Arab Strap 1 by Paul Savage
Photo: Paul Savage / Courtesy of Motormouth Media

COVID Ends When Arab Strap Begin Their Show

Arab Strap’s return to touring is a musical triumph as well as a chance for people to breathe together as one after so long in pandemic lockdown.

As Days Get Dark
Arab Strap
Rock Action
5 March 2021

We’ve all been there: the best night of your life, the best band you’ve ever seen, the best song ever… Then the next day, you can’t find words that make anyone else’s eyes light up with the power of what you felt, nor can you quite kindle it inside. The Disney credits don’t roll “The End” to stop time dissolving magic into mere memory. Isn’t every gig that same broken promise? So, back you come. Another night, another gig, hoping against hope that maybe some other artist might ignite transcendence that can never last.

There’s no band better placed to serenade the beauty of falling from everyday heights than Arab Strap. So, sure, maybe COVID didn’t end when Scotland’s finest strolled on stage on a sultry Tuesday evening at Fiddler’s in Bristol. But Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat’s music fulfilled everything they could have wished for an audience wearied by two long years of cataclysm and the absence of live music. COVID could be forgotten for a time in favor of relearning how gorgeous it is to sing, clap, holler, dance.

Arab Strap’s 2020 comeback single, “The Turning of Our Bones”, opens the night with pride and clear intent: “I don’t give a fuck about the past, our glory days gone by.” Arab Strap are true to their word with more than half of their sublime new album, As Days Get Dark, filling a taut 13 song set-list and two-song encore. It’s the perfect start to the night, an overwhelming attack with the core duo and three live band members clearly hungry to share new songs with a live audience.

Things move rapidly into a crowd-pleasing duo — “Girls of Summer” and “New Birds” — which were present back on Arab Strap’s first live LP in 1999. Still, they’re so undeniable in their contrasting ways: the carefree jocularity of the former versus the romantic cliffhangers of the latter, which resolves in the tense and vivid image of “the breath in the air between your faces as you stand in the leaves and she just asks you straight out if you want to come and stay at her flat.”

It’s a testament to the quality of As Days Get Dark that the new tunes don’t just slip in amid hits. They’re all highlights in their own right. Some of that is down to Arab Strap having fine-tuned their mix of thuggish drumbeats and subtle guitar work. “Here Comes Comus!” retains all the urban horror of Bryan Ferguson’s recent video treatment while simultaneously provoking stomping dance moves, banging heads, and closed eyes. Another part of it is the weight added when a full rhythm section, twin-guitar attack, and impassioned vocalist are delivering a song no more than a few feet away from your face.

“Kebabylon” is a case in point. Its chorus sounded great on record, but it becomes a singalong classic here as the verses feel hefty as a solemn hymn. What puts Arab Strap streets ahead of many comebacks or heritage acts is that you’re left wondering what the rest of the record will feel like played live rather than wishing for more reliable old stuff. Having said that, they have a back catalog of such reliable quality that it isn’t incongruous or a novelty that deep cuts like “Blackness” or “Direction of Strong Man” should appear.

Big instrumental breaks vary between the massive Luddite releases of tension that saw Arab Strap associated with post-rock versus opportunities to appreciate the woven detail Middleton creates. Time and again, there are earworms like the main riff and backing melodies on “Compersion Pt. 1” that draw you further into, rather than breaking, the mood of a piece. Moffat’s instrument, meanwhile, is human emotion. One moment “Love Detective” provokes me to a giggling fit with its tale of domestic espionage and infidelity. The next, “Piglet’s” plaintive protest of “I didn’t shag him. He stayed on the couch in the kitchen…” moved me close to tears at the pathos of the captured moment. Even the most savage lines are leavened by if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry wit, banter about beer, Middleton telling Moffat “just tell a fucking joke or something!” when needing a moment to retune.

The entire back half of the night flipped gloriously from rain (“Tears on Tour”) to lightning (“Fable of the Urban Fox”) to indie-pop scorched earth (“Speed Date”) then ended in a perfect ouroboros. An Arab Strap tradition once upon a time was always to improvise and rewire the lyrics of their first-ever single, 1996’s “The First Big Weekend”, so it was never sung the same way twice. It feels meaningful that the band’s earliest release is constantly reborn, made new: even looking back, they’re always moving forward.

The lyrics, whatever they might be each night, are made of similarly evergreen truths. Hollywood glitz, music video editing, and the usual sprinkling of bullshit have turned partying into an overblown emblem of conspicuous consumption. Moffat, by contrast, captures the more truthful gloriousness of most people’s nights out, the ineffably desirable boredom and brilliance of getting ready, meeting friends, making friends, getting drinks/drugs, getting drunk, going home, getting up, going again.

The encore provides a welcome change of pace with Middleton on acoustic guitar accompanying Moffat, whose resonant voice easily fills the space left by the absent band. It says something of Arab Strap’s strange magic that an entire room cheers the ribaldry of “Packs of Three” singing lustily “it was the…Biggest cock you’d ever seen…” with the same reverence and joy reserved for “Hey Jude” or “Living on a Prayer”. Things end with a run through “The Shy Retirer” before a quick thanks, “fuck the Tories!” and off. There’s no forced attempt to demand more. Everyone present knows the night gave everything it needed to provide.

In the aftermath of two years mostly spent under the strictest regulations, there was a moment before the band came on stage where I looked at the (primarily maskless) crowd and thought, “I’m 41, do I really want to be sipping cheap lager and hanging around dark rooms breathing in complete strangers for another 20-30-50 years…? Did COVID break the world enough? I’m bored of this?” Arab Strap reminded me exactly what I’d been missing, what so many people missed, and why I’ll be here again and again for a long time yet preparing to have my heart broken by the next band who shine so brilliantly and whose light I can’t quite find words for next day. Arab Strap may not have ended COVID singlehandedly, but they did make the world feel new again.