As Days Get Dark
2021 • ROCK • ROCK ACTION
The Scottish duo’s first album in 16 years is sharp, heavy, and dense while still captivating. While they seem to be 16 years more mature, they seem to have come back from where they left off.
Two years after the split of the Arab Strap, Malcolm Middleton said in an interview with The Skinny, “I don’t think we should ever get back together. We always said we would when we split up, but I think maybe it’s still too soon.” With that, he took the hope of the fans that it was just a momentary stop and that the Scottish duo would soon go back to life and threw it in the trash. Indeed, it was a definite stop. For almost two decades, Arab Strap has not released any more projects. However, in that same interview, Middleton later added, “Maybe in a few years when we’ve got time, we’ll maybe try something for a laugh. Who knows?” This day has come, after 16 years without any new project, Middleton returns alongside Aidan Moffat for a new album, As Days Get Dark.
If you didn’t know that Arab Strap went 15 years without releasing a song, you would hardly be able to realize that As Days Get Dark comes after almost two decades of hiatus. When you compare the path of their old projects, those of the late 1990s and early 2000s, you would be able to connect easily to this album. Their sound was getting darker, heavier, and denser, with an increasingly sharp and mature production. It is an almost undeniable inertia that if they hadn’t stopped in the mid-2000s, they would have delivered this album at that time. But that doesn’t mean that As Days Get Dark works only in a context of more than 10 years ago, it works nowadays, where no one else buys CDs or downloads mp3 illegally. To this day, their sound is impressive and immersive, filled with carefully written lyrics that paint vivid scenes in the head of whoever was there. Basically, they are proving that both before and now, they do well.
The album begins with a guitar solo that quickly begins to be accompanied by snares and claps. The track establishes a sound tension that is complemented by Moffat’s hoarse and tired voice. He sings in the first sentence of the album, “I don’t give a fuck about the past our glory days gone by.” There was no better track to start the album since it is, besides this production that makes a lot of sense for preparing the listener for something great, it addresses their past. Aidan sings about the past few years and how they don’t matter. “Dig us up and hold us high/Raise our carcass to the sky,” he says. At the end of the track, bongos, piano, and what appears to be a violin appear to close the — great — opener.
The same columns that support the first track — dense instrumentation and rich composition — are the ones that also strengthen the best songs on As Days Get Dark. First of all, we can talk about writing which is their most powerful so far. In “Fable of the Urban Fox,” one of the best, Moffat uses the metaphor of a couple of foxes to represent him and his lover. He begins, “They came in from the country/They were hounded from their homes/They’d always dreamed about the city.” In this story, the couple seems lost inside the world, still trying to find a place in the world, giving the impression that their relationship is not accepted by those close to them and now they look for a place where they can live their love. He sings in front of a few chords on a guitar, “There’s no rest however far we roam/Somewhere on this earth, we will find home.” The most amazing thing is how these scenes can fit both in the human environment and in the animal environment.
Then, the band’s sound is also impressive as hell. Despite being dense and heavy, with a background that seems distant and unreachable, it still manages to sound catchy and engaging. In the romantic “Bluebird,” where the singer seems confused about his feelings, we have this beautiful and very striking hook. This song doesn’t even seem to come from a dense rock album. In “Kebabylon,” in turn, we can see few guitar chords mixing with industrial synthesizers and well-aimed pianos, which are later accompanied by electric guitars and violins. Even the generic sound of “Compersion, Pt. 1” that can easily remind you of some garage rock bands from the 2000s sounds nice and good here
The best songs in As Days Get Dark are those that manage to combine these two factors and that still manage to go far beyond what seems their comfort zone. “Another Clockwork Day” has the most striking composition on the record. It tells the story of this hard-working pornography addict who reaches the point that not even the most exciting sites can satisfy him. “Free Live Cams left him limp/The sounds of commerce, a complete turnoff/And the films these days, with their surgery scars and bad tats/And it’s all stepmoms and stepsisters now,” he sings. In the sound, we also have something more daring, with sharper strings, elegant drums and keyboards, and what appears to be a bagpipe. Likewise, “Tears On Tour” shows the heaviest lyrics on the record with him talking about how he cried for so much in his life that now he can’t cry for anything else. He mentions the death of his grandparents, broken hearts, and sad movies while a synthesizer creates noise in the background. Crying has never seemed so comprehensive.
The weaker songs from As Days Get Dark are not really weak so to speak and interestingly they focus on the end of the record. “Here Comes Comus!,” despite good lyrics and a relatively decent instrumental, had a slow performance that made the track tedious. “I Was Once a Weak Man,” in turn, has something even more out of his comfort zone, but what gets in the way here is Moffat’s aforementioned non-interpretive voice, which is actually present in the whole album but here it has a greater weight. Finally, “Sleeper” is too long and fails to capture the listener’s attention. Fortunately, the last song, “Just Enough” is a great closure, with a slightly more usual, not so experimental, and lighter and calmer sound. But it still didn’t have the key phrase that the opener has, “So let’s live now before we’re back below.”