Album Review: Arctic Monkeys – AM

[Domino; 2013]

The novelty of file-sharing turned out to be both Arctic Monkeys’ worst enemy and greatest ally in their precipitous climb. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the accidental classic that the band recorded as teenagers, was lightning in a bottle, inspiring the kind of glitch-in-the-matrix hysteria that that no rock album has really done since. At that point, it was relatively easy to dislike them for what they represented, having been hurled into the pole position of British consciousness by a tidal wave of praise that many felt they neither deserved nor stood a chance of surviving. AM will no doubt encounter similar backlash – being declared the greatest album of the decade when it’s not even close to such will only serve to inflame. Laughable hyperbole aside, there’s a lot to enjoy here for anyone who’s interested in letting their music speak for itself.

Now residing in Los Angeles, Arctic Monkeys have again joined forces with longtime producer James Ford for their fifth album in eight years. Since their debut, the Sheffield exports have provided heaps of evidence against accusations that their success would be short-lived. Through their discography they’ve journeyed between garage, post-punk, stoner rock, and sun-kissed balladry with a level of musical skill that’s dispiritingly hard to come by in modern guitar music. As should probably be expected by this point, AM is another change of pace, kneading hip hop, blues and R&B into their repertoire. They’ve never sounded this happy to switch it up. More noteworthy than these new sonic elements is the fact that AM is Arctic Monkeys’ most melodically complex work yet, zigzagging through the gloom in lockstep with singer Alex Turner’s lively delivery. Making full use of Turner’s constantly improving prowess as a singer, nearly every song on here is helped along by two or three-part harmonies from of bassist Nick O’Malley, drummer Matt Helders and longtime buddy of the band, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme.

Part of what makes AM so much fun is that its influences are all over the map. You can hear Zeppelin and Cream, Erykah Badu and Aaliyah, The Smiths and New Order. The slower tracks reach back even further. The sparkling “Mad Sounds” is like the hungover pupil of “Sunday Morning” and “Two of Us.” For those who think Arctic Monkeys are at their best when they’re at their fastest and heaviest, there’s “Arabella,” a trippy love song with a savage riff that is forever indebted to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” Turner pulls out all the superlatives to describe this particular woman: “She’s made of outer space/Her lips are like the galaxy’s edge/And her kiss is the colour of a constellation falling into place.” I think he likes her.

But in contrast to their previous work, the lyrics are more slick than intricate, with the topics of drug use, deep space and lovesickness appearing frequently. The women in Turner’s life seem to be less interested in him than inebriation, and his respite comes in a similar form. Even he’s being a smart-ass though, he’s magnetic: “It sounds like settling down or giving up/But it don’t sound much like you, girl,” he quips on the feverishly catchy “Snap Out of It.” Leave it to him to make a come-on sound like a put down. With the rollicking glam of “I Want It All,” he just piles up a wish list, and then leaves you with this monster: “Said ain’t it just like you to kiss me/And then hit the road/Leave me listening to The Stones/2000 light years from home.”

Where AM falls down is in its pacing, plotting two blue-eyed ballads smack in the middle of the set, presumably to provide the listener with an opportunity to take a breath. “No. 1 Party Anthem” is the only song that really falls off the wagon, smelling just a little too much like leftovers from Suck It And See. The third downtempo track is sure to be the most divisive. Constructed around words from punk poet John Cooper Clarke, “I Wanna Be Yours”’s poignancy can easily be taken as overreaching goofiness. Not content to just soundtrack your party, Arctic Monkeys apparently also “wanna be your vacuum cleaner.”

AM’s real out-there moment comes on “Knee Socks,” courtesy of Josh Homme, who loops a ghostly wail over chirpy transistor falsettos, Jamie Cook’s twinkling guitar and a Matt Helder’s entrenched stomps. It’s a total blindside that neatly sums up the band’s growth. Arctic Monkeys started out as teens with sharp eyes and deep-seated cynicism reserved for those twice their age; they’ve evolved into one of the most interesting, enduring bands of the past decade. AM is a pitch black party record, full of menacing pop and grimy, indelible grooves drowned in bourbon. I think it’s safe to say that they won’t make another like it.