Sex, Death, Growing Up and Arab Strap: As Days Get Dark
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
I was eight years old when Arab Strap released what was then their final album, The Last Romance, in 2005. I was too young to appreciate the “Proclaimers from Hell”. The poetry of Aidan Moffat is direct, dramatic, the scenes detailed and colourful, depicted in a way that the listener feels like they are experiencing the events themselves. The romantic thread of Arab Strap albums could rival Rimbaud or Baudelaire, but with arguably more sex and more fluids. By then I was on a path of musical discovery, catching snippets of videos for songs by Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and Bloc Party on MTV, while my parents skimmed the music channels on Saturday nights to find the pop charts or ‘Ibiza Anthems’. Arab Strap released their debut album, The Week Never Starts Round Here, in November 1996, a month before I was born. As I wrote for At The Barrier, I discovered Arab Strap during my first year at university in Southampton — a year full of music, art and hedonistic self-discovery. I was at my friend’s flat, sitting on his sofa with a cup of tea and playing with his pet ferret, I heard ‘New Birds’ from Philophobia. It was the first Arab Strap song I heard, and I was HOOKED. The devastation in the lyrics, their modest delivery, sounding resigned, amid a mass of squealing synths and distorted guitars — life itself — blazed around them. It was all addictive, from the prose to the Slint-like hushed vocals and quiet-loud-quiet song structures. I’ve been making up for lost time ever since — Arab Strap is music for walking home late at night, to a single bed in a student dorm after slipping out of a party after not saying good bye to anyone. It’s comedown music, rainy-day music, music you can fuck to, make love to, break up to, get married to. Arab Strap very quickly became my go-to for when I felt in love, out of love, contemplative, or whenever I straight up feel weird. They even inspired me to write and perform poetry as a result. In a recent interview with Marianne Gallagher for Clash, Moffatt said “when we started, even using my accent seemed like a statement. And sometimes, I feel like being Scottish is a political statement in itself.” I felt the same about being Welsh — especially now, with the rise of Welsh independence in the last year. Which is partly due to The Senedd’s better and swifter responses to the coronavirus pandemic than the English government’s, as well as Boris Johnson calling Scottish powers — and in extension, devolution as a whole — “a disaster.” On a more personal note, I remember first moving to university in England and being told that no one could understand me because of my accent. It took me a while to realise that I had begun to change how I spoke, softening my accent for English ears. But when I started out reciting poetry, Moffat’s unapologetically thick accent inspired me to feel confident in my own vocal delivery, to learn into my native voice.
You can see her 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
But you make sure you get separate taxis And you go home and there might be a slight regret And you might wonder what you missed But you have to remember the kiss you worked so hard on And you'll know you've done the right thing
Growing up, my idols were men who subverted gender tropes. Brian Molko, who seemed to take pleasure in people’s confusion over his gender, Billy Corgan with long hair and a dress, Kurt Cobain also. Most recently, Tricky. On reflection, I realise all these artists were in their prime in the 90s and early 2000s. I can’t remember having any male idols from my early teenage years — a time dominated by Kerrang! and Scuzz TV. Aside from Chester Bennington’s angsty expression of male trauma and mental health, and Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke’s sensitivity, I seem to remember a lot of dudebro pop-punk, macho metal and ladrock. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I now know Molko, Cobain — and Corgan — were responsible, in no small way, for my own exploration of gender and learning about masculinity. In a recent piece for The Guardian, Kathryn Bromwich wrote that Placebo were her liberation when she felt disconnected from her surroundings. I also found Placebo when I felt disconnected from the toxicity of Welsh-masculinity. Instances like being called a girl for forgetting to take out my ear stretchers (remember those) out at rugby practise — which I only attended because I thought I had to, coming from a long line of men who were over 6ft, beer bellied, ex-rugby players. I was 5ft9, stick thin with long, shoulder-length hair. It’s no surprise that I would drift from bands like Placebo, whose lyrics, in Bromwich’s words, contained tales of “sadomasochism and ketamine, of doomed romances and seedy underworlds”, through to punk, industrial and new wave, to “trip-hop”, post-rock, to Arab Strap (and beyond).
