Monday at the Hug and Pint (2003) moved locations while staying on the same terrain. The album was adorned with images of alluring hostesses from some 1960s gentlemen’s club (the Matador iteration for the U.S. market contained an additional hostess shot, as well as a helpful map of Loch Leven.) This focus continued on “The Shy Retirer” EP (2003) with a cover shot of a man, presumably at the club in question, dancing with one of the hostesses as she beams politely. The EP’s back cover straddled the personal/private line with its sketch of a sophisticated ’60s Playboy male archetype with his chessboard, bookshelves, and mini-skirted dollybird present as seemingly another life accessory to complete his look.
This was the theme Arab Strap returned to, alongside their liking for functional images, in the inlay for Ten Years of Tears. The band chose to include a set of Arab Strap ‘prostitute cards’ (in the UK prostitutes often advertise services with business cards/postcards in public telephone booths) as well as an Arab Strap “magic fingers” vibro-masseur device — the mind boggles. It also utilized a hostess sketch from Monday at the Hug and Pint revised as a beer mat.
The band’s final two years were illustrated by artist Rik Lee. Lee brought floral bouquets, images of nature, and semi-real idealized female faces to The Last Romance (2005). Running out of steam, the band reused an image from the album inlay for the cover of the “Dream Sequence” single, then a different sketch of a girl smoking on “Speed-Date”.
Crucially, in their death throes, Lee’s artwork bound Arab Strap to their doomed obsession with the female gaze. It is this fixation that forms the thread tying together their oeuvre through “The Girls of Summer”, “(Afternoon) Soaps”, “Here We Go”, Philophobia, “Love Detective”, Monday at the Hug and Pint, and “The Shy Retirer”. Equally fatal is the removal of the female gaze, something represented in the art for The Week Never Starts Around Here, Elephant Shoe, Live, and Scenes of a Sexual Nature. It constantly matters whether a woman is noticing or failing to notice the (presumably male) observer.
The band’s final studio session saw release as a three-song EP, also named The Shy Retirer, adorned with images of a nude woman lying in water. On the one hand, it was a direct reference to the lyric, “you can be my teenage Jenny Agutter, swimming naked in a pond.” On the other, and playing to the wider theme, the woman is depicted like a waterborne Étant Donnés, the last work of Marcel Duchamp which played with ideas of voyeurism, secrecy, realism, and illusion.
And there we have it. Real lives and functional day-to-day instructions rendered as art. Love for sale in settings controlled by men. What is hidden and what is revealed. Observation. And love, always love, whether for friends, for the real or abstract idea of the opposite sex, or romance in general. Given the relatively short span of Arab Strap’s existence, it’s understandable why there should be such a tight web of references present in their art. It’s a delight, however, to see how consistent they were when so many bands, with a less precise artistic intelligence, spray cash and incoherent visual styles around desperately seeking the zeitgeist.
Where do Arab Strap’s recent single and new album fit into this lineage, here in 2021? “The Turning Of Our Bones” is something brand-new and rather heartening. Finally, after all these years, these adoring skeletons are locking eyes with one another, rather than alone and observed, or gazing outward toward an unknown audience. As Days Get Dark meanwhile throws us right back in at the deep end. The sub-layers to the image are a domestic backdrop, then a dissected, sightless, and sensualised woman. The overlay is an 1883 work by Pedro Américo de Figueiredo e Melo: A Noite Acompanhada dos Gênios do Estudo e do Amor, which translates as The Night Escorted by the Geniuses of Love and Study. Here, I see cherubs and the mythical angelic female descending from above. “…A lovely end to an ugly night.”