The torturous aspect of love has always made for good art. It comes as no surprise, then, that Arab Strap's latest release, The Red Thread, is soaking in the sort of melancholic ache that inspires such beautiful music. The Scottish duo of Malcolm Middleton and Aiden Moffat return to build on an already solid following they have been creating since their debut single, The First Big Weekend, released in 1996 on Chemical Underground. Several albums, love affairs, and label-hopping years later, The Red Thread is their most compelling and captivating work yet.
The album title comes from the ancient Eastern belief that soulmates are connected throughout time by a red thread. So, not surprisingly, most of these songs revolve around pairs of lovers that inexplicably gravitate towards each other, even when they know they shouldn't. Love seems like something they just can't give up; despite lying, treachery, and cheating. As Greg Dulli once sang, "If I inflict the pain, then baby, only I can comfort you." Moffat takes these words to heart as he painstakingly describes everything that went spiraling out of control in his love life. He is relentlessly cruel ("So as usual we parted on vague terms/and you climb back on your throne" or "At least we know we're fuckable/at least we're sated and tired") and sweetly sentimental, ("We could pretend this never started/that you' re still shy/I'm still broken hearted") often at the same time.
The music leisurely accompanies Moffat's searing, partially spoken, partially sung lamentations. Mournful piano twinkles over sparse percussion and guitar feedback so intense it almost feels like love. String arrangements on "Screaming in the Trees" and "Haunt Me" add to the intensity of the songs while female guest vocalist Adele Bethel matches Moffat measure for measure. Reminscent of Smog or Blur's 13, this album rips apart everything that is sacred about love and patches it back together in the space of ten songs.
Simply put, I love this album. More than just a record to listen to, Arab Strap have the amazing capacity to translate the music in a live setting. Their appearance at CMJ this fall in New York City was brilliant and left the audience (well, most of us anyway) completely blown away. Lucky for all of us, they are performing at Lee's Palace in Toronto on April 13th.