Arab Strap: As Days Get Dark - First Instincts Review
First Instincts is a series of reviews where I listen to an album for the first time ever, and note my initial thoughts as I listen. These are my unfiltered reactions upon hearing the project for the first time in full. No skips, no replays, just my first instincts.
Arab Strap aren’t dead yet, thank you very much.
The influential cult favourites are back with a new album that they thought wouldn't happen. After 2005's The Last Romance, described by vocalist Aidan Moffat at the time as "a happy ending", not many people expected them to return, certainly not with a full album's worth of content, but here we are!
This is actually not just my first time listening to As Days Get Dark, but my first full Arab Strap album in general. I'd heard brilliant individual tracks by them previously - The First Big Weekend, Stink, and Packs of Three in particular are phenomenal - but for some reason, I hadn't taken on a full length project until now. Early singles The Turning of our Bones and Compersion Pt. 1 had me excited, so I figured I would take the plunge with their latest release.
I'm going to be looking for the cutting lyricism exhibited on old songs, the beautiful arrangements that Malcolm Middleton has become known for, and in the words of Aidan Moffat himself, the kind of album that "exist in their own world, and you get taken into that world for a little while". Here we go!
The Turning of our Bones An appropriately ominous introduction. The chords behind the drum beat are beautiful. The single cover for this one had skeletons, I'm picturing them marching ahead to the beat. "I don't give a fuck about the past" is a fantastic opening line for a comeback album. The synth break is NICE. The lyrics in this second verse are as disgusting as you'd expect for a song about undead sex. The percussion is really interesting in this song. It's a pretty minimal arrangement, but it works, steadily building and falling like waves of dread. "We are upcycled, we're saved" is a beautiful line. This makes a lot of sense as an opener in a way that I didn't really see upon first listen to the single. The dark never lifts, it only gets more ominous as it goes on. A solid opener, I'm excited for what comes next.
Another Clockwork Day Beautiful guitar line in the intro. The spoken word is excellent and eerie. I laughed at the line about stepmothers. What the fuck's that all about, indeed. It captures the potential darker side of pornography consumers incredibly well. What a beautiful chorus. The reading of individual image filenames is an interesting touch. I absolutely adore the guitar part in this song. Aidan Moffat's always been known for unsettling lyrics, and this song highlights that. The dark arrangement lifts slightly for the last verse. "She looks the same as she does in the pixels of those old JPEGs" is a line nobody else could have written. This song feels like reading a stranger's diary entry. I expected another chorus at the end, but that's perhaps the point - so far this album has defied expectations. A very sad song, but a beautiful one.
Compersion Pt. 1 Compersion means to take in a feeling of joy upon seeing your partner happy, particularly in the context of non-monogamous relationships. I can't wait to see what it means in the context of an Arab Strap song. This is immediately my favourite track, musically speaking. Those synths are beautiful. The chorus is great. This feels like the most "poppy" track thus far, and that's not a bad thing. Aidan Moffat is a very clever lyricist, all the rhymes feel so natural, yet so unexpected. Points for being the first song about unicorn hunting I've ever heard. I adore the synth tones here, especially how everything recedes a bit before the chorus. Short and sweet.
Bluebird I love how this sounds immediately. This is immediately one of the most melodic Arab Strap songs I've ever heard. The guitar tone is absolutely stunning. Hah, hearing someone called a shitehawk is brilliant. A fantastic chorus, I can see this being a beautiful moment when performed live. The drums are so beautiful, especially how they come and go in the bridge. "I don't want your love, I need your love" is a beautiful refrain. It's the closest thing to a happy song on the album so far, it still has that darkness and unease, but this time punctuated with brilliant light. "Don't love me". A beautiful outro. My immediate favourite track.
Kebabylon Song title of the year so far, surely. The strings are lovely on this, like a torch in the night. This is a lovely arrangement, the way the percussion builds and intersects with the guitar line is lovely. It reminds me of the opener a little, in how it builds itself up through the darkness. I know I keep going on about the arrangements, but the piano on this is stunning. The chorus is great, especially on the final repeat, where the piano adds more weight. "Always trying hard to outrun the light" is a fantastic line. One of the darkest tracks yet, but it's buoyed nicely by the beautiful piano part and the excellent chorus. The delay effect in the outro is fantastic; I wish it could gone on for longer.
