“AM”: Confused, and Fascinating For It
“AM” is the Arctic Monkey’s most anticipated album since their sophomore release, 2007’s “Favourite Worst Nightmare,” and the band is well aware. With attention high since the release of single “R U Mine?” over a year ago, many doubted that the Arctic Monkeys could ever recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle excitement of their first album, 2006’s “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.” Although their past couple albums have been solid and they showed a commendable willingness to experiment with new styles, the Arctic Monkeys have struggled to maintain their reputation as Britain’s most exciting new band. So where, then, do we find these once-all-over-the-place ruffians in 2013?
Perhaps surprisingly, “AM” sees the Arctic Monkeys reclaiming their throne as Britain’s wiliest young upstarts in fine style. On their fifth album, the songwriting is more assured. If some of the childish exuberance and who-gives-a-damn attitude of their previous albums has been streamlined, the album makes up for that loss in pure songwriting chops and a permeating atmosphere of bittersweet doubt. The songs, and their subjects, are often the same as in the bands’ past — sweat, whiskey and all. But the approach here is that of someone who’s loved and lost. Even the album’s catchiest melodies are bristling with paranoia and desperation. They’re still horny and looking for a fight, but they’re more aware of the fact that they’re doing so to fend off feelings of doubt and loneliness and to keep them from pursuing something they suspect is more fulfilling. Then again, knowing this only makes them want another drink.
Of course, these young hooligans still know how to have fun, but the fascination of the album comes from how they intermingle the bitter and the sweet musically as well as they do lyrically, a combination which few bands can pull off. (Rock music’s most underrated band Thin Lizzy comes to mind, along with the almighty Zep, to name an obvious inspiration.) The moments of revelation are too numerous to count. The opening numbers “Do I Wanna Know” and “R U Mine?”, both previously released, are slinky and seductive yet righteously rocking — on the surface, ready to kick-start any party or backroom brawl. But it’s not cliché cock-rock. “Do I Wanna Know?” is seductive, but there’s an aura of unease about it: the curiously restrained chorus could just as easily soundtrack an after-party full of hidden regret and social exclusion as it could a more rambunctious night on the town. “R U Mine?” echoes, the air-guitar-worthy riff contrasting with its airy, almost ghostly background vocals and adding to its lyrical themes of loneliness. On the surface it’s all swagger and stomp, the perfect accompaniment to the first round at the bar kick-starting a long night out. But it’s also as if they’re always asking for one more drink to keep themselves from thinking of the real world for a few more minutes. Most party-heavy bands won’t admit to this duality of debauchery, but the Arctic Monkeys do.
The songs are self-critical, reflecting the objectifying tendencies of a generation of youth reared on misogyny and aimless consumerism. Especially in light of recent attention-getting hits like “Blurred Lines” which turn male self-doubt into objectification fantasies or the paranoid, verbally-abusive styling of Jack White, these songs are refreshing for their ability to tackle issues of sex and desire from an assumedly male perspective without resorting to oppressive depictions of women as purely valuable for sex or as temptresses. If there’s one way rock music needs to grow up, this is it, and the Monkeys (of all bands!) show admirable maturity and nuance here.
Of course, if you want to be reductive, many of the songs here are still about sex. Maybe they’re just a mess of ideas and sounds with no unified vision? Maybe Alex Turner and company have no idea what they’re saying, and maybe the mixture of debauchery and world-weariness is a happy accident. But isn’t that the point? This is a slightly more focused, more mature form of reckless abandon, but it’s still reckless abandon. Like the protagonists of their songs, the Arctic Monkeys are proud to be confused and all over the place, and they do it with enough confidence to make it work. And did I mention they rock pretty hard, too?
If the aforementioned numbers are the first guests to the party, they don’t come alone. From the shockingly melancholic and ironically titled “No. 1 Party Anthem” to the psychedelic/creeper take on The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” entitled “Why’d You Only Call me When you’re High?” to the Lou Reed — the master of the melancholic party song — dead-ringer “Mad Sounds,” every song here works. There’s also the sultry, late-night high of “One for the Road,” and the righteously rocking yet understated “Arabella,” which transitions almost jarringly from its too-quiet verses to its Jack-White meets Black Sabbath riff-driven chorus. More importantly, despite the contradictions, these songs work together. Even the catchiest numbers (astoundingly, placed toward the end of the LP), “Knee Socks” and “Snap Out of It” aren’t pure pop but maintain an air of mystery and dread, as though the hook is batting away the impending hangover in the morning.
It’s the same sound that attracted a young Josh Homme, who served as sort of a muse and provides a smattering of backing vocals for “AM,” to found both Kyuss and the reigning kings of rock music, Queens of the Stone Age. And if this is a victory lap for his coming off of this year’s return-to-form “Like Clockwork,” then it’s also a reminder that he doesn’t want to be crowned king without a fair fight from the competitors. Are there comparisons here to Queens of the Stone Age? The sound is bluesier and more psychedelic to be sure, but by and large many of these numbers wouldn’t have been out of place on a QotSA album. Although this resemblance has garnered some attention for supposedly distancing the Monkeys from their unique, quintessentially British sound, this misses the point. Historically, combining British gutter-punk and American blues has been the m.o. of more than one great rock band, and both working-class sounds have produced results which reflect the spirit of historical oppression and rebellion in both countries. Be it a young teenager rebelling against parental authority mixed with early 80’s era social conservativist Thatcherism, or an African-American bluesman feeling the ache of a divided nation, rock music and its influences are inseparable from the oppression which birthed it. At some points, “AM” echoes the crash-crash-boom and heavy riffage of another group of young Brits who took to American sounds to react to their conservative, British factory town upbringing — Black Sabbath. Those guys didn’t necessarily have a clue what they were rebelling against, either, but they made some pretty kick-ass music in the process, music infused with the spirit of rebellion. Rock music is founded on wanting to say something and not knowing what it is; to quote Roger Ebert, “If it did know, it would lose its fascination.” Here, the Arctic Monkeys lash out and remind us why they are one of the reigning champs in this long line of rebellious rock music, and why they’re still hungry underdogs not afraid to acknowledge that they have no idea what they’re doing and are damn proud of it.