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Now for a new kind of freedom

Scottish cult-pop bard Aidan Moffat has a fine-tuned sense of ceremony.

When he first penetrated the nation’s awareness, as one half of Arab Strap in the mid-nineties, he mythologised the rituals around him: the start of the weekend; the start of the summer; funeral services; after-school trysts. And he made temples of our daily constructs, from Glasgow clubs and local pubs to Falkirk swing-parks and back gardens.

Since then, he has commemorated the highs and lows of hedonism and the onset of commitment and parenthood, as his decade-long tenure with Arab Strap has made way for an eminent solo career.

Moffat is thus not short on ideas for a suitably ceremonial setting in which to discuss his new album, Everything’s Getting Older: we meet in the Kelvingrove Museum. A stirring endeavour in cahoots with fellow Falkirk-bred, Glasgow-based musician Bill Wells, the record’s themes embrace birth, death, love, temptation, confinement and the passing of time; and its artefacts include supermarket trolleys, war medals and three-piece suits. We examine these ideas and symbols – these devices that define our lives and histories – over countless cups of tea.

“I don’t think freedom actually exists,” opens Moffat, pouring the milk. “You just get trapped in different cycles of behaviour.” We’re discussing life’s various patterns and boundaries, as explored in the string-drawn groove of Cages. It’s an ode to recurring domestic necessities and a wry riposte to Arab Strap’s party-jammed debut single, The First Big Weekend, which was released to acclaim in 1996.

Cages looks back on that influential calling card’s youthful central character and pits him against an older model: a family man doing the weekly shop and dodging fungal nail infections. (“Freedom’s over-rated,” he concludes in the song, settled down and content with his lot.) Although Cages’ monologue is delivered in the third person – a stylistic rarity for Moffat – it is hard not to read it as autobiographical.

“Well, I suppose it is about me,” he offers. “I mean everything I do – I’d argue everything everyone does is effectively about themselves. But you have to write about things that you think are going to be of interest to other people, and that other people will relate to – otherwise you may as well be singing to yourself in the mirror,” he laughs.

If Cages bids adieu to Moffat’s bygone disco intemperance then clarion piano ballad Let’s Stop Here calls time on his reputation as a ladies’ man: he resists an insistent, long-standing temptation in favour of being “happy I am spoken for, attached, under the thumb”. It’s a beautifully-rendered portrait of the ways in which our decisions change, as family life takes precedence and the consequences of our actions bear greater weight.

“Aye, I’m glad you noticed that,” he says. “The reason Let’s Stop Here is at the start [of the album] is because I thought, if somebody’s been following what I’ve been doing through the years – you know, all the songs about sex – then that kind of gets it out the way.

After that, you don’t really know what’s going on – there are a lot of things I haven’t written about before on this record.”

Moffat is no stranger to surprises and breaking new ground, of course – witness his ingenious singing bottle opener, or his aural dalliances with Ian Rankin and David Shrigley – not to mention his calling as a fiction writer (he featured in Cargo’s recent Year of Open Doors anthology), and a forthcoming Creative Scotland Vital Spark commission alongside electro-folk inventors FOUND.

It is only decent, then, that amid the album’s avant-pop paeans to deterioration, house-husbandry and self-control, there emanates a reprobate funk spectacle called Glasgow Jubilee. It’s stunning in every sense of the word: a jaw-dropping local reworking of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1890s orgiastic binge, La Ronde. It simultaneously eclipses all of Moffat’s erstwhile sexual confessionals and showcases our protagonist’s unrivalled way with a rhyming couplet. (“She said, ‘your lyrics are the ramblings of a lonely solipsist’; I said, ‘I’m playing Sunday night – shall I put you on the list?’”)

The depravity of Glasgow Jubilee is at odds with the album’s poignant elegies – much to the delight of Moffat’s musical foil, Bill Wells. “Bill was really pleased with it,” he recalls. “I kind of tried to tone it down a bit with this record, but when I got to Glasgow Jubilee I just went, nah, I need to let go here. When Bill heard it he said, ‘I’m really glad – I would’ve felt short-changed if you hadn’t done something like that’.”

When I spoke to Wells for this paper last year, he enthused about Moffat as a collaborator – about their eight-year quest to make this album – and he touched upon a valid point: while Moffat is justifiably hailed as an outstanding pop poet and alt-rock icon, he remains overlooked as a singer. Granted, his aural verbalisms are more spoken word than operatic, but when his rugged brogue carries a melody, the cracks and closeness of his voice are vulnerable and convincing.

Is Moffat ever vexed that he’s not rated as a vocalist? “I think it’s quite understandable,” he laughs. “I can get my head round the notes, and you get an impression of what they’re supposed to be, but for me the feeling behind it is far more important than the technical ability, do you know what I mean? I don’t think anyone would argue that I can sing.”

Everything’s Getting Older by Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat is out now on Chemikal Underground.

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