Philophobia, Arab Strap’s sophomore slam dunk released in the spring of 1998, begins with one of the most memorable opening lines in all of indie rock:
“It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen
But you’ve no idea where that cock has been”
So starts an album that, while picking up thematically where the duo’s debut album The Week Never Starts Round Here left off, promises from its very first seconds a renewed sense of purpose: the narratives are more streamlined, the music more confident and mature. Gone are the sketches and doodles that unquestionably distinguished 1996’s The Week Never Starts Round Hereas the work of first timers, replaced with a consistent, almost conceptual, musical framework. On Philophobia, singer and lyricist Aidan Moffat’s realism is more profane, gritty and poignant, while multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton’s honeyed orchestrations increasingly provide clinics in subtlety and restraint.
In the world of Arab Strap, the good years are either long gone or are rapidly speeding by in a feverish montage of big weekends, scandalous secrets, discarded clothes, and bogs full of bile. Tempting as it may be to dismiss Moffat as another lonesome lothario in the tradition of Greg Dulli or Jarvis Cocker, the singer’s oversharing unerringly carries with it an unmistakable aura of longing and loss; he’s not bragging, he’s confessing. Over Middleton’s variety of elegant tones and textures, Moffat’s mordant confessions become unlikely anthems. The result is music that is bleak but beautiful, full of dread and toxic nostalgia, and dotted with repentance, impotence, and wounded male ego.
As on the band’s previous album, Philophobia’s greatest asset is located in the sum of its parts, namely Moffat and Middleton’s shared vision (and aided by a myriad of musical guests). The group’s expanded sonic palette on Philophobia encompasses everything from electric piano, cello, trumpet, synthesizers, and drum machines, all in perfect harmony with Middleton’s spindly and idiosyncratic guitar figures. The strength is in the fragile subtlety of the arrangements: note how, on album highlight “New Birds,” the song’s cathartic breakdown is followed up by a crescendo of near-violence.
Part of the appeal of Arab Strap’s post-everything music is the way the group’s songs make every listener feel like either a voyeur or a trusted confidante. The ever-present humanity in future sex advice columnist Moffat’s first person tales of debauchery and regret are a through-line running between each of these frank and vivid songs: the same narrator who confesses to sniffing his fingers after a sexual encounter and boasts about the size of his penis also yearns to “hug” a lover to death, finds himself crying on the bus, and wonders idly—but hopefully—whether or not he’s truly in love with the woman he’s just slept with. It is this duality, complemented by Middleton’s imaginative and deeply sensitive accompaniment, that makes Philophobiaone of the most original and enduring front-to-back albums in the canon of modern indie rock; over two decades later, it still sounds warm to the touch.