Arab Strap

The Last Romance

(Transdreamer; 2006)

By Conrad Amenta | 20 August 2007

Heretofore, déjà vu was explained largely by means of a very personal logic, or by whatever loosely scientific justification was made available to us, which is why it’s understandable that déjà vu could have been explained as the Matrix rebooting itself without the audience immediately launching barrelfuls of heart-contracting butter and gallon Cokes at the screen over a chorus of sugar-fueled censure. Déjà vu actually occurs when nerve bundles in your brain called “coactive nerves,” which are supposed to fire simultaneously upon the perception of stimuli, fire a half-second or so after one another, the effect being (and this is where my point touches lightly upon relevance) that you perceive something for the first time in two slightly different time periods.

And this is important to an understanding of pop music, because déjà vu and pop share such common traits. Pop, like déjà vu, occurs when you experience something for the first time again and again. Pop, like no other genre, so unabashedly and unashamedly expects you to take each song, like each second experienced during déjà vu, on its own merit, foregrounded and immediate, without reference to its album-mates and definitely without reference to other albums by the same artist or otherwise. Pop music, like the moment experienced during déjà vu, is the recurrent now, dramatic and all-important, as if there’s nothing else. Which is why Aiden Moffat can get away with singing “You say you think we’ll still be friends / but we both know that we won’t / and your mates all laugh and smile / as if they know something I don’t,” and still expect his listeners to recognize the profundity of the observation, the relevance of the event to the moment, to believe that he was caught flatfooted, to have never listened to Elvis Costello, or The Police or The Knack, or ninety-seven percent of the rest of pop music. Why are pop singers doomed to repeat the mistakes sung about on all those pop records that changed their lives? With what we know now, that love is hell surely can’t be reason enough to crumble into a pathetic, depressed puddle of spat accusations and asscoholism, can it?

Except that of course it is. That there is redundancy in love and pop music has never been the point. Moffat is as much a slave to chemistry as music lovers are to great pop music – which is to say, completely and without defense. The revelation that Moffat half-heartedly searches for among the twisted sheets of his miserably prolific love life is ultimately as forthcoming as any evidence that this next girl is definitely the last romance he’s gonna pursue, because he promised that much to himself. The recurring hitch and self-sustaining logic becomes central to Moffat’s life, and to his music – to find the woman who will end a life of feeling unfulfilled, he’ll have to search every bed in town, which, of course, will leave him feeling unfulfilled. It’s like pop music’s book of Genesis, and The Last Romance adheres to this musical tradition in both a very literal and a still-significant manner.

As far as The Last Romance goes thematic, it transcends the pretensions of the genre by keeping its underlying narrative straightforward and linear, and by relying, of course, on the pervasive shortsightedness of pop music. The album begins with Moffat singing “Burn these sheets that we just fucked in,” gets angry, cynical and disgusted with himself throughout “Stink” and “(If There’s) No Hope For Us,” before finally becoming a drunken, slurring, depressed mess in “Chat in Amsterdam, Winter 2003.” It’s a recognizable arch for anyone who’s fallen off the emotional wagon after being told, “it’s not you, it’s me.” From there, Moffat heads back out to the pubs and starts over again, and it’s at this point in the vicious cycle that it becomes unclear if the ‘last romance’ Moffat is looking for is the perfect relationship or the last straw, which will cause him to swear off romance completely. It may not be an original conflict, but on The Last Romance it’s told better than 2003’s Monday at the Hug and Pint, evoking a focus best evinced by standout The Red Thread.

The Last Romance, for all its disgusted veneer and inner conflict, both reads like a cogent statement and plays like a finely tuned instrument. “(If There’s) No Hope For Us” is as single-ready as anything the band has released, and Moffat’s talk/sing surprisingly stands up over the increased focus on melody, lending distinction to what is a fairly formulaic rock-out. “Confessions of a Big Brother” is a gorgeous acoustic ballad in which all of Moffat’s secrets, whether they be those that led to the termination of his most recent relationship or the reason for the self-destructive search, are whispered low enough to be inaudible, but high enough to know that they’re there. It’s a deliberate songwriters’ move, and it elevates this possibly cliché story to the level of intrigue.

Of course, from this moment of truthfulness (however whispered), it’s back to bed, another morning after in which Moffat is both repulsed by himself and the person he took home the night before, and the cycle becomes the story. “Come Round and Love Me,” “Speed-Date” and “Fine Tuning” feed the cycle until, “There Is No Ending” reconciles the search with the goal. While he may not attain, or even reach for, cleaning up his mess, the mess that Moffat is describing through Arab Strap is finally (after five studio albums) arranged in an order that makes sense to the listener. One can only take meta-drunk music for so long, and Arab Strap took the next step just in time.