Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert, prior collaborators and Scottish Album of the Year Award winners both, have come together on Here Lies the Body to create a saudade story that starts with former lovers briefly crossing paths and ends with an idyllic squat in the forest.
The tone of the fated meeting captured in “Cockcrow” is conveyed by the hands of Hubbert, fingers rapping nervously on the body of his acoustic guitar, the restless tic of someone checking their phone once a minute. Moffat and guest vocalist Siobhan Wilson (who also contributes cello on the album) trade lines with frank assessment of the two characters’ untenable connection, the compatibility of their lilting voices making it all the more difficult for the eavesdropping listener to accept. This is the album’s subtle friction: unsparing novelistic detail set against the beautiful threading of Hubbert’s guitar with Wilson’s cello, lush piano from Rachel Grimes, and saxophone from John Burgess.
Many albums that Moffat has made, from Arab Strap to his recent Scottish folk music travels with Where You’re Meant to Be, have been built around a knotted story, and Here Lies the Body is no exception. The plot, to the extent one has been conceived, comes quickly in the uneven lust of “Mz. Locum” and the spoken word travelogue through a woman’s youth in “She Runs”. “Quantum Theory Love Song” returns to the conversation between the ex-flames, Moffat hypothesizing how famously they’d be getting along in a parallel universe.
Then he stops himself, “I know what you’re thinking…”, and the song quietly flips its balance of wistful and playful, what she’s thinking being not that they might find love in another galaxy, but that the idea of the multiverse is just speculation anyway. Moffat’s cadence brightens, Burgess’ saxophone drifts lightly in, and you almost feel like you’re in a world weary parallel universe version of Gregory’s Girl, conversing over empty glasses on a dimly lit bar table instead of strolling through the Cumbernauld outskirts in the drawn out dusk. “And I’m sure you’re right,” Moffat concedes in one of the record’s most touching moments, “But let’s stare at the stars and see what we want to see.”
“Zoltar Speaks” is, of course, a more direct reference to another 1980s film, Big, though there’s no mention of Tom Hanks. The universe - this time real and not hypothetical - comes back again as well, on the closing “Fringe”. On a trip outside the city, a look up at the open sky reveals “Cassiopeia and Cepheus/Andromeda and Perseus/All one big happy family at last.” Of course, this is Moffat, so the stargazer is off for a pee in the woods. “She thinks she sees her shooting star/But she’s not sure enough to wish”.
Perhaps it’s the sensitive touch Hubbert has as he tugs his strings, but Here Lies the Body holds a sweeter and more sentimental Moffat than one might expect. Some of these songs could be parallel universe versions of Arab Strap tales; the scenes quite similar, but the perspective lightened, finding tender humor in human intimacy that’s tart but not bitter.