Indie kings Aidan Moffat and Malcom Middleton’s first album as Arab Strap in 16 years is also the best of their career. This is a dingy, debauched and tragi-comic universe – and all conjured with extraordinary depth in less than 50 minutes. Just about every track on ‘As Days Get Dark’ is unflinching in its depictions of life’s most sordid nooks and crannies.
‘The Turning Of Our Bones’ is a grizzly meditation on getting older, which alternates between images of ageing bodies in coitus and putrefying corpses. ‘Another Clockwork Day’ is a tragic vignette of a disillusioned porn addict masturbating while his wife sleeps. ‘Fable Of The Urban Fox’ is an allegory for xenophobia in which two loveable foxes have their heads bashed in with a cricket bat.
‘Here Comes Comus!’ might be the most sinister thing Arab Strap – never ones to shy away from life’s grim underbelly – have ever recorded. Over a relentless pump of dramatic, dark pop, Moffat sings an icy ode to the titular Greek god of festivity, whom he renders as a depraved and irresistible tempter with “his bloodshot eye on your sister.”
Yet for all its gruesomeness, ‘As Days Get Dark’ is a beautiful record. There’s always a vulnerability at the core of its characters; Moffat treats each with tenderness and care. On ‘I Was Once A Weak Man’, for instance, there’s finely drawn insecurity in the ageing sleazebag at the song’s centre: ‘Well Mick Jagger does it / And he’s older than me…’ he tells himself.
For all the seediness of tracks like ‘The Turning Of Our Bones’, they celebrate uninhibited love as a counter to the endless march of old age. “Let’s live now, before we’re back below,” the narrator pleads with his lover. ‘Sleeper’, meanwhile, is a masterpiece of imaginative songwriting, Moffat exploring the relentless cycles of addiction through the image of a ghostly sleeper train on its way to oblivion, different figures pleading for the narrator to depart at each station.
Sometimes they lay on the theatre: see ‘The Turning Of Our Bones” final crescendo of dramatic strings, or ‘Kebabylon”s great bursting choruses. ‘Here Comes Comus!’ is as danceable as it is menacing. The delicate guitar arpeggios on ‘Another Clockwork Day’, gradually joined by melodica, then brass, then strings, are simply gorgeous.
Ultimately, though, Arab Strap’s return finds them re-examining tried-and-tested subjects of sex and death with the mix of wit, romanticism and relentless honesty that always made them great. What elevates ‘As Days Get Dark’ is the way they embrace their experience.
With lyrics that encompass the reality of ageing with all its wisdom and regrets, and with music that employs the deftness of touch that can only come with long-term honing, Arab Strap have delivered their defining record.
Release date: March 5
Record label: Rock Action Records