There’s so much disgusting sex and horrible drunkenness and so many awful relationships featured in The Red Thread, the newest release from Scottish duo Arab Strap, that you want to tell Aidan Moffatt, the singer and lyricist of the band, to lose his bitterness and get on with life. But, as is often the case, what would be a good life decision would be a bad artistic one.
It’s partly the rancor of the lyrics, after all, that makes The Red Thread hard to forget. Hearing Moffatt’s enervated voice, a thick Scotch brogue, deliver lines like “The only solid solution is to sever my hands/ Stitch my mouth up and blind me,” is awfully disturbing. And the experience is made even more eerie by the music that back up the words. The songs mostly don’t have choruses, or verses, or bridges, or much conventional structure at all. Besides a drum machine, there’s often just a guitar in the background playing the same riff over and over again, combined with strings and anomalous screeches and pops that sometimes sound like sirens, sometimes like industrial machinery.
But such a description is inadequate, because The Red Thread is not all dissonance. The album is not some form of sonic torture. It’s actually quite beautiful, but in a very weird way. The melodies, written by the other half of the duo, Malcolm Middleton, are always interesting and sometimes even catchy. The lilting strings in “Haunt Me,” — just a few notes played again and again — are genuinely moving, especially when accompanied by Moffatt’s spooky but effective lyrics: “If she’s all I need/ To love and breed/ Then haunt me/ Cause I know you’ll keep me/ In tow.” Yikes.
The electronic feel of the music, with its precise beats and odd samples, provides an interesting contrast to the rambling, anomalous structure of the songs and Moffatt’s despairing tone. There is so much texture in this record, and so many inexplicable moments, both lyrically and otherwise, that you overcome the repellant parts and want to listen until you get it. Or perhaps it’s that the repellence attracts attention in the same way as a car crash or a physical deformity.
A good example of this is “Love Detective,” which has Moffatt speaking in a monotone over a propulsive mix of drum, bass and piano. He tells a story of jealousy and infidelity whose real hideousness comes in part from its banality: a man suspects his girlfriend of unfaithfulness, steals her keys, unlocks the cabinet where she keeps her diary and reads about her most recent sexual adventures. And yet, Moffatt says, “the dates never made sense, there were people I’d never even heard of.” It seems there’s the distinct possibility his girlfriend may have just invented all these stories for her own amusement. That hardly ends the man’s paranoid fantasies, though, and the song leaves him thinking about “leaving a dictaphone under her pillow and following her when she goes to work.” The song’s capacity to disturb comes, I suppose, from its ambiguity. What’s really happening, and are we supposed to think this behavior is actually normal, as the straightforward narrative suggests? It’s hard to figure out how much ironic distance Moffatt puts between himself and his personae.
“The Red Thread,” –whose title reflects the murkiness of the music, since it could be a reference to blood, or to the male organ, or to something else altogether–is not a pleasant album, but it gets under the skin. And it adds strangeness to beauty.