In much the same way that the career of The Beatles can be summed up as pre- and post-Revolver, Arctic Monkeys are now clearly in Sgt. Pepper territory with AM.
After the rough-and-ready, double-barrelled salvo of their first two albums which were littered with spiky agit-pop anthems about prostitutes, nightclub bouncers and one-night stands, third album Humbug heralded a huge paradigm shift towards a darker, rockier, more mature sound. It didn’t sit well with everyone, such was the departure from their cheeky-chappy, scallywag roots.
After perhaps playing it safe with the intelligent pop of 2011’s Suck It and See, the Monkeys have returned with an album which again confounds with its change in direction but raises the bar to stratospheric levels in terms of ambition and artistry.
Injecting hip-hop beats and R&B rhythms into the heavy rock sound they cultivated out in the Californian desert under the tutelage of Queen Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme on Humbug, AM shows once again that this is a band which views stagnation as the death of creativity.
Despite the massive leaps this album takes, it’s still very clearly an Arctic Monkeys record. The acerbic and observational lyrics which mark Alex Turner out as the most intelligent and dexterous lyricist since Morrissey’s heyday with The Smiths are still here on songs like “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and “No.1 Party Anthem,” but L.A. nights and the cult of celebrity now dominate his source material. Turner somehow avoids coming on like the ex-pat rock god of endless showbiz parties and manages to narrate stories of authentic experience from the surreal, corrupted heart of Tinseltown with that knowing Northern wink in his voice. It proves you can take the boy out of Sheffield but you can’t take Sheffield out of the boy.
Musically, they’re a world away from their 2006 debut. This is Arctics 2.0; a band of magpies snatching gems from every genre and not only making them their own but brushing them to a blinding sheen.
Songs like “Do I Wanna Know” and “One For The Road” swagger in on beats which invite languid rhymes while “R U Mine” fuzzes with stadium metal guitars and the funky-sexy “Knee Socks” has echoes of disco scattered amongst the falsettos and chugging strings.
“Mad Sounds” is almost alt-country in its mellowness and delivery but also nods a well-oiled quiff at the melancholic darkness of The Jesus and Mary Chain. The playing is faultless and tight throughout while the production crisp and professional yet avoiding the bloated excess which can come from huge success. AM is a brave, flawless move into a league of their own.
Everything the Arctic Monkeys have done before seems to have been building up to this groovy, infectious statement of intent. All the best experiments from their previous albums seem to come together here – and often within the length of one song. The wonderful “Arabella” for instance starts off like one of their standard off-kilter ballads before trowelling on the Homme-inspired crunchy rock guitars and stadium-demolishing drums.
AM is a record which is unafraid to wander off into songs which are wildly diverse from one another, giving it the feel of a late-era Fab Four album. And yet, as with the Beatles at their best, this is a cornucopia of styles which still sounds brilliantly cohesive.
“Fireside” with its Spanish guitars and soft vocal, is a wholly different beast from the thrilling glam stomp of “I Want it All” and the swaggeringly excellent R&B-tinged “One For The Road.” These in turn have little in common with the brilliant “R U Mine” which is a sultry and devilishly catchy rock workout.
What could be a jarring selection of disparate tunes, however, is carried off with aplomb by a band at the height of their powers. Freedom and confidence are wonderful things and Arctic Monkeys have embraced both to great musical effect on AM.
When one considers how dramatically the Arctic Monkeys sound has changed over the last seven years (while still managing to maintain its innate Monkey-ness), it’s very difficult to predict what will happen next. An indication of where they may fly to next will come from the band’s attitude to the AM songs after two years playing them on the road.
The band confessed that by the end of the Suck It and See tour they were sick of that set of songs which partially influenced the direction they took on AM. But what could be the reaction to this? They’ve been spiky pop upstarts, they’ve been hairy rock monsters and now they’re a greased-back groove machine. It’s anyone’s guess what they’ll come back as next – but this writer for one can’t wait to find out.
Reviewer: Nick Amies
IRC: Bill Pulice
You can read more of Nick Amies by visiting his webblog at http://ligger.wordpress.com/
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