The new Arab Strap record, As Days Get Dark, is very good. As I catch myself in the act of viewing this surmise as an eyebrow-raising surprise, it seems more valid to simply smack myself on the forehead and conclude: “D’ohh, of course, the new Arab Strap is good!”. When I saw the band perform at Best Kept Secret 2017 — not long after Aiden Moffat and Malcolm Middleton announced their reunion — there was a similar feeling: that was actually great…brilliant even.
Arab Strap is a relic from my days prowling the message boards when records like The Last Romance and The Red Thread were discovered by giddy word-of-mouth. I was a different person at the time, and a lot of my experiences in my twenties are etched in Arab Strap’s music. I was a socially awkward early twenty-something student who just had his first sexual experiences, but still enough of a cerebral brooder to be apprehensive about the whole ‘social life’-deal.
Suffice it to say, Arab Strap was the perfect echo chamber for those displaced feelings: their acerbic, half-assed chronicles of human pathetic-ness — sung in a tippler’s Scottish drawl — in a weird way, became a source of comfort. Whether it was depraved alt-folk meanderings or ersatz bedroom raves heard on the other side of the plaster, Arab Strap made life on the dole sound oddly romantic, because they capture it so shrewdly. Middleton and Moffat’s work occupies that treacherous grey area between kitchen-sink and piss-take: just enough to take them seriously, and also just enough to not take them too seriously.
Some bands exude a lack of sex because they are simply boring and/or trying too hard to be a copy of a copy of bands that did exude some kind of eroticism (Greta cough Van cough Vleet). Arab Strap are the harsh antithesis in this equation: they exist in the more grounded, and often more common, candid occurrence of sex: one rooted in pity, shame, or sheer ineptitude. In a time when some singles have been living without intimacy for over a year, it sure feels like the perfect storm for Arab Strap to be releasing a record. Factor in how artists like Sleaford Mods, Richard Dawson, Destroyer, Kae Tempest, the late Dave Berman’s Purple Mountains, and Rotterdam’s very own Lewsberg have leaned into a more hard-boiled, ear-to-the-ground songwriting acumen, and you can honestly say the foundation was well-laid.
This makes me wonder again why I caught myself thinking that Arab Strap in 2021 would somehow be washed up when their entire work makes them more or less immune to the notion of being washed up. As Days Get Dark once again contains brutally honest examinations of some of the darkest corners of human thought, delivered by Moffat with bone-dry matter-of-factness. He often sounds so exhausted that he breaks the fourth wall lyrically — as if he caught the listener on the other end drifting off, and just shrugs despondently to himself about what the point of it all really was.
So many of Arab Strap’s peers have continued album cycle after album cycle every two or three years, each release blunting what was once a well-defined, incisively produced body of work. It suits Moffat and Middleton for recognizing when the faucet ran empty, pursuing their own projects that elicited more fire in the belly. I’ve read several reviews stating how Arab Strap loves taking the piss and to be fair, a great deal of As Days Get Dark is undeniably funny. But the way Moffat brilliantly plays it straight gives you enough pause to realize his character studies hit a rather grim slap of reality as well.
Skeptics will say it's just another record of Arab Strap taking the piss, while connoisseurs might conclude that Arab Strap did the exact opposite: a band who are more painfully and acutely self-aware than ever, and therefore more credible. On As Days Get Dark, the duo seems content to just let the work speak for itself, and let the ambiguity inspire people to connect to it in their own specific way: there’s plenty to peruse between the lines.
There’s something to be said about a band that writes about the losers achieving somewhat of an artistic renaissance in an industry geared towards picking the side of the winner. There’s a triumph in deliberately waiting sixteen whole years before instinctively recognizing when it’s time to resurface. If more artists did that, we might have gotten fewer once-great artists settling for mediocrity these days. All the more reason to give it up for Arab Strap: the rare band who subvert mediocrity into an art form in and of itself. Their brio is unbroken.
Buy As Days Get Dark here.