The dead rising should always be a cause of trepidation. Our loved ones may return inconceivably altered, void of spirit, even dangerous (to memory). Lucky for us, Arab Strap’s return is more akin to a door swinging open to reveal old friends gone a-traveling. Better still, the new album, As Days Get Dark, finds Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat far too busy showing how far they’ve journeyed to spare time for backward glances. This is a record as rare as hens’ teeth: a comeback that not only beats expectations but has an excellent claim to be the band’s crowning achievement (so far).
Everything feels tight, deliberate, and focused — artists on a mission. A lot of credit rests with Middleton’s guitar work which is a thicket of taut coils and loops. On opener “The Turning of Our Bones”, the glowering guitar is tense as pressure on the chest even before the drums start to pound like George Foreman beating craters into punch-bags. The song shares an instrumental motif with “Kebabylon” and “Sleeper”: the starkness of a noir-jazz saxophone seeming to indicate artifice, a glitzy VIP suite of disappointment. A striking balance has been struck between maintaining a consistent instrumental palette that unifies the record while refusing cookie-cutter approaches in favor of a broad sonic spectrum that makes each song unique.
The album is loaded with deft touches. “I Was Once a Weak Man” begins somewhere between “Eleanor Rigby” and a military march, then reaches its denouement by rendering that traditional symbol of virile male display, the triumphal guitar solo, as a stinging rebuke. “Sleeper”, meanwhile, rides a rhythm invoking an imagined train pushing forward, ever on. In the same song, a trumpet sways unsteadily through carriages before the false promise of noir-jazz hints at a new beginning. Then descending curls of piano lose their sparkle, and the illusion dissipates to reveal the journey’s end as just a doorway to uncertain nowhere. The only odd song out is “Bluebird”, a top-notch piece of indie-pop that feels out of place for that self-same reason. You know it’s a quality record when something so good deserves to be cut to maintain the atmosphere.
Instrumental panache is matched by Moffat’s burgeoning talent as a writer of the highest caliber. Lyrically, the album is an ice-cold plunge through the permanent dissatisfaction wrought by base human drives. Hidden acts of decompression (“Another Clockwork Day”). The urge to plug perceived holes only to cause slow punctures in precious things (“Compersion Pt.1”). The predators slaved to unquenchable appetites (“Here Comes Comus!”). “Kebabylon” unifies all these things as different manifestations of “the ghost of indiscretion and lust”, the mind’s eye projecting fantasias onto the world entire. From that perspective, night-time is reconfigured as a semi-magical realm where neon light makes the world semi-transparent, deceiving one into thinking it’s possible to touch the phantom desires gliding across its surface.
Between these overlapping public/private illusions, Moffat posits a network of liminal places. “Tears on Tour” dwells on absence’s impact on those literally or figuratively left behind. “Sleeper” follows the people stuck between lives meeting only disapproving faces, or the transitory and soon to depart. The most startling — when set amid these songs — is “Fable Of The Urban Fox”. It’s a genuinely remarkable piece of song-writing even in already striking company. On one level, it’s an accurate recounting of how urban foxes were driven into towns by human activity, then demonized for daring to be there. But it’s also a blunt metaphor for tabloid-facilitated hysteria in which all the guilt and fear arising from everyday dysfunction is projected onto an ‘other’ — most commonly immigrants — who become the fantastical danger absolving us of our inner darkness.
This might all sound like a dour and gloomy affair — but au contraire! Moffat may aspire to, “What would you call the opposite of a comedian? Whatever it is, that’s what I wanted to be…” but he can’t help but write lines that are either funny or poignant: “boil us down to our essentials, we’re all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen, and dreams.” There’s also structural intelligence at work: for example, the initial plot of “Another Clockwork Day” sounds abject and exhausted…Then twists believably into quiet everyday beauty that left me choked and happily tearful. It’s an effective demonstration of how different extremes of energy, placed in close proximity, lend strength to one another as the mind travels further between moods.
There’s a highly appropriate shying away from the acoustic toward the electronic. This perfectly mirrors the lyrical focus of lived-in delusion shot through with brief revelation. From end-to-end, this is a dark ride of crackling intensity, one which manages to be minimalist but never devolves into lo-fi. “Tears on Tour” anchors itself in a gently shifting backdrop of synth-power and tribal drone, but is mixed with so much room it finds ample space for delicate guitar and piano before an emotive blues solo. On “Fable of the Urban Fox”, the sound rises and rises until the bass becomes a throaty growl pursuing the song’s protagonists. Vocals and instruments regularly deviate from one another, creating sufficient friction and often building all the way cinematically from subdued starts to frantic finishes.
In A Stranger Here Myself, Ian Pattison’s mock-autobiography of Scottish comedy philosopher Rab C. Nesbitt, Rab’s last line is “‘I have a scabby suit, a shit attitude, and a self that’s worth expressing.’ That would keep me going.” That same beautiful blend of blunt poetry, honesty, self-knowing humor, and defiant refusal to bend to social acceptability — it’s what I thought of when hearing rousing finale: “Just Enough.” Beset by antiseptic fantasies of love, the nakedness of Moffat’s lyrics can invoke fear and despair. But Arab Strap’s music is a balm, a comfort, a place without judgment where we learn we don’t have to be ashamed because we’re not alone in struggle or failure. Ending on a killer last line, Arab Strap let us know they’ve been there, that they’re still here with us, and that every foolish act of hopeful humanity is worthy resistance. It’s OK just to keep going; it’s enough.