As Days Get Dark by Arab Strap

2021

In 1947, Dylan Thomas visited Florence with his family. Whilst he was there, he started “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, a villanelle which he finished in 1951, a year before his father died. In the poem, the actions of each small man are placed in contrast to the vastness of universe. The light shed on the world by the wise man is pale in comparison with lightning, and waves produced by the good man disappear in a green bay. Similarly, we are subtly reminded throughout, an old man’s rage will be ineffectual in the face of death. I’m no expert, but it seems a pretty amazing poem to me.

A villanelle is a poem with a very precise form. It must have 19 lines, broken into six verses. Each of the first five verses has three lines and the sixth verse has four lines. Certain lines are repeated: verse 1, line 1 = verse 2, line 3 = verse 4, line 3 = verse 6, line 3. In this case, the line is “Do not go gentle into that good night”. Verse 1, line 3 = verse 3, line 3 = verse 5, line 3 = verse 6, line 4. In this case, the line is “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. The rhyming scheme is such that the first and third lines of each verse should rhyme with each other and the second line of each verse should rhyme with each other. Rules. I love rules.

The third song on “As Days Get Dark” is “Compersion Pt. 1”. The song concerns two people whose relationship is deteriorating and this is brilliantly and humorously portrayed in the lines “I came on strong with a limerick, she knocks me back with a villanelle”. I had no idea what a villanelle was, apart from the name of a leading character in “Killing Eve” but, having read Dylan Thomas’ poem, I can see that a genius is needed to make something quite constrictive appear so simple. In the song by Arab Strap, the diverging paths that the two protagonists are taking is brilliantly summed up by their choice of poetic form. It’s also very funny.

In 1956, John Presmont founded an alternative community in New York called “Kerista”. John Presmont preferred to be called “Bro Jud” and towards the end of the Sixties, he moved to San Francisco. Between 1971 and 1991, a Kerista commune was formed in several different buildings in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and it was here that the terms polyfidelity and compersion were invented. Polyfidelity was deemed to be preferable to monogamy. Sexual liaisons were encouraged between all members of the community. Compersion describes the happiness that a person feels when they know that their intimate partner enjoys a relationship with someone else.

A unicorn is a mythical horse-like animal with one horn protruding from its head. in the Middle Ages, it was often described as an extremely wild animal which could only be captured by a virgin. It had extreme purity and grace and was a symbol of rarity and fantasy. A unicorn appears on The Royal Arms of Queen Elizabeth. In England and Scotland, different Arms are used but both show a lion and a unicorn in opposition (the lion having been previously adopted by English royals). A unicorn could be interpreted as a Scottish sexual fantasy. Here is what Aidan Moffat said about the song. “It depicts a quest to find the ever elusive unicorn, to bond fluidly – and safely – with the like-minded and adventurous in the comforting arms of an anonymous hotel and the stark realisation that you never really wanted it”.

At the end of the song, the singer and his girlfriend’s relationship is breaking down so they go out to “look for a unicorn”. All they find is “a bride and blushing groom” which is a good transposition of the normal description of two newly-weds. They all go back to a hotel room where the singer gets jealous and has a “wibble” (an overwhelming childish emotion). Compersion might be an ideal to work towards, and, in theory, it’s very admirable to take satisfaction in the pleasure of a loved one, but, as described in the song, reality can be somewhat different.

Arab Strap consist of two Scottish musicians, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton. They formed in 1995, released 7 albums, split in 2006, reformed in 2016, playing several gigs and appearing at a number of festivals before releasing a single, “The Turning Of Our Bones” in 2020. “As Days Get Dark” was released on 5th March 2021. In between the two incarnations of the band, the two musicians released a total of 22 solo albums.

Most songs on the album feature indie-rock, motorik instrumentation with Aidan Moffat speaking the lyrics in his broad Scottish accent. Occasionally he breaks into singing but the spoken delivery of most of the album allows for close attention to be paid to the words. I really like the way that the lines scan, giving a pleasing rhythmical essence to every song. For example, the first two lines on the album are “I don’t give a fuck about the past/Our glory days gone by/All I care about right now/Is that wee mole inside your thigh”. This reminds me of the first two lines from Patti Smith’s “Babelogue” from “Easter” which are “I haven’t fucked much with the past but I’ve fucked plenty with the future“. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are predominant themes throughout the album and some of the videos for the songs are not for the faint hearted.

