When Alex Turner debuted his greased quiff which then evolved into a good, old fashioned leather jacket sporting, American styled crooner persona which eventually completely possessed him in this year’s Glastonbury headline slot, I never imagined it would have played so heavily into the Arctic Monkey’s fifth record, AM. Thankfully, this is no bad thing.
For someone who wasn’t as convinced about the Sheffield quartet as seemingly the entire music listening public was when they exploded onto the scene with Whatever People Say I Am…That’s What I’m Not, Turner and crew have grown so impeccably upon me. They have matured in exactly the right manner and pace and have now turned into a well oiled machine which isn’t afraid to change up its style album to album. For me, Suck It and See was by far their greatest achievement…till now. And there is a continuation of just what made that album so great in places happening on AM. This, in particular, is a combination of funky bass lines, an eagerness to step on the fuzz pedal to crank up the heaviness and Turner’s ambiguous, psychedelic imagery soaked wordplay. But in fact, AM owes a great deal to their vastly underrated third album, Humbug. There, influenced by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, they went from tales of drunken nights out in Sheffield to hallucinations in the Arizona desert. On AM, there isn’t so much of the stoner attitude, but there is more Homme influence and Americanisation of their music.
AM may stand for a number of things, but the most appropriate meaning upon listening to the music within is a sense of crackly AM radio golden oldies – old time, blues, soul and rock standards. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the beginning of Songs for the Deaf – a crackle and hiss and familiar radio voice introducing the next number. But unlike the DJ there which promises songs that all sound the same, the Arctic Monkeys have once again changed up their sound. The record plays like a mash up of Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley ballads mixed with Motown soul, albeit with a polished 21st century production. The hip hop elements that Turner has been spouting in recent press for the album are there, but these flourishes – especially audible in the drum production – are more indebted to Danger Mouse produced Black Keys albums than to any hip hop. But this is in no way a criticism as Turner casts out his everyman poetry over a number of styles: sludgy groove ridden rock and roll (“Do I Wanna Know”), cheesy 50s style crooning (“No.1 Party Anthem”) and backed by bluesy “Sympathy for the Devil”-esque wooing (“One for the Road”). The song “Fireside” is truly something different: it contains doo-wop style scat singing backing vocals over a sinewy guitar line and incessant tribal drumming. The Arctic Monkeys have come a long way from “Mardy Bum”.
Lyrically, Turner flips between the imaginative metaphors, as in “Love is a Lazerquest” from their fourth record, and a kind of schizophrenic, paranoid about his lover attitude that crops up three or four times on the album. Clearly, Turner is tapping into something personal here or is portraying a character that gives more love than he’s given and who is aware of the emotional dangers in modern accidents like drunk texting and calling (this image pops up on “Do I Wanna Know?” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”). He just wants whoever he’s aiming these sentiments at to tell him that she wants him, such as on “R U Mine?”. In fact it is curious that all three of these songs are questions – there seems to be something or someone Turner wants to direct these at. The penultimate track, “Knee Socks”, is a highlight. Twinkly xylophone and a catchy guitar riff introduce it, which then breaks down and slows to a rhythm section driven track punctuated by alarmed guitar squeals. The lyrics tell a tale of a knee high socks wearing temptress straight out of a Led Zeppelin song, there are more mentions of numerical based imagery, phonebooks and blocked phone calls and a bridge right out of the 50s/60s cross over. The song sums up the style of the record before the odd, John Cooper Clarke indebted “I Wanna Be Yours” which contains drum machines and echoing guitar that’s sparse and breezy like a song by The xx but the 50s Americana influence remains – a sign of things to come?
This is the English group’s most American sounding album yet musically, but that Sheffield charm in Turner’s voice is not lost. It is truly a surprise to hear the Monkeys play in this style, sometimes reaching the kind of surrealist, facade of pleasantness and even cheesiness in David Lynch movies like Blue Velvet, though never becoming grating or annoying, and then opening up to reveal the heavy grime, paranoia and unhappiness underneath. The album is a joy to listen to – its 42 minutes absolutely fly by – and they deserve the gushing praise that they will receive upon its release. It’s hard to tell if this lives up to their previous best because while Turner’s adept lyrical talent remains, it gets, for once, buried beneath the dramatic change up in style. I think that is a good thing as there is no doubt that the band has musical talent beyond their frontman and this album has certainly given the others a chance to shine. AM sees the crowd pleasing, husky voiced Turner we saw at Glastonbury (something which did not go unnoticed and which turned out to be polarising) transfer onto record and the band have once again transformed into something entirely different. It is testament to their songwriting skill to say that in 60 years, if these songs are playing on some crackly, old fashioned radio station, they can be looked back upon fondly and the Arctic Monkeys can be admired as one of the UK’s leading musical exports with AM cementing that position.