The serendipity of a fortnight-long gap between the release of Mogwai’s As The Love Continues and Arab Strap’s As Days Get Dark harks back to the thriving ’90s years of both bands’ former label Chemikal Underground, where their discography sat alongside the bouncing punk tones of The Delgados in a distinctly Scottish tour de force. But this is 2021 — The Delgados have long since disbanded, Mogwai have stayed for the long haul, while Arab Strap opted for a sixteen year sabbatical before making their long-anticipated (and constantly rumoured) return.
There’s something to behold in the name of As Days Get Dark, especially stark next to Mogwai’s innocently romantic counterpart. Twenty-five years after their equally downcast-titled — but atmospherically diverse — debut The Week Never Starts Round Here, it seems things haven’t particularly perked up for Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton. In an interview with The Guardian, Moffat declared he had “moved to countryside, for fuck’s sake” after the duo’s comedown in 2005, a move he dubbed “a complete disaster”. However, both have put out their own solo work, all of it acclaimed, and after the twentieth anniversary release of their iconic single ‘The First Big Weekend’ in 2016 alongside a scattering of live shows (“the foreplay”, says Moffat), it seemed only natural to return to the studio full time.
At first glance, it does scream “middle-aged men seek spiritual re-emergence by pretending it’s their hey-day again”. It’s a fair observation, particularly given the never ending stream of reformations and plastered wounds of groups gone by who try to converse with their twenty-something year old self, with extremely varying degrees of success. But any listener coming home to Arab Strap’s caustic realism will be quick to quell these preoccupations. Indeed, Moffat was eager to let it be known that this would be no attempt to grasp the 1990s and shake a few songs out of it. Lead single ‘The Turning of Our Bones’, a song about “resurrection and shagging”, introduces the album with an overt statement of intent from Moffat: “ I don’t give a fuck about the past / Our glory days gone by “.
Subsequently, As Days Gets Dark sounds fresh but in touch with itself, striking a perfect balance between sounds familiar and foreign. The lyrics are still shamelessly intimate and maintain the illusory nature of their early releases. Perhaps the most ambiguously trying are the opening lines of ‘Another Clockwork Day’. A ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’-esque introduction detours into a protagonist who “ plugs in the external drive”, with Moffatt’s lethargic drawl announcing that “ he knows this path well “. It toys with predictions of what to come so expertly, euphemistic without ruining the authenticity of the narrative. And, as it turns out, the track depicts a reluctant relationship where attraction has disappeared into a nostalgic haze of old images that remember a more vibrant youth. Leave those childishly light-hearted expectations at the door, please.
Elsewhere, electronics that could find a home in late ’70s disco, let alone 2021 sad-rock, also make scattered appearances similar to Philophobia’s experimentations with grooves that would seem cheesy anywhere else. ‘Compersion Pt. 1’ and ‘Kebabylon’ dabble with these sounds most daringly, and it works surprisingly well. Also thrown into ‘Kebabylon’ are combative saxophones that hold no sense of direction, but again seem to unexplainably blend in with the surroundings. ‘Here Comes Comus!’ is the most forthright, borderline post-punk, of the collection, exploring the justifications used by those who misbehave without consequence attribute to themselves a god-like status (“ He’s always talkin’ piss but he thinks he’s so profound “). It’s a well-placed and thought out change of pace and input of energy.
As Days Get Dark seems almost smug in its effortlessness. It’s the work of seasoned professionals, executed with maturity and a level-headed awareness of how not to be a pastiche of a younger self. Even more refreshingly, it’s not a typically soul-searching affair. It’s just Arab Strap. There’s little purpose in debating where this album would fit into their first wave of albums because it’s beyond that, both in the obvious sense of literal time and in the essence of the sounds that As Days Gets Dark hold.
Try not overthink it — Moffat and Middleton certainly don’t, and it shows.