Moffatt taught me about masculinity too, albeit in a different way to Molko, and Cobain. Moffat is known for his lyrics depicting his sexual antics, that are both frank and humorous, such as the opening line on Philophobia:
It was the biggest cock you’ve ever seen/ But you’ve no idea where that cock has been.
A non-believer may dismiss Moffatt as a class clown, or just a bit of a shagger. Although, Moffat would probably agree with them. Like he said in The Quietus, "shagging's great, but it's also a gateway to many other emotions that many not have existed before: jealousy, infatuation, obsession, insecurity..." He may not be wearing dresses onstage, which the wearing of a dress itself isn’t necessarily challenging or controversial, (although he looks great in a kilt), his lyrics challenge male behaviour by taking aim at himself, and he never misses. He writes about the fragility of the male ego, insecurity, loneliness, self-destruction and toxic masculinity in ways that are confrontational, funny and, sexy.
For example, ‘Another Clockwork Day’, from the new album As Days get Dark, can be described as an experience of 'Post-Nut Clarity' — quite a classic scene in the tragicomedy of an Arab Strap album. When not spilling every sordid detail of sex and lust, Moffat is writing about death. Sex and death; two pillars of the human condition. The opening track ‘The Turning of Our Bones’ is a disco-friendly beast, dancing to the tune of resurrection and ritual. ‘Tears on Tour’ tackles the grief of losing loved-ones and being unable to do anything about it. The song moves into a chronicle of events that also make Moffatt cry, ranging from the news, having depression, to reading books and to watching the Frozen films with his children. Moffatt is as candid about his emotions as he is about his weekend activities, while showing that there is still a laugh to be had in the face of grief, pain, regret. Crying is a release, it’s healthy, cathartic. I’m not a fan of the sloganising of complex mental health conversations. Catchphrases such as ‘It’s okay to cry’, or ‘just talk’, condense important issues such into overly simplified #content. But what is important is men sharing their experiences and their stories — and what I’ve learned from Arab Strap is: self-awareness is a strength. We don't move through this world without affecting those around us, without something or someone being changed by our actions.
As Days Get Dark is the first Arab Strap record release I am able to experience first-hand. While I have been listening to their music for years now, this is the first Arab Strap that feels like it’s mine. The release of a record is different from the experience of the record, but I often conflate the two. I love discovering music when it’s first released and getting to feel like part of an important stage in an artist’s career. Maybe it’s partly ego, that “I was there” factor. Displaced consumption, maybe. Although, only writing about music when it’s released, instead of showing it love at any time, is one of the downsides of the 'album cycle'. Listening to ‘The Turning of Our Bones’ in the car with my partner for the first time, while we drove through Devonshire country lanes under a darkening sky. Lying in bed together watching the videos that accompanied the singles like they’re movies — and trying to name all the classic horror films referenced in the video for ‘Turning of our Bones’. And shivering with goose-pimpled skin when experiencing the climax of ‘Sleeper’ for the first time, on a train ride home. In that moment I felt like my journey was accompanied by Moffatt’s narration, going home, wherever home is. The lead up to the album’s release was a huge part of the last year for me, and my relationship with my partner, which had only started just before the first lockdown. Arab Strap have been repeatedly accused of being cynics and miserabilists throughout their career, and maybe they are, but their music is cathartic, even when exploring death — it’s all strangely uplifting. And after a year (only the latest in a long line of years) of unnecessary deaths, of austerity, grief and state violence, Although As Days Get Dark has one foot in the grave, I’m looking forward to the future. A post-pandemic future when I can see Arab Strap live on their album tour, with the person I love. Even if the future will only result in one’s own demise.
Photo Credit: Neale Smith, 2003.