Since ending Arab Strap in 2006, Scotland’s favorite morose and sex-obsessed singer has stayed busy with a number of projects. Last year saw the release of a spoken-word album, and he’s been recording with Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite in Aloha, Hawaii. He’s even written for the rock-focused magazine The Quietus, focusing on sex, of course.
Well aware of his own image of writing dark, somber songs, Moffat and a revolving door of musicians dubbed here The Best-Ofs, intentionally set out to craft a lighter album with, surprisingly, legitimately positive love songs. For those familiar with Arab Strap, positive songs about love seems out of place for Moffat, but expect a deluxe edition of How to Get to Heaven… with various extras to be released on Valentine’s Day.
That said, those seeking Stephen Merritt-style pop songs about love and happiness really won’t find it here. Though the songs thematically may be more positive, the tone to the music is still darker. And the songs here – see “Atheist’s Lament” or “Lullaby for Unborn Child” – have a darker underpinning. As a longtime fan of Arab Strap, I’m relieved. I don’t think the world is ready for happy pop songs from Aidan Moffat.
The opening “Lover’s Song” is a dark take on a light subject, consisting mostly of Moffat’s unique vocals, for a time echoing and without any musical accompaniment before whistling and light instrumentation come in with, of all things, some beatboxing. You wouldn’t think it works, but then Moffat’s been around long enough to know what works.
“Big Blonde” is a light, rather bouncy number, contrasted beautifully with the more somber “Atheist’s Lament,” a rather sparse track that puts the emphasis back on Moffat’s vocals. “Ballad of the Unsent Letter” has the most instrumentation here, following an almost Callypso rhythm, while “Lullaby for Unborn Child” is so dark and imposing, while still sounding rich and lush, it would not sound out of place on an Arab Strap release. That track and the lovely “My Goodbye” are my two favorites, the latter perhaps the prettiest and starkest (albeit shortest) track on this release.
There are some difficult tracks on this album. “Oh Men!” is the album’s truly odd track, a kind of pub song with riotous and sometimes shouted backing vocals, applause after every verse. You can almost imagine the whole pub singing along, swinging their pint of beer back and forth in the air to the sing-song rhythm. Similarly, the vocals in “That’s Just Love” sound as if they were recorded in a pub while various singers shouted in the direction of the microphones, and the plucked strings of guitar or banjo and plaintive harmonica seem recorded with no forethought.
How does Moffat do writing love songs? See lyrics like, “I love you, I’m stupid / don’t blame me, blame Cupid” from “A Scenic Route to the Isle of Ewe,” “I was wrong about romance / I was cynical at best” from “Now I Know I’m Right,” and the chorus of “The last kiss is always the best” from “The Last Kiss.” I think Moffat thinks he’s writing love songs, but he can’t help but infuse his songs with a sense of morbid cynicism. Then again, maybe this is Moffat’s ironic take on love, from “Living With You Now”: “You punched me in the ear, so I threw you on the bed / You slammed and smashed a glass on the front door / I kicked a table into bets and threw a grapefruit at your head / And I have never, I have never loved you more.”
Although I’m comforted by the darker tone to Moffat’s lighter-themed music, I can’t help but feel Aidan Moffat & The Best-Ofs sounds like a rough take on Arab Strap songs. Certainly Moffat’s voice is comforting for someone, like me, missing Arab Strap. But the songs themselves feel loose, a bit non-cohesive, making How to Get to Heaven… a good, though not great, album. I think the intention was to make it loose, a group effort where the musicians clearly are having fun, but the songs suffer from the feeling they weren’t fully planned out or given enough time in the studio. This release just reminds me how much I miss Arab Strap.