First, a mea culpa. I got my dates wrong, or at least I took my dates from allmusic.com. In fact these two records, Arab Strap’s first single and last album, were released 9 years apart rather than the 10 that tonight’s theme demanded. I can only apologise.
This embarrassing oversight notwithstanding, from ‘First’ to ‘Last’, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton’s career trajectory demonstrates beautiful, redemptive and complete progress, both musically and philosophically.
Their first album, ‘The Week Never Starts Round Here’ still sounds like focussed, pulsing post-rock topped by the after-party mumbles of a hammered scottish prose-poet. Listening back, it’s surprising just how musically similar it is to Chemikal-Underground-label-mates Mogwai’s ‘Come On Die Young’, an album it preceded by 3 years. ‘The First Big Weekend’ is markedly different from much of the rest of the record, lashing Moffat’s picaresque journey through 4 days of beer, birds, brawls and everything in between to the thudding headache-beat of one club night too many. Steve Lamacq memorably called the track “The best song of the decade”.
From here Arab Strap’s records became steadily more confident and exponentially more sombre. Moffat’s bleakly honest and terribly funny lyrics catalogued descending sexual desperation and humiliation, the blasted blur of the boozehound from first pint to hair of the dog, and ultimately traced the outline of the existential abyss at the centre of modern workaday hedonism. Beneath this Middleton’s music chilled and slowed almost to match the stunned depths of one of Moffat’s protagonist’s hangovers.
Whilst never less than beautiful, the albums seemed to be chasing themselves down into the depths where nothing moves and no-one survives. After stirrings on ‘The Red Thread’, 2003’s ‘Monday At The Hug And Pint’ brought relief, re-introducing some of the joy into the duo’s music, principally as Middleton’s arrangements became more expansive, bringing pace and dynamism back and beginning to create a bleak pop entirely of their own forging.
‘The Last Romance’ saw this through wonderfully. Finally Moffat’s words, as woundingly sharp and painfully wry as ever, met their match in songs that pulsate and drive forwards, the first Arab Strap songs you could dance to since, well, since ‘The First Big Weekend’. Musically it’s their finest record, the songs standing proudly on their own two big, presumably slightly swaying, feet. It’s catchy, for god’s sake. And just when you’ve come to terms with Arab Strap being hook-laden, you realise another even more profound transformation has taken place. Although the album starts with a couplet as cracklingly ribald as the infamous opener to ‘Philophobia’, by the time the last five songs roll around, Aidan Moffat is leaving behind the past ten years of drinking and shagging all his chances away and moving, shuffling, towards, settling into romantic love. And when this finally comes, after nine years of following his every godforsaken mis-step and misanthropic side-swipe, it’s as beautiful a feeling as finally marrying off that best friend who you never thought would find the right girl.
The closing track ‘There Is No Ending’ is unashamedly positive and uplifting to the extent that my wife and I came pretty close to having it play as we got married which, for Arab Strap, is one hell of a transformation. It’s the last song they ever released and a perfect way to end the perfect, if slightly wobbly, story arc and a near faultless career.
Tom Listened: I wonder what it would be like to be Aiden Moffat’s girlfriend. To know that every last detail of your relationship, especially the stuff that happens upstairs, will eventually find its way into an unremittingly bleak portrait of Scottish life. I wonder whether Aiden Moffat gets to have a girlfriend now that he has released so many records!
I have stalled in writing my response to The Last Romance because I wanted to get to know it a bit better beforehand. I had liked what I had heard at DRC but I knew that with Arab Strap, the words are too central to overlook and I didn’t really get to grips with them on the night. So today I listened intently whilst driving around the South Devon countryside on another glorious Spring day and the sounds coming out of my car stereo were somewhat incongruous to that rural idyll. As Rob suggests, some of the songs on The Last Romance bounce along splendidly with a momentum that has often been lacking on previous Arab Strap releases and, at times today, I would find myself completely lost in the music…and the music is wonderful. So is Aiden Moffat’s singing. I love his voice. I admire the Scottishness of it, the honesty in the way he slurs his words making no attempt to pander to his audience’s possible preconceptions of what signing should be like.
It’s the words themselves I have a problem with on The Last Romance. I own Philophobia and think it’s a great record. I went back to it tonight to re-assess whether it’s Arab Strap’s or my own development that has made the difference. Whilst I was listening to the lyrics (and there really is no escaping the lyrics on an Arab Strap album), it struck me that Philophobia’s words possess two qualities that The Last Romance seems to be missing – tenderness and scope. Whilst Philophobia’s music is probably the darker of the two, the lyrics talk of love, of kissing, of flirting and of the route to the bedroom rather than (exclusively) what happens once you’re there. Rob attests that there is light at the end of Arab Strap’s tunnel (so to speak) from five songs off but lyrics like ‘And when I wake up stiff, please just feel free to use me/Then go to work and let me wonder what it was that made you choose me’ (from track 8 – Dream Sequence) suggest that optimism is a subjective quality. So whilst we get there in the end, with There Is No Ending the journey to that point is a long and, for me, harrowing affair.
Nick listened: Well, when I say I “own” everything that was played this (last) week, that’s not quite true. The Arab Strap CDs in our collection belong to my wife, and I have never listened to them. I have no idea why: the only thing I’ve heard connected to them is the Belle & Sebastian track that one of them guests on, which I really enjoyed, so there’s no excuse for not delving further. I loved The First Big Weekend, the way it took an ostensibly dance beat and strung it out from being a rave into being an icky hangover. I need to own it. I also enjoyed The Last Romance, although not quite as much; though it varies texture and approach over the whole record, the first two or three songs seemed a little too billowy and direct for me when thrown into relief with The First Big Weekend. By the time There Is No Ending swung around, though… well, Rob summed up the sense of redemption nicely. Gorgeous melody, gorgeous arrangement, totally different feel to everything else on the record and across their career. A fine way to bow out.