What were once vices are now habits. The Doobie Brothers said that. (Well, they named an album that.) (No, I don’t own it, Skunk.) I bet the Scottish boys in Arab Strap have spent a few nights pissing in strange alleys at four in the morning, perhaps pondering the gist of this aphorism. They have a few habits themselves. For a handful of albums and singles over the last couple of years, the duo—Aidan Moffat on vocals, Malcolm Middleton on guitar—have been getting high and breaking their own hearts and staring at wallpaper in rooms of girls they’ve just met, of girls they’ve known since grade school, or of their own damn selves. They don’t merely hint at the dark side of chemical love; they reveal it completely. Romance in the time of Ecstasy, according to Arab Strap, is a complicated and often mundane thing, spiked by moments of bursting out of your own skin. With The Red Thread, album five, this terrain seems the only place they live. Though I’m not complaining.
Named after a special cock-ring device (I don’t know, ask Steve Albini, he always talks about ’em), Arab Strap are kind of a fan band. Their early recordings (1996 debut longplayer The Week Never Starts Around Here and The Girls of Summer E.P. from 1997) have a music lover’s naïveté: basic beats you could cop off any Casio, limited guitar vocabulary, vocalist warbling in the shadows of a perpetual last call. When they get the sweat, the passion, and the love of Joy Division and English Isles folk right, you can really have your hands full. Like the Doobie Bros., Arab Strap have a singer who croons straight from the beard. Not because he has something to hide; rather, Moffat—whether you think he’s a generous diarist or just an open book—is nothing if not unsparing. Blow-by-blow accounts of nights out and endless afternoons-as-mornings, spoke-sung in 88 percent decipherable Scottish, crest against your ankles and pull you under. On the creeping-to-rolling-to-really-rolling “Girls of Summer,” Moffat huffs about tan lines on the peeling shoulders of a group of girls with the straps of their tank tops shrugged off. He pretty much freezes time, and you might as well be sitting on the corner with him.
Club-based music tends to pulse in the present tense. So do the drugs you usually find near a dancefloor. On the right night you can convince yourself there will be no tomorrow, no comedown, no end to a bassline. And club music’s lyrical content tends to back this up—lots of dancefloor as freedom, plenty of tonight-is-forever. Arab Strap usurp the things that make dance music euphoric, but they pack a heavy conscience for the trip. On the version of “Girls of Summer” on last year’s live Mad for Sadness, they break up the EP’s noisy, droning burst with a swift skip into a lockjawed four-on-the-floor that starts like an early-’90s Touch & Go band covering Underworld then stutters into waking up damp with sweat after two hours of sleep. Arab Strap’s nights aren’t as glossy or tacky as Soft Cell’s naughty-little-cokehead tales used to be; their days after sound less gussied up with New Age awakening than Ride or the Doves. You get an eternal cycle: boredom, anticipation, rapture, comedown, resignation, boredom. And they somehow make it all breathtaking.
So, The Red Thread. Ten more songs about screwing somebody you’re supposed to have split up with in sheets of guilt and dropping E at a crap disco? Not entirely. Arab Strap mix the stoic, set-permanently-at-dawn folk whispers of last year’s Elephant Shoe with the beat-friendly sense of their best early singles: “The First Big Weekend,” “(Afternoon) Soaps,” “Cherubs.” The music sheds its amateur charm for the sound of a band in control of its art and its drum machines. And whereas on previous albums things could get a little static, The Red Thread‘s long-winded dirges usually have pop numbers buffering the despair—”Love Detective” ‘s shamus-skitter, for instance, relieving the yearning of “The Long Sea.”
There are still sitting-in-the-shit moments; check when Moffat rolls over and mutters, “At least we know we’re still fuckable,” in “Infrared.” But the power of this pair doesn’t necessarily come from their willingness to stand in front of a bathroom mirror under uncomplimentary light; it comes from what they notice when they look in. On “Screaming in the Trees” (the Lanegan revival starts here!), backed by a simple guitar line, Moffat sings about a liaison with an ex, “Your shoes could have woken up the whole street,” and then admits, shaking with anticipation before a possible kiss, “It’s hard to believe I’m fully grown.” It’s moments like this when I really fall for them: the scabs on a girl’s knees, the searching for a lover’s sex journal, the shouting over bar noise a conversation that should’ve been whispered in private.
The album closes with “Turbulence”—their best song yet; fuck that, the best song this year—which feels like your heart skipping while you dance in your room to New Order’s “Leave Me Alone.” Moffat’s we’re-drunk/we-might-break-up/
we’re-at-a-weird-party story passes by with the desolation of billboards through a car window, and with immense heaviness, swallowing something it’s dying to tell. Finding a moment of inebriated peace and safety with a love that very well may end soon, he sings, “Pull it tight to protect us/we might never sleep again.” The drug of living in the moment wears off and becomes a realization of emptiness. All in the same song. It will make you put that magazine away and really listen (no small feat).
Love songs are the lowest common denominator of pop. Everyone’s got a few (like for instance Paul Weller’s got ’em, and so does Celine Dion and I bet even Red Crayola). They’re disposable, too. That’s why Stephin Merritt can write 69 of them in one sitting. But this new Arab Strap record makes Merritt’s not unsubstantial accomplishment look like “Hey, Mom! I finished the Rubik’s Cube!” Arab Strap make me feel like the be-pimpled teenager with pictures of Morrissey on my wall that I never got around to being. Often with love songs you might say to yourself, “That’s so good because it sounds just like me,” but what you mean is, “That’s so good because it’s how I wish I felt.” With The Red Thread, Arab Strap deliver a mere 10 love songs that make me quiver—not because they’re just like my life, but because they are definitely Arab Strap’s lives.
We desperately wish that love felt like the seamless ecstasy of Samantha Sang’s “Emotion” or Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” We wish that it would have the hokey heroic New Jersey narrative of Bruce’s “Thunder Road” (at least I do). We wish we had game like Led Zep’s “Out on the Tiles” or Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U.” Or we wish we could tell someone to fuck off like Whitney does in “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay.” We wish we had the words at the perfect time; to make it all right, to make someone follow us to the ends of the earth, or just to end it forever. We can take solace in Arab Strap, though. We have them for the jokes we can’t finish, and the words we’ll never get out.
Arab Strap play Maxwell’s April 3 and Bowery Ballroom April 4.