Admit it: You like to be tortured. No, I'm not referring to some kinky S&M affliction; whips and wax drippings are for sissies. I'm talking about love. I'm talking about being a breakup junkie, wanting to torment yourself by making a list of everything your ugly, devious ex has ever done to hurt you, and relishing it when you have enough emotional sway over someone to make him or her shout the same curses at you. I'm talking about listening to Arab Strap and liking it.
If one were to indict Arab Strap for their Top Five Crimes of Passion (or to attempt a citizen's arrest when they play at the 400 Bar on April 17) the band would need Johnnie Cochran to spring them free. Consider these charges. Indecent Conduct: The Scottish duo of vocalist Aidan Moffat and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton admitted in New Music Express that they named themselves after a device used to resurrect a defunct erection. Defamation: In numerous U.K. publications, Moffat has confessed that every "you" who is systematically exposed in Arab Strap's songs bears a striking likeness to some very real, very specific woman in his life--one of them has threatened to sue. Invasion of Privacy: In a recent City Pages interview conducted through e-mail, Middleton noted that the cover art on the band's second album Philophobia is a naked portrait of Moffat's then-girlfriend Laura. Even worse, Failure to Abide by the Statute of Limitations: Moffat still writes songs about cruel things that Laura did more than four years ago. And finally, most heinous is Incitement to Intoxication and Emotional Battery: Arab Strap's latest album The Red Thread (Matador).
The alcohol-induced trauma cataloged in The Red Thread is precisely what first connected Moffat and Middleton: They met while out trawling for girls in a bar in Falkirk, Scotland. Before the band ever convened to shoot their poison arrows into indie rock's proverbial bleeding heart, both men picked up the same woman. Yet Moffat and Middleton transformed a potential jealous rivalry into a chance to commiserate musically.
Middleton stresses how their shared girlfriend acted as Arab Strap's muse. "Rather than fight about [her], we sat and talked about her and wrote songs about the experience," he explains.
Over the years, Middleton's sad, sputtering music has become as infamous for describing love's "experiences" as have Moffat's brutal lyrics. Arab Strap's first album---1997's The Week Never Starts Round Here--veers from brazen accounts of teenage sex fantasies to seductive lamentations from cellos, pianos, and bass guitars. Over each twisted guitar riff, Moffat can be heard mumble-talking lyrics that are alternately threatening ("He can fucking keep that fickle tart") and self-pitying ("You know I'll miss you when I can't kiss you"). With the following year's Philophobia (which, appropriately, translates to "fear of love"), the band created an even more chilling mix of guitar reverb and love-gone-wrong lyrics.
Middleton says that the worst thing he's ever done in a relationship is "to keep going out with someone when [I] shouldn't be," and the same seems to go for Arab Strap's liaisons with record companies. For their third album, Elephant Show, Arab Strap changed U.K. distributors, switching from Chemikal Underground to the more mainstream Go Beat Records. Yet Arab Strap were disappointed with Go Beat's influence over their sound, and many fans felt let down by the resulting overproduced, synth-pop effect on this more optimistic album. And so the band got back together with Chemikal Underground for The Red Thread, bringing with them the slowest tempos, most pathetic lyrics, and most devastating minor chords of any Arab Strap release to date.
"Returning to Chemikal Underground is like going home to your mum's house after you've lived with a girl for a while and realize that she is no good for you," says Middleton. And, indeed, Arab Strap's temptation to cry to their mummies permeates the album. After countless releases that use pictures of women to adorn their covers, the jacket art for The Red Thread sports a painting by Moffat's mother that used to hang in his grandmother's house. Amid this down-home décor are songs that reflect Moffat's recent breakup with Laura.
"Philophobia is about the fear of falling in love, Elephant Shoe is about starting to realize you're in love, and The Red Thread is [about] wondering if it was worth it," says Middleton.
To wit: The only folks who could think that The Red Thread is filled with love songs are those who assumed that Trainspotting was a romantic comedy. The album is rife with paranoia about cheating, details of nasty lovers' spats, and the pungent smell of sex. At first, "Amor Veneris" starts things off with a hopeful tone and unnerving simplicity, adding a single acoustic guitar to Moffat's lovespeak: "I took my watch off there/So it wouldn't scratch your skin/Or get tangled in your hair."
But immediately afterward, things go sour. On "Love Detective," a deceptively perky, smooth-jazz beat backs Moffat's deadpan story of finding another man's name scribbled in his girlfriend's sex diary. "Infrared" spirals downward from one woeful guitar chord to the next while Moffat muses about finding a postcoital kerchief to "wipe with." "Haunt Me" begins with a violin prelude straight out of a 1940s romance film, but skulks toward a stalker's refrain: "She's all I need/To love/And breed/So haunt me."
Arab Strap's suffering sounds lovely. But when the CD ends, there's nothing glamorous about feeling alcoholic, jealous, and undesirable in real life. Perhaps that's why it seems so tempting to let Moffat and Middleton experience these things for you, making your most mundane feelings sound romantic while you transform yourself into some kind of tragic hero.
Yet I would argue that the most convincing heartbreak music, like The Red Thread, has the perverse ability to do exactly the opposite: Instead of making you feel lucky to let the singer suffer for your sins, they make you eager to experience every bit of his anguish just to better understand all of those conflicted impulses. With The Red Thread, even those listeners who have been smitten with their sweethearts since grade school will find themselves desperately wishing they would find their mate snogging someone else--the better to experience Arab Strap's dirges on the most immediate level. And if your partner actually ends up straying and you still find yourself savoring the misery--that's when you've truly come to understand Arab Strap.