The Shy Retirer (2003)
Anyone trapped at home during COVID has likely experienced those moments spent racking one’s brains desperately for distraction, anything to stave off the oppressive feeling of tedium. The video to “The Shy Retirer” seems a perfect distillation of that quest and of the strangeness of people left too much to their own devices. It’s also pretty funny!
The corners of most footage here are shaded in to give the impression that this is a voyeuristic compilation capturing a real night at home with Moffat either drunk, high, or wildly bored. He clatters gamely between silly, juvenile, and desperate efforts to stay amused. In the end, I was left wondering why he put a crash helmet on to change a lightbulb. Was it just in case he fell, or did they cut the bit where he headbutts the bulb to fulfill a dare…?
Turbulence (2001) — Bis Remix
On its surface “Turbulence” is a tour diary capturing the stray detail of long-distance flight against occasional and distant clouds and water. Like much of Arab Strap’s art, however, female figures ghost through as muse, audience, and fixed focus.
As on any whistle-stop trip, the details begin to merge and blur as we’re whipped through clubs, amusement arcades, faces blissfully nodding to the music. It also captures the fascination any tourist experiences when faced with a new culture. Moffat can’t help but record every instructional sign he sees! Around these pleasant details, there’s a hint at claustrophobia in the way all the action is boxed in, whether by a club or the plane’s metal capsule.
At the close, Moffat and Middleton mug to the camera. It’s funny but it also captures the tendency of British males to disguise enthusiasm with sarcasm. It’s not cool, as a bloke, to be honestly and obviously thrilled. We’re drilled to push emotion deep inside behind our facades.
Love Detective (2001)
Reading accounts of stalking, of possessive partners, what’s always notable is the emotional imbalance. The subject — in this case, Adele Bethel of Sons And Daughters (also one-time backing vocals for Arab Strap as captured on live album Mad For Sadness) — undergoes intense stress. The watcher, however, is in control and therefore doesn’t feel the oppressive force of the situation, they may feel nothing, they may feel pleasure. That casualness is seen in the brief cuts to the “love detective’s” trainers ambling along in unhurried but relentless pursuit. This is simply there everyday activity, nothing special or unusual.
CCTV footage of Bethel running a bath. Handheld footage from the perspective of an intruder rummaging her drawers while she sleeps. snatches of her body in motion as she rides the trains. The sudden and arresting image of a stripper writhing, apparently the stalker’s internal delusions. The video ends looming into Bethel’s face.
Gosh, money! The video for “Cherubs” is a high-res affair and initially quite disorientating given how far from the song’s domestic setting it seems. The action takes place with no spoon-fed explanation or rationale. Pills and medication are prepared on a trolley then distributed to patients within a tatty and derelict-looking hospital. Patients seem entirely estranged from their environment. Some play cards and smile while others seem catatonic. One seems to be attempting to intimidate another. Further on, Moffat splashes ink wildly onto a profusion of paper. The nurse’s burning eyes stay with me, the shots of her still face unmoved by anything glimpsed in the corridors. Moffat greets her merrily, just welcome company or desire for chemical relief?
(Afternoon) Soaps (1998)
As well as one of my favorite Arab Strap songs, this is also my favorite video. An entire tale unfolds in just four minutes, surprisingly separate from the tale told in the song with Arab Strap cast as the wedding band from hell. I love Middleton’s laconic, cigarette in hand, cool style — the cigarette indoors is itself another subtle indication that this is a vision from a bygone era. The opening shot with the camera descending from brass chandelier down to kissing couple, then processioning through applauding relatives to first dance is a fantastic technique…
…Then the story turns on a single glance toward Moffat. His fixed gaze is enough to establish him as the ghost of love gone-by intruding on the nuptials. Brief establishing shots succinctly fill in a back-story. Meanwhile, the wedding itself collapses into chaos, going rapidly from angry words to the band scarpering while Moffat receives a sound kicking. A lady in a green dress raises a chuckle by dancing on obliviously as everything disintegrates until eventually she too subsides leaving the jilted bride amid the ruins and relatives still in their seats. It ends with resolution in the lap of the viewer’s hopefulness or cynicism.
Here We Go (1998)
This video encapsulates the boundaries of a landscape Arab Strap have never departed. Everything takes place amid the spark and crackle of night-time lights that follow the protagonists through town centers, pub tables, and house parties. Tellingly, those flashing lights remain whenever a character is alone, the implication being that nothing here — not the social life, the friends, the drink, the drugs — quells or resolves the deeper feelings one carries into all the spaces of one’s life.
Given this is Arab Strap’s first music video, I was expecting that maybe the treatment would simply slavishly follow the lyrical action, instead, the video is its own layer that takes cues and reacts to the song, without being held in a death grip. The glimpses of small-town teen life in the late 90s are recognizable, the skittish energy and companionship, but also the alienation. There’s a moment where Moffat sits at a crowded table moving at a completely different pace to his companions. That brief clip reminded me of the loneliest I’ve felt in my life: trying to get served at the bar in a tight-packed club, surrounded by people, jostled by human contact, but not connected, nor able to speak over the extreme volume. Public invisibility is a harsh sensation.