Has it really been 10 years? Christ, for Arab Strap, anything more than the one pissed-up night probably constitutes a long-term relationship, so 10 years is an achievement indeed. In truth, it doesn’t feel like that long since Aiden Moffat and Malcolm Middleton’s late night and stinging morning stories of sex, booze, and Falkirk came crawling from the gutter and quietly grabbed our attention. Since the Strap released The Weekend Never Starts Round Here in 1996, their career has been a sticky, stumbling trawl through the pubs and clubs of Scotland, leaving behind a thousand stained sheets and messy mornings. Their songs wallow in the uncomfortable reality of the lives we live, facing the bitterness of love and lust, and giving a voice to the unspeakable truths we daren’t utter ourselves.
Like a council estate Tindersticks, or the Bad Seeds on the dole, their sound has typically been a funeral procession of stretched-out laments, casual lovers, and intense affairs, set to a stark, whispered backing of whirring drum machines and creeping guitars. Here, although Moffat is still battling with the same demons of lust and alienation he has documented for more than a decade, there is something of a newfound hope running through the songs, which are the most upbeat and downright catchy Arab Strap have ever written.
The Last Romance starts with the urgent, sinister riff and sneered chorus of “Stink”, an acerbic tirade sung from a hungover Monday morning, tinged with false regrets. That the album continues in a vein of tuneful, if not exactly danceable skewed pop, is as surprising as it is exhilarating, with both, “(If There’s) No Hope for Us” and “Dream Sequence” hitting you like a punch to the gut. Elsewhere, “There’s No Ending” is, whisper it, almost sing-a-long. Though the references to bird flu, paedophiles, and terrorists in the lyrics mean that it’s probably best to avoid humming the song too loudly in ASDA. It’s actually a stirring love song that, if there were any taste and decency in the world, would be a massive hit. Moffat sings lines like, “If you can love my growing gut, my rotten teeth, and greying hair / Then I can guarantee I’ll do the same as long as you can bear” and “I’m a huffy prick the best of times / I love to sulk and shout and squeal / But please don’t doubt the way I feel”, and it’s about as tenderly loved-up as the Strap have ever sounded.
Most of what gets written about Arab Strap tends to focus on Aiden Moffat’s unsettlingly frank, “did he really just say that?!” lyrics, which are still cataloguing a never ending stream of sexual manoeuvres (witness the albums charming opening line, “Burn these sheets that we’ve just fucked in”). That said, however, the shock impact of many of his earlier songs has been toned down, and Moffat has allowed just a tiny bit of warmth to seep into his words, which are among the best he’s ever written. The lyrics here are rattled off with an Irvine Welsh-esque flair, and are stark, deliciously funny, and dripping with a harsh poeticism. He sings about bitter, heartbreaking break-ups (”(If There’s) No Hope for Us”) and breathless, booze-fuelled hook-ups (“Speed-Date”) with the compassion and attention to detail that prove him a very fine writer indeed. It should be mentioned as well that Moffat’s lyrics have never been quite as brilliantly bound together with bandmate Malcolm Middleton’s music. The tuneful flourishes of punchy guitar and rolling piano means that a band who could never before be described as easy to listen to now sound alluring and instant.
The press release for this album comes with the drivel that Arab Strap are “for fans of Franz Ferdinand, as the Scottish Invasion continues”. It’s bullshit, really, because while the likes of Franz Ferdinand strive to look good on the dancefloor, Arab Strap are still observing the Saturday night scene looking pissed at the bar. Theirs is not a world of pristine hair and shiny suits, but a seedier reality of last chances and desperate romance. And as tuneful as these songs frequently are, Arab Strap still offer a grubby and welcome alternative to the smiling indie poster boys whose careful poses charmlessly sell in the millions.
It is astonishing that after a 10-year long affair Arab Strap can make a record as compelling as this. The unsettling crawl of an album like 1997’s Philophobia has been eschewed in favour of a more direct approach, and it seems to have reinvigorated the band’s songwriting. Their version of romance might well be scarred and battered, but it’s a romance that’s real. They still occupy an essential place, where the wasted and fiery nights out always have to give way to the grey and often doomed realities of modern life. A place where the person you went to bed with last night looks different in the sober daylight. That they have taken these themes and made an album that is so alive, angry, and even joyous is nothing short of a triumph. The Last Romance is a magnificent, boldly romantic record, alive with a surprising and thrilling universal appeal.