Album Review: AM (Arctic Monkeys)
At this stage in their career, there’s really no denying the Arctic Monkeys’ legendary credentials. The Sheffield four-piece have been big names ever since the excitable days of 2006, but this has been the year to cement their status as icons of modern music: a band with such verified longevity and credibility that its members are worthy of rubbing shoulders with The Rolling Stones. At this summer’s Glastonbury Festival, one couldn’t help but feel it was a comparison of sorts between the two bands: the rock-and-roll legends of the previous generation posed in conjunction with the icons of the 21st Century.
As much as some of Arctic Monkeys’ early followers bemoan the group’s apparent discarding of their original manifestos, it’d be a push to classify the Sheffield foursome as a band prone to making quantum leaps in style. Even during the worldview-stretching years of Humbug, Joshua Homme and co. have played the role of mentor figures, rather than stepping in as stylistic dictators. (Whatever the contrarians argue, playing moodier, murkier jams does not automatically render Arctic Monkeys a QotSA-ripoff. ) And besides, the central appeals of the group have remained intact thus far: Alex Turner’s tongue-twisters still dance mischievously around well-tuned guitar dynamics, built atop foundations of Matt Helders’ elemental drumming. And even if they’re no longer touting Sheffield dancefloors and taxi ranks in their discourse, the mark of consistent quality lies in the group’s ability to remain sonically engaging.
So no, we really shouldn’t be too surprised by their latest evolution, which resembles an odyssey into the bruising territory of slick Californian rock. Yet of course, it’s not as straightforward a tag as that. AM is a record infused with a variety of flavours, ranging from contemporary R&B and garage-rock to hip-hop and blues. These ingredients are by no means overt individually, because when joined together as a whole, they coalesce into a singular sound, which – quite happily – is recognisably the work of Arctic Monkeys.
Although it lacks the immediate warmth and humanity of 2011’s Suck it and See, AM is a record brimming with personality, as with every one of the band’s previous full-length releases. Their recent tour with The Black Keys has evidently taken root in the members’ collective psyches, most notably in the blistering riffs and thumping beats which shape the likes of ‘I Want it All’ and the excellent ‘Snap Out of It’. Although there are other prominent influences to be heard, AM perhaps most clearly reflects the blues-rock typified by that Ohio two-piece, from the faux-Gothic gloss of those guitars (witness the opening melodies of ‘Knee Socks’) to the sexually-charged lyrical content.
By now, all listeners will be familiar with the opening two-punch of ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ and ‘R U Mine?’, and in the context of the album, both work very well indeed. In particular, ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ is the perfect introduction to the Monkeys’ latest incarnation: a slow, deliberate mixture of grinding guitars and call-and-response falsetto vocals. But it’s after these singles that the album sets out its stall definitively, with the fantastic pairing of ‘One for the Road’ and ‘Arabella’, both of which augment one another so dazzlingly that it’s easy to view them as a singularity. The former is a spooked, slinky glimpse into Turner’s night-time crusades, opening with a lament regarding “relegation zone” hearts, before the gleaming surface buckles beneath a meaty solo from Jamie Cook.
But ‘Arabella’ is the juggernaut of the two, condensing the album’s key strengths (lyrical acrobatics, fever-dream erotica and subterranean drum beats) into three-and-a-half minutes of gold. It begins with Cook’s sparse guitar plinks tiptoeing around an ominous bass rumble, before unleashing a monster chorus which is as catchy as it is crunchy. “Her lips are like the galaxy’s edge,” Turner breathes in summary of the titular femme fatale; “and a kiss the colour of a constellation falling into place.” It’s a confident, jaw-dropping beast, best listened to LOUD.
Both songs also demonstrate the band’s canny ability to weave dazzling bridges into their songs, which find ways to bring their vignettes of the night to exhilarating new heights. It’s an asset employed to fantastic effect several times over AM, and never better than on the penultimate march of ‘Knee Socks’, wherein the mid-tempo strut collapses into a scat-esque vocal break from Helders, with additional crooning supplied by Homme himself. It’s a moment of stylistic and aesthetic bravura, yet it’s pulled off seamlessly. Much of the second half of the album contains similar gems. The rhythmic romp of ‘Fireside’ (described by bassist Nick O’Malley as featuring “wood groove” – whatever that is) incorporates some lively “shoo-wop”s to great effect, and the latter positioning of ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’ highlights its melodic strengths.
All of the songs on AM are impressive, aside from the slightly superfluous ‘I Want it All’, which comes off as a watered-down version of ‘The Blond-O-Sonic Shimmer Trap’: the beautifully menacing B-side of yesteryear. In addition to this slightly throwaway cut, AM also stalls from time to time lyrically. Of course, Turner himself is a master of his craft, with a well-matured ear for melody. The issue here, however, is that his accounts occasionally feel a little anonymous. On standouts such as ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ and ‘Arabella’, Turner’s examinations of dangerous love are electrifying, but there are times when his phrases feel slightly put-upon: a selective switch to a standard template, rather than an organic development. AM remains enjoyable, but this time out, Turner’s words do occasionally lose some of their sparkle when the topics seem overly familiar.
But these quibbles are hardly make-or-break, and when everything is taken into consideration, there’s little about AM that fails to impress. Five albums (and eleven years!) into their career, the Arctic Monkeys have travelled well, without losing sight of their signature interplay between tumbling words and thrilling music. There’s no telling how far they’ll push themselves to travel in the next decade, but it’s safe to assume that it’ll be a fascinating journey wherever they decide to turn.
“It’s much less picturesque without her catching the light / The horizon tries but it’s just not as kind on the eyes.”
Posted on September 13, 2013, in The Music World and tagged Album Review, Alex Turner, AM, Arctic Monkeys, Do I Wanna Know?, Humbug, Joshua Homme, Matt Helders, R U Mine?, Suck it and See, The Rolling Stones, Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.