996 was when Trainspotting became a cultural phenomenon, a film that would define a generation. Both it and Arab Strap’s album were concerned with the unglamorous elements of 90s hedonism (although you can debate whether Danny Boyle’s kinetic filmmaking always achieved this outlook); the characters of Trainspotting dealing with heroin addiction and Moffat unraveling tales of lesser crusades containing despondent binge drinking and late night sex encounters. Both, in their own way, captured a certain mood, a feeling of what it was like to be young and ebullient in that decade.

Moffat and Middleton are now 47 and their latest album, As Days Get Dark, is only a few decades removed from their debut, but is birthed into a different world entirely. If anything, maturity has made the former’s storytelling seem more natural than ever, for Moffat has always been blessed with the air of the sad poet of the bar in the early hours – a familiar character – unravelling stories of wit and sleaze to anyone who cares to listen. His brazen brogue now sounds even more grizzled and downcast to befit it all.

Sex is once again, unsurprisingly for a band named after a sexual device, on the band’s mind. A lothario hesitates in “I Was Once A Weak Man” momentarily, questioning if he’s past doing what he does, before saying, “Well, Mick Jagger does it and he’s older than me.” On the menacing opener “The Turning Of Our Bones”, Moffat insists “all I care about right now is that wee mole inside your thigh.” It’s uncomfortably intimate, as it always has been. Moffat is not content to condemn himself to the miserable realities of ageing; songs like the aforementioned are paeans to living while you still can and to keep going. The spirit of the young man from 1996 who downed pints and grasped for kisses remains intact.

Listening back to their first album also reveals its insecure nature. It’s undeniably raw and lo-fi, hissing at potential rather than promising success. Middleton’s muscular instrumentation on As Days Get Dark marks some of the album’s greatest success. A captivating saxophone weaves through songs like “Another Clockwork Day”, “The Turning Of Our Bones”, “Sleeper” and more, sometimes hesitantly, sometimes impassioned and squealing. His tender guitar sweetly carries “Bluebird”, stirring strings usher in “I Was Once A Weak Man”, and the sinister “Here Comes Comus!” is suffused with a dramatic post-punk veneer.

Moffat’s storytelling is utterly masterful throughout, tragic case studies abounding. On “Another Clockwork Day” an ersatz guitar line befitting Jackson C. Frank winds its way beside the passing narrator, detailing a story of mid-marriage malaise; a man secretly watches porn while his wife sleeps, Moffat making sure to take us through the images he sees one by one (“IMG4382, an intimate closeup of a solitary act / Sent like a love letter long long ago”), as if daring us to turn off, certainly imploring us to acknowledge the cold emptiness of the act.

“Kebabylon” – truly a fitting name for the existence of Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street once the clubs shut for the night – puts us in the mind of a night street cleaner, “undervalued and underpaid” and frustrated accordingly. “I see through your swagger, I sweep up your sickness,” the narrator whispers. It’s astounding how well Moffat inhabits these characters; it’s a symptom of compassion above all else.

“Fable Of The Urban Fox” is a surprisingly poignant allegory for broken Brexit Britain, Moffat ingeniously imagining the city animal as immigrants: “there’s no rest however far we roam / somewhere on this earth, we will find home.” Most aching is “Sleeper”, which pictures a man’s journey on a train as a voyage into the depths of addiction, bypassing last chances and missed moments, the final stop oblivion. “I look around the carriage and see familiar faces / The dejected, the deserted and the drunks” may be coming from another of Moffat’s worn-down characters, but it also certainly is a line known innately to him too.

Arab Strap are undoubtedly globally notable, but it’s impossible to extricate them from their homeland roots. There is a deeply wry Scottish gallows humour resplendent in many pockets of the album. “And it’s all stepmoms and stepsisters now / What the fuck’s that all about?” the sad porn-browsing husband in “Another Clockwork Day” wonders. On “Tears On Tour”, he lists “The Muppets, Frozen, Frozen 2” as things he’s cried over just after discussing the weight of the death of his grandfather. To listen to Arab Strap is to always occupy a beautifully balanced tragicomedy.

The songs of their debut album discussed beloved late night Glasgow landmarks like Sauchiehall Street and the iconic but defunct club The Arches. Their tales have always evoked images of blurry taxi rides through tenements and rain, bringing nights out to a close but more often heading somewhere else to extend them into the wee hours. The characters in the tales were broken and gallus, sleekit and scarred, but also deeply relatable and perennially hopeful. Moffat is, above all else, a truly humane lyricist.

For a certain subset of Scot – who’ve seen two Trainspotting films, who’ve seen one failed independence attempt, who’ve seen the Glasgow School of Art burn down and then burn down again, who miss night enclaves like the Arches but never let them be forgotten – for this generation, Moffat will be remembered as a bard, earning his place in the lineage of Burns, Welsh, Leonard, Gray, and Connolly.

The pair have kept busy in the intervening years since the last Arab Strap album, but they sound so comfortable together on As Days Get Dark that the album is an endorsement for reunions only occurring when there is true renewal of purpose and vision. One must also believe that this won’t be the final Arab Strap record: as we enter into an uncertain decade, Moffat’s real and relatable poetic melancholy is a welcome reprieve. “And my confidence might crumble but my brio is unbroken” Moffat insists on the album: it might have been relating to love and sex then, but it certainly seems to apply to the art of Arab Strap too.