(The title is semi-ironic because this is a LONG post)
So it’s my blog and I’ll emo if I wanna, because this entry has been one of the hardest things I’ve written in a long time and I’m just going to get it under the wire for Thursday West Coast time. At least one person who reads this probably expected me to make this entry first. And, honestly, I didn’t because I didn’t know how but as far as bands that have had an impact on my life, Arab Strap comes second to none.
See, thing is, I didn’t want to get too personal here, but I also want to write about Arab Strap, the drunken Glaswegians who made their home on Chemikal Underground Records and made anti-melodic low-fi records that were either loved or hated by critics and fans. They are often lumped in with Belle & Sebastian (afterall, they were friends with Belle & Sebastian and seem to have spent many a-night out on the piss with Belle & Sebastian) but they are the anti Belle & Sebastian. Where Stuart Murdoch would add some jangly guitars, Malcolm Middleton added a tense electric explosion. Where Isobel or Sarah added clear-toned harmonies, Aidan Moffat added a growl, or a cough, or a break in his voice that made it sound like he was about to kill himself. They are each other’s opposites, and despite loving both these bands, my heart will always be with the quintessential Scottish miserablists.
Why so sad boys? Those are ace kilts!
As I said, it’s hard to talk about Arab Strap without getting personal, and I’d prefer not to do that here. Those of you who are from my other journal can guess at the incidents I’ll be hinting at here, and I’ll leave it at that. I’ve been trying to include in each of the Thursday Memoirs what that person/band taught me about music. Paul Simon taught me what music was. Smashing Pumpkins taught me about the importance of anger in rock & roll, and that music could be a part of you. Arab Strap…Arab Strap taught me what love was all about.
And I meant that, sincerely. For those of you familiar with the band, that will sound absolutely ridiculous, because all of their songs are about getting drunk, sleeping with an ex, popping pills, and hating yourself. And all of that is true, but their songs are really also all love songs, in the truest sense of the word. The songs are about the experience of love; about what it means to love someone (in a real, adult relationship, where sex is involved, as in “Afterwards”); about how you feel when you are in love, but have already had your heart broken, as in “Islands” when the narrator says:
We were lying in bed, staring at the moon, and I was wondering if I was supposed to be in love. But we couldn’t quite decide if the moon was full, but I thought, well, tonight it’s full enough.
That, to me, is more true to my own personal experience with love than any pop song ever written. You make a decision somewhere along the way and you just kind of go with it. I have found myself whispering that lyrics to a bewildered boyfriend on more than one occasion.
And, of course, self-hatred is also one of the major themes of Arab Strap. These are songs are about being the kind of person who blames themselves for love gone wrong, who hopes that each relationship will finally work out, and when it doesn’t, getting into the kind of trouble that booze and random sex provide. It’s not songs for a cynic, because one gets the impression with each relationship gone wrong, the boys of Arab Strap are crushed because they thought it was really going to work that time. And trust me, you can listen to all of their albums, and very rarely does it EVER work out.
Whether or not I have actually experienced these specific things, I have been broken hearted. So broken hearted that there are still moments – years later! – when I doubt that my recovery will ever be full. And the man who broke my heart, funnily enough, was probably the only other person in the world who understood that it’s Arab Strap’s love songs that ring the truest of all because they are written by people who have been broken hearted.
See, this is where I didn’t want to take this entry, so let me back off that line of thought. If Counting Crows and Smashing Pumpkins gave me an outlet for my teenage angst (and now fall under the category of bands whose lyrics seem a little juvenile), Arab Strap wrote songs that in my darkest moments I could have written, about the very scary, very adult emotions that come along with love. The drunken slurring in Glaswegian accents appealed to me long before I lived in Scotland. The barely-below-the-surface anger, depression and deep sadness are such naked emotions on most Arab Strap albums that they are very nearly difficult for me to listen to. I cannot be objective about the Strap or about Malcolm Middleton’s solo offerings (about which I will write more later) because he appears at most moments to be inside my head. Yeah, sometimes it’s a pretty dark place in there. But isn’t it for everyone?
Let me take track-by-track the samples I’m handing out.
“The Shy Retirer” is off of Monday at the Hug and Pint, probably their most accessible and yet still most Arab Strap-y album. It describes a night out, with a backbeat and some absolutely stunningly gorgeous string work. There are drugs, there’s a club, there’s that awful hope. “I want to fall in love tonight,” he says. And in the next verse, “But when I feel like this I know it doesn’t matter / When I eat when I’m not hungry I’m sure I feel my face get fatter / Then I thin out every weekend and I think that she might want me / But I always slip off on my own…”
“Afterwards,” as mentioned, is probably my favorite love song of all time. It’s about the afterwards of sex, quite explicitly. “The telly’s silent, the rooms lit only by the screen / And there were perfect moments with just our pulses in between” the male voice slurs. “Well I’m not listening to what my mother said / What we’re doing inside my bed / I’m not pretending this time you’re someone else / But I’m cleaning these sheets all by myself” the female voice slurs back. Icky, but true to the actual experience of love and sex. Afterwards is, of course, best.
“My Favourite Muse” is the story of a guy who “pulled the ex last night.” What I love about this song is that is portrays such an encounter accurately. “I couldn’t get it up / Too much to drink, too much to say / She picked her clothes up off the floor / And promptly headed for the door.” It makes my heart ache for lost evenings and pints of cider, but not in a good way. If that makes sense.
“Who Named the Days” is about…well, I’m not sure. I think about a poisonous relationship between two guys, who, um, tend to bring out the worst in each other. Autobiographical? Possibly. Or maybe about split personalities, about the depressed voice and the normal brain duking it out over some more signature lovely strings. “He makes me treat girls like shit / He makes me lie to them and use them / I think he loves to watch me playing games / And he loves to watch me lose them…”
Arab Strap write the poetry of modern love, and I was sad to see them split up after Ten Years of Tears in 2006. I’m glad Malcolm has a flourishing career as a solo artist, and he still writes songs that reach into my chest, pull my heart out and stomp on it. But the Strap will always be the band I turn to when I really need someone to understand.
And I know, I know that that makes me just a crazy and seem just as depressing as these Scottish miserablists. But, frankly, I’m OK with that. They get it. They really do. They get love in a way that very few other artists do, at least from where I’m standing. They get the real experience of love, both very, very good and (more often) very, very bad. Or, at least, they write about the kind of hopeful, awful, passionate, sex-filled love matches I am determined to have myself.
And my whole life I’ll be looking for the people who understand the salient fact about love is that it totally and completely sucks and makes you hate yourself and your lover. Except when it doesn’t. Then there’s a lot of messy sex and even messier vulnerability involved, particularly for people like me & Arab Strap who either love too easily or not easily enough.
If you read this entry and are like “Woah! I must listen to this bad because they sound like they will brighten my day!” First of all: HA HA HA. Second of all: I suggest either Monday at the Hug & Pint or Mad for Sadness, their live album, which is an awesome live album and includes many gems.
I am unsatisfied with this entry of course. Explaining my relationship with Arab Strap would be akin to laying my whole emotional life naked, and I’m just not prepared to do that here (I TOLD you that music means a lot to me). Most of this entry is ridiculous, pointless rambling that no one can hope to understand because it lives inside the brain of me, but at least it came with free music. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite on them and if not, you can look forward to Songs About Los Angeles on Saturday, which will be the subject of my next post.