The Turning Of The Bones”, the opening song on the album was named after a Madagascan ritual called the Famadihana. The ritual involves family members digging up the bones of their ancestors, wrapping them in cloth and returning them to the family tomb whilst dancing to live music. Aidan Moffat wrote the song in the context of digging up an old romance whilst understanding that Arab Strap’s first new album for 15 years is also a rebirth, or maybe a resurrection. As such, it was the obvious choice as an opening track.

Another Clockwork Day” tells the story of a man who watches pornography on his computer. The click, click, click of his mouse as he watches picture after picture, is likened to clockwork. After boredom sets in, he retrieves some pictures from his past and the song describes him looking at pictures of his wife from years gone by. This satisfies him more than watching pornography and he returns to sleep by his snoring spouse.

In Greek mythology, Comus was a God of excess. Whereas Pan was carnal and Dionysos was inebriated, Comus managed to combine the two. “Here Comes Comus!” is a 21st Century update of the tale of debauchery. In a similar vein, “Kebabylon” takes the excesses of the capital of the Babylonian Empire and adds the detritus of kebabs to conjure up an image of over indulgence, waste and self-indulgence. Luckily, the city has a street sweeper to dispose of syringes and used condors and this is the story of that early morning worker. The music on both of these songs is strongly reminiscent of the classic Cure sound of the Eighties.

Fable Of The Urban Fox” is atypically comprehensible. The song describes how foxes moved from the country to the cities but were not welcomed and told to “Fuck off back to fox land. The streets are fucking full”. A powerful but not especially subtle tirade against small-minded anti-immigration bigotry.

Tears On Tour” is brilliant. It begins by describing events in his life which have made the singer cry, including kids movies such as “The Muppet Movie, Frozen, Frozen 2“. However, in times of depression, he finds that he can’t cry because he feels numb. In a wonderful flight of fancy, he thinks about becoming the opposite of a comedian, touring round the country and “telling tales of woe. The audience would join me in a long, collective cry.” He would sell handkerchiefs, embroidered with the tour dates, in the foyer.

For such a bleak and dark album, there are many genuinely funny moments and “I Was Once A Weak Man” takes its punchline from the “Carry On” films. Here is what Aidan Moffat says. “It’s an old Carry On joke. Hattie Jacques used to have this mad, rabid desire for Kenneth Williams. The joke in the films was you weren’t allowed to say at the time he was gay, but everybody kind of knew. She’s trying to ensnare Kenneth Williams and he says, “No, no, I’m a changed man, I can’t do it anymore,” and she says, “Why?” and he says, “You know, I was once a weak man.” The punchline is: “Once a week’s enough for any man.”

Possibly the best song on the album is the longest. “Sleeper” is nearly six and a half minutes long and with increasingly bleak instrumentation, we hear the story of a strange train journey in which buskers try to sing familiar songs, families wave from an otherwise deserted station and the singer fails to get off the train as its unknown destination approaches all too quickly.

In the final song, “Just Enough”, the bleakness of the album is summarised in such a way as to provide hope. We all have our coping mechanisms and if we don’t hurt then we will never heal. Aidan Moffat sums up this song, and the whole album, like this: “I have a friend that always used to say that everyone he’s met who made happy music was a miserable bastard. And the inverse is true. Whenever he’s met people who are supposedly making sad music, they are on top of it and perfectly happy and quite sensible. That clown thing, crying on the inside sort of thing. I think there’s some truth in that. It’s a way to deal with the shit you want to deal with. Thankfully, other people want to pay for it.”

Here’s a really informative interview about every song on the album.

https://www.stereogum.com/2116589/arab-strap-as-days-get-dark/interviews/footnotes-interview/

Taking pleasure in someone else’s bleakness and depression. What’s the name for that. Uncompersion?

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

3 thoughts on “As Days Get Dark by Arab Strap

  1. This is my 2021 Album of the Year, thus far. Dry Cleaning’s “New Long Leg” might overtake it, and the new Lingua Ignota is brilliant, but I haven’t played that one enough yet to pass judgment. But nothing else new this year seems close in terms of brilliance within my own collection!

    Liked by 1 person

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