It is a noble theme to muse upon, that of the ever-seeming incompatibility between love and lust. And, after spending as much time as any band shading in the outlines of characters who continually find themselves drawn into an enticing world of filthy and unfulfilling encounters, it is nice to see Arab Strap giving credence to loftier notions of romance, if only intermittently, this time around. “Stink,” the opening track on The Last Romance, begins the album on a musically abrasive note, and is something of a premise from which the remaining songs follow. It neatly sums up the resultant disenchantment of one having given himself wholly to the `iconoclastic’ pursuit of the next one night stand—the familiar subject of so many previous tunes penned by Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton. It features quite a few lovely lines, such as the introductory “Burn these sheets that we just fucked in,” and perhaps the single most charming on the album, “just be polite now and get down and lick her.” Acts which the `hero’ once performed eagerly and inflamed with desire have come to seem compulsory, are merely symptomatic of carnal habits he cannot (doesn’t want to?) kick. This servitude to habit, in this case habit originated in the desire for liberation from the malaise of monogamy, and the narrator’s ambivalence toward escaping it, are threads run through the entirety of The Last Romance.
“Confessions of a Big Brother” casts Moffat as a repentant would-be mentor, whose competency in the role, if not his sincerity, is seriously in question. Through his churlishly grumbled advice, we make out the silhouette of a man who has grasped out for answers only to find question upon question. Certainly he has lived through the situations upon which he comments, but I am in no way convinced that he has conceived of a satisfactory alternative to alcoholic woman chasing. As soon as he stops speaking it feels as if he will fall back into his old comfortable mask, that of the glib seducer pouring forth in cheeky lines. One gets the sense that he is saying what he is saying as much for his own sake as anyone else’s. A more or less clear admission of this, “Chat in Amsterdam, Winter 2003,” is also a high point, a sustained drone propelled by Moffat’s dour lyrics, both spoken and sung, which concludes in a satisfyingly cathartic squeal of guitar. Looking back across “twenty four months of bargain pills, cheeky lines and stolen beers,” he does so as one looking out across a vast wasteland. His sense of disgust framed perfectly by a snowy Dutch evening seen through thick panes of smoky glass. While he gives lip service to the solace of another woman, he has little hope for the relationship impendent upon his return to Glasgow. Having foreseen in it brief flights of happiness, he has as well glimpsed its inevitable dissolution.
The repetition of the destitute events related by Moffat does become wearying at times. Too often one is drawn back into rooms stained yellow with smoke and the mechanical activities performed by those enclosed in them. And maybe that’s your cup of tea, and if so, by all means indulge. But as far as I am concerned there are only so many things to be reaped from the infertile contemplation of meaningless sex— the impulse toward something more sustaining being perhaps the most notable. Not that I don’t fully understand the import, and even the necessity, of certain incorrigible womanizers depicted in songs, films and novels, not to mention cling to the work of any number of incorrigible womanizer/artists. It’s just that it becomes all to pale and tiresome at a point and I prefer not to think of sex as either pale or tiresome.
In any case, the arrangements on The Last Romance are more upbeat than on previous albums and not only engage, but even induce foot-tapping promenades into concupiscent melancholy, as on “Don’t Ask Me to Dance.” Surprisingly enough a few tracks are even brimming with a monogamistic optimism reinforced by jubilant melodies and instrumentation, the prime example being the closer, “There Is No Ending.” As Moffat sings, “If you can love my growing gut, my rotten teeth and graying hair, then I can guarantee I’ll do the same as long as you can bear,” the album draws to a triumphal sort of climax. The trumpet breezes about in the mix, the chorus spits sunlight through the claustrophobic rooms populated by the album’s characters and we smile wryly at the darkly comic aspect of human relationships. And, at the same time we take notice of the fact that however bawdy they may become for the sake of bawdiness, they also hold the possibility of an acceptance based not on perfection or forgiveness, but mutual understanding of each other’s faults and limitations.
Smog – Knock Knock
Mogwai – Happy Songs For Happy People
Delgados – Universal Audio