Tears on Tour A grand opening. The synth sound reminds me of a wailing siren. The opening lyrics are some of my favourites so far. While Aidan is known more for his social commentary and observant lyrics, here he turns the pen on himself, with the most personal song yet. "Pick a room, I've wept in them all". Crying to the Muppet Movie is a disarming reveal! "What would you call the opposite of a comedian? Whatever it is, that's what I wanted to be". This verse is fantastic. The way the music builds as the vocal line becomes more chaotic is masterful. Yeah, these are definitely my favourite lyrics of the album so far. Ooh, a guitar solo to close. I hope Aidan gets the release he needs. Needing to cry but not being able to is a relatable problem. A truly beautiful song.
Here Comes Comus! I think this was a single, but this is my first time hearing it. A really sinister opening. Those drums are lovely and punchy. This one immediately reminds me of fellow gloom-merchants The Twilight Sad. The chorus melody is really nice. The second verse is straight-up disgusting. "What has the night to do with sleep?". This one is so ominous, and one of the most live-ready sounding tracks so far. A lacerating portrayal of a sinister fuckboy. The bass in this one is powerful. I can see this one being a fan favourite. A very unsettling listen, which I imagine is the intention.
Fable of the Urban Fox Beautiful acoustic intro here. The vocal melody and drumbeat reminds me of The Turning of our Bones. This is really good so far, the lyrics being a potent metaphor for Tory Britain's treatment of immigrants and the homeless. Ooh, the guitar part that enters after the second chorus is fantastic. The chorus sinks its hooks into you with each repetition. The English Bulldog metaphor isn't missed. The intensity doesn't let up here, with one of the best arrangements thus far, giving the lyrics the urgency they deserve. There's not a happy ending in sight. Another unsettling track, but another favourite.
I Was Once a Weak Man The strings at the beginning remind me of a Classical piece that I can't place the name of. Whoo, that bass is heavy. Lyrically walking similar themes of Here Comes Comus!, but with more precision. Their portrayal of lecherous old bastards is uncannily on the nose. The verses of one sound like they could be on the soundtrack to a horror film, whereas the chorus is reminiscent of old folk songs. This is bloody great. The orchestral break in the third verse is beautiful. The last line made me chuckle. That was over faster than I anticipated. I'll be returning to this one.
Sleeper Judging by the intro lyrics, the titular Sleeper is a train. Let's see what the final destination is. The triplet figures in the arrangement is propulsive. Along with Tears On Tour, the music conjures up rainy nighttime scenes. The chorus melody feels like a dark lullaby. This is one of the most atmospheric tracks so far, with Aidan's spoken word vocals adding to the texture. The piano has been one of the best parts of this album on every track so far, but especially this one. The third verse is especially eerie. I take back what I said about the last track, this is horror film soundtrack material. The chorus is beautiful. The bassline is really standing out to me on this one. The violins could be ripped from the Psycho soundtrack, only they sound far more sinister here. Chillingly beautiful.
Just Enough The final track. The guitars in the intro suggest a reprieve from the darkness of the last few songs. Aha, the title phrase! One of the only major key tunes on the album thus far, but it's still got an air of tension and gloom. Ooh, the piano entrance is beautiful. I think Aidan Moffat has the ability to write both the least sexy songs about sex ever, and some of the most sensual. That's not meant as an insult - it's an art form. His writing is incisive and powerful, drawing you into a world of darkness and debauchery. This track has such a lovely melody. It all cuts out to just piano and vocals. "A call for love without a sound". And then it's over.
That was an intense listen. Arab Strap are certainly not resting on their laurels or nostalgia; the new album is a worthy reunion record that builds on old glories without leaning on the past, ascending new beautiful heights and plumbing the dark depths they're known and loved for. With pop sensibilities meeting wry observational lyricism that's at once relatable and chilling, this record achieves it goal of drawing listeners into its own dark world for forty-seven minutes, thrilling fans old and new alike.
As days get dark, Arab Strap are here to lend a hand to hold.
Standout tracks: Bluebird, Tears on Tour, Compersion Pt. 1, Fable of the Urban Fox
Key lyric: If you never hurt, you'll never heal.