I adored Arab Strap. Sure, there were flabby moments mid-period, and times when they got close to self-parody (hey, here’s another song about drinking, drug abuse and bad sex for you) but they’re one of the few defunct bands whose songs I find myself coming back to again and again. I have these spells where The First Big Weekend, or Hey Fever, or Packs Of Three, or The Shy Retirer, or (I could go on, Christ, when they were good, who was better?) demand frequent attention. I’m in one such now, partly because when bits of my shabby life start to fall off I find the Strap supply a fitting soundtrack, and partly because the recent solo work of the two former Strappers has sent me scurrying back to the source.
Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton now ply their separate trades, of course, and I have time for both. Malcolm’s given me moments of pleasure, not least last Christmas’s anti-heroic attempt at a festive chart-topper (check the sociopathic Santa video) We’re All Going To Die, or the recent hymn to the sad pleasures of at-home drinking, Blue Plastic Bags. But if you’re allowed to have favourites, Aidan, who recently has collected a John, was always mine. He always seemed to me to be the soul of Arab Strap, the man undergoing any amount of personal degradation so you didn’t have to. I admit, I worried about him with the demise of the Strap. Attending one of their last shows, at a mobbed and up for it King’s Cross Scala, he seemed to be the one who didn’t want to let go. I fast-forwarded and saw a grim future, embracing spiral of decline clichés. But here he is, with one of the few really essential records of the year.
Yet it took me a while to come to this. At first I thought it was too fragmented: brief, mostly spoken word pieces delivered over backing which turns out to be mainly recycled from old records. It just seemed too slight to me. But after a few plays I found it nagging, insistent. It’s life in the raw again, (hilariously the record's webpages ask you for your age to check you're over the threshold to access its 'adult content') but there are moments of pure poetry, lines that are going to haunt you and remind you of your own misdeeds and hurts. There’s apparently a narrative arc to this – in which case it’s the tale of a particularly mammoth and depraved weekend on a scale beyond even my own imaginings – but to me they work best as odd shards, gaps of beauty and gristle nestling between more conventional songs, without which no current playlist or mix CD can be complete. Live this really works too, having caught a recent gig at Kilburn’s Luminaire, now on its way to being my favourite place to see music, in which a slimmed-down, almost healthy-looking Moffat acted the raconteur and accompanied himself with an old record player and a stack of vinyl.
This is a beautiful thing, simple as that, funny and sad and full of life as it is lived. It’s issued by our old friends Chemikal Underground, which for many years was the greatest record label on earth (the Strap, Mogwai and the Delgados all in one place – did this really happen?). It comes appropriately packaged booklike, with a short story which you’re tongue-in-cheekly instructed to read before you listen to the CD. And you’re a bit foolish if you don’t already have and cherish this.
Look, all I’m saying is we’re going to be needing a new Poet Laureate soon, and we really could do a lot worse.