Unpopular advent 2021 – day 14

Arab Strap – ‘Here Comes Comus!’ from As Days Get Dark

Someone somewhere recently wrote something about the tremendous ‘Glasgow 1980’ film that was made, somewhat confusingly, in 1971. Commissioned by Glasgow Corporation to promote their vision of the city’s future, it was meant to show a Bright New Tomorrow, and perhaps for a moment it did. Viewed through the lens of its own tomorrows, however, it now reads more as a lament for what was lost; a city scarred by massive canyons excavated for motorways and their supporting roads that scythed through its heart. In the end Glasgow ended up with roads that literally went nowhere, sweeping in hopeful arcs into the grey sky only to to be abruptly curtailed with a feeble metal grating that stopped any daring young Evil Knievels from using it as a ramp to jump the multiple lanes of the Kingston Bridge. There was a road bridge at the end of Sauchiehall Street that stood bizarrely alone too, linking nothing except fresh air. Later someone built an office block on top of it, which certainly made sense but still rather spoilt the surrealism. Anyway, the film was directed by Oscar Marzaroli, who this someone somewhere described as being more commonly known as “Glasgow’s Nan Goldin.” I admit I had to shake my head and mumble no, no, no, no, no. For if Marzoroli was Glasgow’s anyone he was perhaps its Berenice Abbot or at a push its Joel Meyerowitz. Or how about they were New York’s Oscar Marzaroli…

If there has been a Glasgow’s Nan Goldin, however, then my own money would be on Arab Strap. They might not make photographs but I’m not sure that anyone has captured the essence of the city and its wider environs better than they. Gerard Depardon perhaps came closest when in 1980 The Sunday Times commissioned him to document what had become of the Corporation’s future vision. His outsider’s eye saw through to the heart of the place with such extraordinary success, however, that it would take thirty six years for the photographs to be published.

Arab Strap have certainly always been cinematic, or photographic, in the sense of writing songs and making music that peer into cracks, illuminating what might otherwise remain unseen. Their songs so often lift the lid on what humans perhaps like to think of as the personal, the secret, the somehow shameful. Their songs have been unafraid to poke holes (metaphorically, symbolically, literally) in Middle Class priggishness, portraying life in all its sometimes seedy, pleasurable delight as much as its overwhelming existential void. Of course it could sometimes all get a bit much and if one wanted to be overtly critical one might blithely throw around lines about the group becoming a pastiche of themselves. There can be a fine line between pastiche, self-parody and successfully mining the seam of inspiration, however. Just as long as the work remains good. I mean, no-one ever suggests that Rothko’s paintings are pastiche’s of themselves, do they? And Arab Strap always remained good.

Still, it was right and proper that they split back in 2006. It meant, as much as anything, that Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton could make some great solo and collaborative records with others. Middleton’s string of albums is as good as any, with 2009’s ‘Waxing Gibbous’ and 2016’s ‘Summer Of ’13’ being particular favourites. His collaboration with David Shrigley on ‘Music and Words’ in 2015 is an amusing enough diversion too. Moffat too has delivered some gems in the past fifteen years, his collaborations with RM Hubbert and Bill Wells being particularly appealing. At this time of year too, of course, it is good to revisit 2018’s tremendous Moffatt/Hubbert ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ set of chilling, bleak deliciousness. It’s hardly music for rocking around the Christmas tree, but what would you expect?

Yet if it was proper and right that Arab Strap split in 2006 it is equally fitting that they should be back together in 2021 with the aptly titled ‘As Days Get Dark’ that dives deep into the chasms of contemporary middle-aged (male) existence. So yes, there are drugs and there is alcohol and there is sex and there is pornography. Yes, there is desolation and sorrow. Yes too to pessimism, cynicism and escapist hedonism. There is too a poignant meditation on the plight of refugees and political/economic migrants, although all things are relative and this being Arab Strap the ‘Fable of the Urban Fox’ hardly pulls its punches, or indeed its cricket bat as it hits hard and mercilessly. These ingredients have always been part of Arab Strap’s idiosyncratic personality, of course, and we would surely feel cheated if they were not so extravagantly on show. So too we would be disappointed if the whole thing were not also shot through with the marvellous dark humour that always prevented their songs from falling into the cesspits of their own making.

There has always been something vaguely Mediaeval about Arab Strap, like a couple of rampant jester troubadours rubbing the Gentry’s faces in the shit whilst happily pocketing their gold. Something of that resonates in the depths of ‘Here Comes Comus!’, the cut that I’ve plucked from the depths of their fucked-up and fucked-off universe for the Unpopular advent. A tale of degenerates slinking in the shadows of our subconscious, it has the feel of an insider, fly-on-the-wall docudrama where smirks of knowing glisten from leatherette couchettes. It’s Soft Cell scouring the dens of debauchery; Suicide and Kathy Acker swapping notes with Diane di Prima and Smog.

“He’s always talking pish but he think he’s so profound” Moffat tells us of the main protagonist (Comus, as opposed to Camus, one assumes) and we can’t help wonder if this is another one of those sceptical self-deprecating piss-takes at Arab Strap’s own expense. Regardless, it is, like the entirety of ‘As Days Get Dark’ starkly, uncomfortably funny and an unsettlingly welcome reminder both of the essence of our times and the genius of the artists. Tonight, thank god it’s them instead of you…

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