opinion by BENJI TAYLOR
Brixton Academy, London, February 2006, the NME Awards Tour – Maximo Park are headlining, with support from We Are Scientists, Mystery Jets, and a band with a name so terrible that Noel Gallagher stated several months previous that the very title itself would doom the holders to failure. That band are Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys, and as the headliners take the stage after Alex Turner and co’s electric set, Paul Smith – the Maximo Park frontman – looks bewildered to see half of Brixton Academy’s occupants leaving before he and his fellow headlining bandmates have even played one note.
That night was just another fascinating chapter in the ever-impressive narrative arc of the early career of Arctic Monkeys, and an example of a pattern that would continue to repeat itself, as one-by-one they left their peers – the mass of landfill indie bands fashioned in the wake of The Libertines’ acrimonious withdrawal from the British indie scene – behind them. In the process, they became arguably not only Britain’s biggest rock’n’roll band, but its best.
Many of their 2006 contemporaries may have hoped that the thrilling riff-laden post-punk smash of their debut was a one-off anomaly, but Turner had other ideas. Instead, his band settled into a routine in which they’d return every few years with a consistently strong album that showcased a subtly evolving sound: delicately refining the winning formula of their debut on their sophomore, venturing into more abstract stoner rock territory on album number three, and gravitating towards lush and smooth indie-tinged melodic pop on their last LP.
Much has already been made of the band’s use of stuttering hip hop beats on AM, most notable on “Why Do You Only Call Me When You’re High”,”Arabella” and “One For The Road”. Also interesting are the ventures into Motown on “Snap Out Of It” (complete with an Alex Turner Northern Soul falsetto) and the glam-stomp swagger of “I Want It All”. On paper it shouldn’t work, but few writers understand as well as Turner the intricacies of the perfect pop song, or are able to master the complexities of genre-melding in the way that he does.
Turner has always been fond of a double-entendre, and AM is no different, with the greatest example being the title of the album itself. AM, as well as clearly referencing the initial letters of the band name, betrays the overarching theme of the album – a set of songs heavily indebted to the night; when the zeros on the clock line-up – the whiskey-sodden drug-drenched early hours of the morning when thoughts of the opposite sex weigh heavily on the mind.
Of course – Turner’s lyrics are the aural gel that hold everything in place. Though their songs have always been characterized by sharp inspired imagery and clever, tongue-in-cheek witticisms, the pithy putdowns and caustic character evaluations of the first two albums have been replaced by a worldlier vulnerability. And that’s how they draw us in, with themes and lyrics that resonate across the soundscapes they create, and characters we recognize in our friends and in ourselves, whether it’s the lovesick late-night drinker on “Do I Wanna Know?” (“I dreamt about you every night this week, how many secrets can you keep?”). Or the insecure romantic on “Number One Party Anthem” (“It’s not like I’m falling in love I just want you to do me no good…”).
In fact, there are so many moments of lyrical greatness on AM that it becomes difficult to keep track, whether he’s rhyming “mindbower” with “might know her”, using various areas of the cosmos as a metaphor for the striking beauty of the titular Arabella (“She’s made of outer space/ And her lips are like the galaxy’s edge”), or the barrage of bottled-lightning rhyming couplets that litter the bridge of “…Party Anthem”. In many ways “…Party Anthem” feels like the pinnacle of the band’s progress to date, a slice of gorgeous heart-melting balladry which takes the melancholic romanticism of “Cornerstone” and reflects it through the blissful indie pop lens of their last album. It’s glazed with the same ballroom organ that graced “Piledriver Waltz” and comes across as an older, more mature cousin to the tracks that adorned Turner’s solo work on the excellent Submarine EP.
“R U Mine?” and “Do I Wanna Know?” may be familiar but opening double whammies don’t come much better – they remain two of the greatest singles released in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Much of the album’s true beauty reveals itself after multiple play-throughs – the sexy glimmering patters of percussion that Helders provides on “…Party Anthem” for example, or the staggering interplay between the lead and backing vocals on “Knee Socks”.
Since their inception Arctic Monkeys have managed to continually sound fresh whilst maintaining their artistic integrity and things are no different on album number five. They’ve evolved certain factors of their sound and ventured into new territory, but AM is not so much a change of direction as it is an affirmation of all the musical elements that made the band exhilarating to begin with – inspired lyrics, screeching riffs and great melodies. [B+]
Stream the Arctic Monkeys’ AM on iTunes.