Arctic Monkeys ‘AM’ – Review

15 Sep

Listening to ‘AM’ for the first time inevitably takes me back to the first time I heard ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, as a 15 year old on a very overcast day in January. Arctic Monkeys were THE band of my generation and each subsequent album has felt like a vindication of my initial passionate investment in them. I will never get that excited by a new band again – the bands you discover at that age stay with you forever. They had songs I could relate to; definitely pop songs, but they weren’t like the other tunes that occupied the number one slot. They were edgy but accessible. They were like my gang but cooler. They sang about things that I experienced or wanted to experience. I could relate to their lyrics a little too well, and yet I could never hope to express myself in such an eloquent, verbose and funny way.

And yet these initial attractions have diminished over the years as new ones have emerged. They have grown, as I have, and our experiences have differed. We’ve ventured down very different paths, and yet here we still are. I’ve always felt that innate connection. As I look at them in 2013, headlining Glastonbury and unquestionably stealing the show from under The Rolling Stones nose, It strikes me that they are now pop-stars without qualification.They aren’t necessarily pop stars of the current mould (no twerking to be seen on that stage) or of any previous mould either, but they exude a confidence, a bravado if you like, that only pop-stars have. The rough edges have been smoothed over. The buzzcut became a shaggy mop became a quiff. The sweat and Greece became polish. After a decade as a band, Arctic Monkeys have finally become Arctic Monkeys. AM. They haven’t ‘sold out’ on those original principles (many of which fans imposed on them anyway), they’ve simply become the band they always had the potential to be.

It’s fitting then that this, their fifth album, is essentially self-titled – at least it would be if they ‘didn’t have such a stupid name.’ As it is, they decided to ‘initial it’, and thus ensured a whole host of connotations were made apparent. AM = Aftermidnight. For sure; this is a sexy, slinky, seductive record. Neon light riffs, grumbling bass sounds, disco bass drums, the type you hear coming through your walls when there’s a party next door. AM = Analogue Frequency. This is an album from an analogue age, which is not to say it’s ‘retro’ or ‘old fashioned’. I mean, it belongs to an age where people took care over records and used the best equipment money could buy. It SOUNDS amazing. The likes of ‘Number One Party Anthem’ and ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ have pure 1970s AM radio warmth. AM = as in a homage to VU by Velvet Underground. That band’s influence is all over this record, particularly the ‘Sunday Morning’-esque ‘Mad Sounds’ and the galloping ‘Fireside’. AM = AM, as in I AM living, I AM creating, I AM doing, I AM being. This is a record that moves and adventures and experiences. It’s vital and urgent. AM = the letters visually represent three mountain peaks. This is Arctic Monkeys at the top of their game, looking down at their competition.

The recording process was started little over a year ago, right after Arctic Monkeys became the only British band to appear at the Olympics opening ceremony. Fittingly, each one of these tunes is stadium ready, even if they carry a personal weight that feels intimate and close. Alex has never sounded more like he’s crooning in your ear. His voice now quivers and serenades. His lyrics are soft and romantic – rarely sarcastic or twisted these days. He’s often the victim but often the predator. On the album opener he’s crawling back to an ex, hoping the ‘feeling flows both ways’, on ‘R U Mine’ he moans, he begs, he fantasises, and he LONGS. On ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When Your High’ he is reduced to sending incoherent texts on wasted nights out.

Make no mistake – Alex has only one thing on his mind. Where as ‘Suck It and See’ was all about love, ‘AM’ is a record about lust. On ‘Knee Socks’ he reminisces about a girl wearing ‘Sky blue lacoste and knee socks’ whilst ‘Arrabella’ has a ‘Barbarella silver swim suit’. Alex smoulders over the details and he inhabits various Lothario roles. On ‘Number One Party Anthem’ he is a predator on the chase, on ‘Snap Out of It’ he is the scorned ex and on ‘I Want It All’ he is the greedy lover. Matt and Nick are his shoulder angels. Or shoulder demons. They whisper into his ear with their heavenly high backing vocals, sometimes repeating Alex’s lines, occasionally offering harmonies or counter melodies, usually recalling early Destinty’s Child or TLC. Sometimes they sound mocking, sometimes reassuring, sometimes comforting – unquestionably the add a unique flavour to the record.

Some other stray observations about the musicians; Jamie is finally starting to come into his own as a guitarist. In the past it’s been difficult to see what exactly he adds, but here his playing is astute and thoughtful. ‘Fireside’ is carried by the sunburnt shuffle of his acoustic guitar, ‘One For the Road’ is leant a minor key shimmer by some of his subtle staccato sounds. Matt Helders has been listening to a lot of Dr Dre. His beats are never innovative or particularly interesting (especially compared to the rich gold-mine of contemporary beat making) but the likes of ‘Arabella’ and ‘R U Mine’ show he’s still capable of doing something TNGHT, SBTRKT or Jamie XX can’t do – go ape-mental on the skins when the tune requires it. Nick’s grooves have always been reliably sturdy and they continue to groove along nicely here. He’s returned to the slightly funky sound of ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ as opposed to his more melodic work on ‘Suck It and See’ and it works perfectly.

The three singles find Alex in an interrogative mood. ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When Your High?’ and ‘R U Mine?’ On the latter Alex demands to know if the girl belongs to him. He buys into this possessive mind-frame for much of the album, often coming across as unlikeable or even slightly misogynistic – presuming the ex that has fallen in love after him must be ‘hypnotized’. On ‘Knee Socks’ he just assumes the girl will be his tonic to the January blues, seemingly never stopping to consider her feelings. ‘You could be MY baby’ he croons. But all his bravado is undone on the album’s finale, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ in which Alex confesses that he’s the plaything, he’s the ‘puppet on the string’, he’s the possession. ‘You call the shots babe, I just wanna be yours.’ It’s the most moving song on an album of seduction and heartbreak.

Every Arctic Monkeys album has felt like a peak but looking back now it’s easy to see each one as a natural stop-off on a journey that has led to ‘AM’. The band’s story arc is compelling and classic, especially when compared to the career progressions of their early rivals. The other day I was reading an old interview from 2006 where they were asked if they were worried about being a flash in the pan compared to Kaiser Chiefs. Such questions prompted Alex to ask ‘In five years time will it be who the fuck’s Arctic Monkeys’. They needn’t have worried; those other bands stalled as the Monkeys flew into fifth gear. 2006 now feels like a lifetime ago, for everyone concerned – Arctic Monkeys, Kaiser Chiefs, Me. Who knows where they’ll be in five years time. It’ll be hard to top the Olympics, Glastonbury and ‘AM’ but this being Arctic Monkeys, you wouldn’t bet against them trumping the lot.

10/10

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One Response to “Arctic Monkeys ‘AM’ – Review”

  1. beng237 September 16, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    thorough and accurate analysis 🙂

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