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“As soon as we started this it felt like album two,” says Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap’s 8th LP. “It definitely feels like a fresh start from where we used to be.”
2021’s critically acclaimed top 15 charting album, As Days Get Dark, was Arab Strap’s first album since 2005 and it started them on a new chapter that is now being extended and expanded. “When a lot of bands reform they are too preoccupied with the past and want to try and recapture a sound they used to have,” Moffat says. “Which is impossible, that's not coming back. We're not trying to sound like old Arab Strap. Phase one, if you like, was focused on the ugliness and messiness of romance as a youngster, and that's just not what Arab Strap sings about anymore. It feels like two different bands.”
The first phase of Arab Strap that the band refer to, began all the way back in 1995 when Malcom Middleton and Moffat began collaborating, blending lo-fi, post-rock, and a unique twist on alternative music – combined with Moffat’s deeply personal, romantic and darkly funny lyrics - that quickly positioned them as a band that sounded like no other. John Peel loved them, they had a stint on a major record label and before bowing out in 2006 they released six albums that remain hugely beloved, acclaimed and influential.
However, the opening two tracks to the band’s new album are a fierce testament to their laser focus on the horizon, rather than concerning themselves with what’s over their shoulders. ‘Allatonceness’ charges out of the gate with thumping drums before some of the heaviest riffs ever heard on an Arab Strap record come clattering in. But just when you think the band might be letting a whiff of metal seep into their sound, we move onto ‘Bliss’, which may well be the most explicitly dancey and electronic song the band have ever created.
“The plan initially was to release a bunch of singles rather than an album,” explains Middleton. “So, we started making quite upbeat, catchy and dynamic songs. But then we started adding more different songs and it became an album. It's been over two years working slowly on this one – probably the longest it's taken us to make a record.”
The result is an album that captures that initial spark of writing songs as singles, along with one that had a gestation period to allow a balanced and considered record to evolve. It’s an album loaded with tracks that feel potent and punchy, be it via the upbeat nature of some of the album’s more propulsive musical moments or in the bite of Moffat’s lyrics. “There’s more anger and aggro in the words than the last one,” he says. “It’s not overtly political but it’s certainly a record that is a bit angry at the world.”
This manifests itself in tracks such as ‘Bliss’ which focuses on “how women are terrorised online by the worst kind of cowards” and it was when writing ‘Summer Season’ - a track that marries, sparse electronic beats, tender piano, blasts of ambient noise, and sweeping strings - that Moffat realised there was perhaps an underlying theme emerging. “Nobody wants to hear about the pandemic anymore, but it completely changed my social life,” he recalls. “I realised that's what I was writing about and that most of the songs are about connection, or the lack of connection. I just didn't really feel connected to a physical world and was spending too much time online.”
Moffat explores the human disconnect that can take place within an endlessly connected world in ways that are tender, impassioned or, at times, heartbreaking. ‘Safe and Well’, a beautiful yet stirring acoustic-heavy song, was inspired by a story Moffat read of a woman who had been left decaying throughout the pandemic. “Nobody did anything about it,” he reflects. “The neighbours complained and there were maggots all over the place, but nobody did anything. That struck me as very much being in tone with what the album was about: the ironies of living in a supposedly connected world.”
‘Sociometer Blues’ is driven by a flurry of drums and piano stabs that are both melodic and mournful, before Middleton’s snaking guitar lines join in to create a song that is soon brought to life further by infectious bursts of electronics and layered vocals. It’s written about the addictive yet damaging relationships we, and Moffat, have with social media. Making the song has even impacted on his own relationship to the online world. “I totally realised that I don't need these sorts of things,” Moffat says. “I don't engage with Twitter the way I used to, and I've found myself trying to reconnect physically with people in a way that I hadn't been doing for a long time.”
Ultimately, it’s a record that’s “about the difference between a tangible world and intangible world and which one you choose to believe and engage with” according to Moffat. However, for an album full of dualities and the blurring of lines between worlds, personalities and characters, the music it uses to express this is some of the most vibrant, visceral and versatile of the band’s career.
This is hit home by tracks such as ‘Strawberry Moon’, which once again sounds like nothing else the band have ever done before, with Middleton’s bass coated in a layer of thick fuzz, alongside a driving yet twisting electronic beat that owes a debt to Afrobeat. It’s also a track that shows while the record may have strong and interconnected lyrical themes, it’s not rigidly tied to them. “Lyrically, it's the most personal song on the album,” says Moffat. “About a period when I wasn't doing very well, both mentally and physically. But instead of being all mopey about it, we made a kind of hymn to the moon instead – she always pops up in my lyrics, because she's always there and always changing, and never disappoints.”
The pair once again worked with long term producer Paul Savage, which provided them with a steady footing to experiment more and push things further into a new sonic realm. “We didn't want to mess with the way we work,” says Middleton. “I think that's important. It’s good to have trust in the person we’re working with who can tell us what's right and wrong. We couldn’t take that from someone we didn’t know.”
I'm totally fine with it