No new album would be complete without a “the album we’ve always been waiting to make” quote straight from the band, but when drummer Matt Helders asserts exactly that in the press notes for the Arctic Monkeys’ fifth studio album, AM, you can’t help but feel inclined to agree. Talk of more beats and fewer guitars pervaded the build-up to today, release day, as Alex Turner and his bandmates at last indulge their once-latent hip hop fantasies. In truth, that’s less than half the story: rhythms and grooves are prominent, yes, but then again they always were. Even their gloriously trashy early records were tight as a coiled spring, Turner spitting erudite lyrics at breakneck speed while the band stuck glue-like to Helders’ powerful, and increasingly adaptable drumming. It was, and still is, much louder in the mix than it might be in your so-called ‘standard’ rock band.
AM is a quick and smart, if still concise and at times brash album, but its real triumph is just how joyful it truly is: a band at the top of their game, making a genuinely schizophrenic set of songs tied together perfectly by the inherent Arctic Monkeys-ness of ’em.
Five seconds into the album, that swamp-laden riff kicks in on Do I Wanna Know?, and you instantly know you’re in safe hands as it slinks and stomps along somewhere between the band’s sweaty, bloated Humbug effort of 2009, and the gloriously spangled silliness which marked out much of its successor two years later, Suck It And See. We know, too, of R U Mine? – a track originally released over a year ago to coincide with Record Store Day 2012, and here deceptively repositioned right at the record’s very fore. It doesn’t so much set the tone, as much as it brazenly adds Homme brawn and breathy backing vox to the pot of ingredients still brewing. They’re brought to simmer on Arabella, who nicks a riff from Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, and tarts herself up with a creepy, crawly lyric about a girl who’s “got a Barbarella silver swimsuit.” Turner has of course always shared a common lineage with fellow Sheffieldian curtain-twitcher Jarvis Cocker, and it’s thus that he quips of her lips being “like the galaxy’s edge”, before following it up with the seedy couplet: “Rubs her lips ’round a Mexican Coke/ Makes you wish that you were the bottle.” I Want It All, meanwhile, proves a glammed-up T. Rex tramp replete with a falsetto Prince-y shoo-wop vocal, and a laser beam guitar solo of which Matt Bellamy would be proud.
The album’s centrepiece, however, and undoubted highlight, comes with the gorgeous run of No. 1 Party Anthem and Mad Sounds. The former shares DNA with Only Ones Who Know and The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala – a swoonsome ballad in the style of Life on Mars? during which Alex turns on the Americanised charm to commemorate the hazy atmosphere of trawling a house party looking for someone “to do me no good, and you look like you could” in a beautifully smoky croon. Moments later, Mad Sounds recalls Turner’s Submarine soundtracking, plus The Coral at their Put The Song Back best, with that very band’s erstwhile mercurial guitarist, Bill Ryder-Jones, incidentally guesting on the record. Fireside, on which he features, is a funky, bassy, Outkast-y bounce-about, and pushes the tempo for Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High? which continues to sound a deceptive single in itself. Still the album’s most straight-up hip hop piece, it somehow lacks their usual deftness of lyrical touch, instead preferring to paint a rather simplistically bleak picture concerning missed calls and awry SMS text at the end of a long since expired evening. Simultaneously, it sounds oddly like The Real Slim Shady.
But for all the awkwardly self-conscious James Dean photo shoots and drawling Vegas stage personas, the most notable thing about the Arctic Monkeys’ 2013 incarnation is the sheer confidence the music exudes. Snap Out of It is an Absolute Radio hit-in-waiting once again recalling both Muse and Outkast, with these two supposed inspirations owing more to the sense of unrestrained scale and total lack of fear for the ridiculous than anything. The song, and indeed the whole album, is catchy, unabashedly ludicrous, and remarkably sincere. And Knee Socks is cut from that same cloth, coming as it does with a breakdown straight outta the Timbaland Bible of middle eights that, although again delivered in skyscraping falsetto that has this time been robotically mangled and shipped off into outer space, drifts perfectly into its swirling, multi-layered runout groove. And then there’s I Wanna Be Yours.
An elegiac John Cooper Clarke plea transposed into an slow 505 march, Turner yearns: “Let me be the portable heater, that you’ll be cold without” as the poem is put through the ‘Monkeys’ steely machine. It leaves a wistfully romantic aftertaste to an album which frequently refrains from becoming too introspective in favour of celebrating the rash fun of being young, wildly talented and utterly surefooted. Both surprising and at once familiar, AM sees the Arctic Monkeys evolve yet further, and ensures we’re left awaiting their next move with excitement, curiosity and, of course, complete assurance.
Released: September 9th, 2013 [Domino]