Back in 2006, Arctic Monkeys dealt with their prompt ascent to fame in a curious fashion: they did their best dissociate themselves from the expectations laid on their still-broadening shoulders by a salivating British press. The sardonic and acid-tongued quartet’s not-so-subliminal attempts to undersell their status as the first true products of the internet were almost as entertaining as their music. Trying to impress everyone and no one all at once, a title like Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not seemed too fitting. Non-Britons —presumably unfamiliar with the phrase from which it derives— will likely misinterpret the supposedly cheeky title of their fourth effort, perhaps taking it as an indication that the lads haven’t grown up much in the last five years. But just one listen to Suck It And See will show that not only have the lads matured, their sound has too.
The record’s lineage is pretty easy to trace. The band is tinkering with the same stripped down sound that Alex Turner provided a one-man rendition of on the Submarine soundtrack. It almost always feels like there’s less going on than there actually is, and even in the more energetic moments, the edges have been sanded down. But the mellower the band gets, the more they sound like a whole. The Humbug-friendly middle section aside, this is a very warm and subdued set of songs. Elements that have been present, but secondary in the past are now splashing around in the forefront. Jagged riffs have given way to strummed chords, and the guitars often dovetail and render themselves indistinguishable from one another. There’s also a more refined emphasis on rhythm. Most of Nick O’Malley’s basslines are often understated and Matt Helders’ drumming is less a dominant force than a steady presence, though still quite creative.
These points may sound like criticism, but they aren’t; this is just a different type of Arctic Monkeys record. A prettiness that seems almost inadvertent at times permeates the songs. Even with a full band, Submarine standout “Piledriver Waltz” feels featherlight and tumbles gracefully into your ears; album opener “She’s Thunderstorms” kicks off with an eerie riff the gently splays into cascading drums and submerged guitars; “Reckless Serenade” is perfectly saccharine pop, with Turner conveying clumsiness in sublimely poetic fashion: “The type of kisses where teeth collide/When she laughs the heavens hum a stun gun lullaby.” Still, the edge that made the band so initially exciting hasn’t been completely abandoned. “All My Own Stunts” is an exquisitely moody desert stomper that has Josh Homme’s fingerprints all over it, while “Library Pictures” is a bipolar beast that recalls the rawness of tracks like “Still Take You Home” and “Pretty Visitors.” Distortion engulfs Turner’s voice while his slippery melodies girdle lines like “Been watching all the neon blossoms flickering” which, coupled with its delivery may be the most potently psychedelic image he’s ever conjured up.
But the lyrics expand well beyond acid trip visuals, and they remain the band’s biggest draw. Turner’s elaborate storytelling has transformed into something more abstract and amorous, which is complemented by his softened vocals. Self-referential moments were explicit on previous efforts, but here the line is blurred. On the gaudily-titled “Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” Turner proclaims “I took the batteries out my mysticism and put ‘em in my thinking cap,” and the song’s brilliantly simplistic hook gives you time to parse and unravel the lyrical gems. More often than not, Turner is mellifluous, not cynical. On the retro title-track, he swoons “Jigsaw woman with horror movie shoes / Be cruel to me ’cause I’m a fool for you.” The Stone Roses-tinged closer finds him in a more meditative mood: “Don’t take it so personally / You’re not the only one / That time has got it in for / Honey, that’s where you’re wrong”.
If nothing else, Arctic Monkeys have proven themselves to be consistent. Even though this is occasionally to a fault here, the quality of the songwriting is such that complaints of slightness or a lack of genuine surprises will likely be voiced by only a small few. Suck It And See is an almost seamless step forward, reaffirming the notion that the band’s shelf life is probably much longer than initially estimated. More importantly, it proves they still have places to go.
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