“I don’t give a fuck about the past / Our glory days gone by,” growls Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat on ‘The Turning of Our Bones’, opener to the Falkirk duo’s first album in sixteen years. It’s a proclamatory statement, a promise that the band’s 2016 reformation was not a perfunctory one, that As Days Get Dark will not be a straightforward rehash of the same tried and tested ideas that defined the duo’s output across the late 90s and early 00s. When any band reforms late into their careers it’s easy to expect little in the way of development or novelty. But Arab Strap’s renaissance here is unquestionable, confirmed by a polished new sound that greets the listeners on the album’s opening track and prevails on everything that follows. As Days Get Dark sounds like the album Arab Strap have forever been waiting to make, the apogee for which their previous material was only preparation.
Everything here sounds grander, cleaner, more practiced. The instrumentation is ambitious, with Middleton and Moffat capitalizing on new technologies to merge synthesisers, saxophones and strings in with the usual guitars and drum machines. The latter sound honed, less rudimentary, the standard kicks and claps now accompanied by the odd conga, even a trap-style hi-hat trill. The more complex sonic palette is further complimented by a more adventurous approach to songwriting. ‘Compersion, Pt.1’ is an infectious, dance-ready hit structured around a smoothed-out 7/4 time signature, the propulsive disco groove rollicking beneath Middleton’s fuzzed-out guitar to make this one of the catchiest tracks Arab Strap have ever recorded. Accompanying single ‘Here Comes Comus!’ is radio-friendly without sacrificing the sardonic attitude that will forever be Arab Strap’s trademark. Hilariously personifying Comus, Greek God of debauchery and nocturnal dalliances, as a swaggering hipster in a half-buttoned silk shirt, Moffat expertly captures the shameless excitement of a riotous night-out, with crashing snares and stadium-ready guitars pushing the sound closer to a singalong pop-rock anthem than anything we’ve heard Arab Strap release before.
Complimenting this cleaner, more grandiose production, Aidan Moffat’s writing has likewise stepped up a gear. The release of Everything’s Getting Older, his 2011 collaboration with Bill Wells, felt like a turning point in his career, the moment when his writing shifted fully from spontaneous confessional monologue to the ranks of pure poetry. His writing on this newest album is more accomplished still, his ear greater attuned to the rhythmic qualities of language, his storytelling capabilities significantly expanded. ‘Kebabylon’ is simply excellent, taking us into the mind of a street-sweeper cleaning up the debris left by other peoples’ degenerate night on the town. Lines like “I am your moonlight maid” and “I kill corruption so it lives another day” conjure vivid images of a shadowy figure creeping unseen through the dawn streets, confronting human behaviour at its basest and most degraded. “I see your swagger”, the narrative voice declares, revelling in the quiet power he wields over the drunken hordes whose filthy secrets it is his job to make disappear.
‘Sleeper’ is another standout, an allegorical narrative that delves into the regret felt when reflecting on the diverging paths one’s life can take. Washed out saxophones slide across meandering guitar lines that pitch steadily forwards like the train the narrator finds himself travelling on. Passing through stations where different incarnations of himself stare back from the platforms – the failed musician, the nuclear-family man, the local hero – Moffat sounds as if he is leading us by the hand into his mind’s darkest corridors. “Just keep rolling” he whispers, a self-directed encouragement to not dwell on lost possibilities, to not get stuck in the mire of regrets and what-ifs. It is Moffat at the peak of his writing abilities, his ideas thought-provoking and intelligent without ever losing the emotional honesty his lyrics have always sought to conjure.
In the twenty-five years since Arab Strap’s first album, Moffat’s delivery has developed just as naturally as his penmanship. Deeper and clearer, his voice sounds quite different from the boyish mumblings we first heard on ‘The First Big Weekend’ back in 1996. On ‘Tears on Tour’, a classic Arab Strap dirge, his voice sounds effortlessly strong, his singing, never virtuosic, now at least thoroughly controlled. The shift in his delivery only heightens the emotional weight his words carry, his former bitterness exchanged for a wise introspection, the penchant for self-pity turned to a winking, self-assured irony.
While Moffat’s lyrics have always boasted a sort of half-serious sordidness, past depravities now sound loosened by the gentility and nostalgia that come with the passing years. ‘Another Clockwork Day’ recounts the lonely lustfulness of a man who, bored by the money-driven fakery of internet pornography, revisits private erotic photos from his past. Only when he heads upstairs to his bed does the listener discover the erotic pictures are of his “snoring spouse” who, in the “almost dark”, seems to have “hardly aged a day”. This strange act of fidelity is seedy, no doubt, but there is something undeniably tender about it too. It’s tragic and absurd, yet still packing a strong emotional punch – an exemplary piece of Moffatian songwriting.
As Days Get Dark is not a perfect album, of course, with some tracks making far less of an impact than others. ‘Bluebird’, for instance, explores interesting ideas of compulsive social media use and the longing for gratification it inspires, but it does so in such an abstract, unembellished way that it risks leaving the listener unfulfilled. The central allegory of ‘Fable of the Urban Fox’, meanwhile, comparing the demonization of urban foxes with the plight of immigrants in Brexit Britain, is a little too obvious to ever be showstopping. The blatant metaphor could easily sound clumsy were it not for the song’s exceptional instrumental, the momentum of the acoustic guitar and strutting strings intervening to shape the track into an album highlight.
Indeed, As Days Get Dark sees Arab Strap at peak performance, the quality in sound and songwriting suggesting that this duo, twenty-five years in, still have plenty of great work left to accomplish together. More welcoming than anything is that they’ve managed to create a cleaner, more produced sound without sacrificing any of the darkness and dreariness that made them so unique in the first place. The straightforward guitars and listless tempo of the album’s closer, ‘Just Enough’, sound like old-school, Philophobia-era Arab Strap. The driving chorus feels like a retrospective glance across their whole career, the lyrics broadly summarizing the themes of almost every Arab Strap song to date:
“And we bleed, we abide, and we howl, and we hide.
We undress in only darkness, hide our bodies from the light.
And we drink, and we drug, and we shake, and we shrug.”
It seems as if some themes will forever be present in the music of Arab Strap – darkness, loneliness, dreariness, and always a touch of sly humour. But, crucially, none of it amounts to despair. As Days Get Dark suggests a wiser, more mature approach to tackling the burdens of heartbreak, encroaching age and nostalgia – that is, sober acceptance of the futility of it all. It would be too much to ask Middleton and Moffat to leave us with a message of hope – that would just be contrived. But, as conclusions go (to an album, hopefully not a career), ‘Just Enough’ sounds about right. The bleakness continues, but now it is acknowledged with a degree of strength and self-confidence that hasn’t been heard on any Arab Strap project before. Life’s a bastard, sure – but that shouldn’t stop us from singing about it.