Today’s Klawchat is starting as I post this, so the transcript will be at that link once it’s over.
Arctic Monkeys have been superstars in the UK since prior to the release of their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, but have seen little breakthrough here in the U.S. other than having HGTV rip off their song “Fluorescent Adolescent” for the theme music to the show “Income Property.” Their first album was smart, often obnoxious, and punchy, a nod to old-fashioned rock-and-roll values but with more thoughtful and clever lyrics than their influences could ever deliver. Lead singer Alex Turner showed an innate sense for melody and drama, which he developed further over the Monkeys’ next three albums as well as with the baroque-pop side project The Last Shadow Puppets, but the band’s overall sound seemed directionless as they moved further from what made them instant stars in the first place.
Their fifth album, AM, released earlier this week, represents the band’s first clear, deliberate step forward since their debut, an evolutionary shift that regains the immediacy of Whatever People Say I Am… while introducing heavier elements, larger influences from the soul and funk genres, and ever-sharper lyrics. It’s their best album yet and worthy of the Mercury Prize nomination it earned the day after its release.
AM begins with the seductive “Do I Wanna Know?,” the first single released in advance of the album, with a Bonhamesque percussion line mimicking a heartbeat beneath Turner’s trademark wit and wordplay, even messing with meter on couplets like “So have you got the guts?/Been wondering if your heart’s still open and if so I wanna know what time it shuts.” That slower yet more intense drum-and-bass aesthetic permeates the entire album, with greatest effect on the mid-tempo tracks like the opener and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”
Track two, the 2012 one-off single “R U Mine?” (which made my top 40 songs of 2012), fits remarkably well into the new sound of this album, pairing a vintage Turner guitar riff – tuned down and turned up for 2013 – with a heavier but slower drum line, backing up vocals where Turner again plays with rhythm and meter in slightly unusual ways. That heavy feeling hits hardest on my favorite song from the disc, “Arabella,” which borrows the signature two-note guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” for its chorus even though the song is an ode to a woman with “a ’70s head” whose “lips are like the galaxy’s edge,” picking up the pace for the dramatic rush to the coda. Turner’s natural feel for irony and contrast works best on this track, where it falls short on songs like the morose “No. 1 Party Anthem” or the just slightly more upbeat “Mad Sounds.”
AM‘s back half, after that two-song lull, brings in different influences from the first half, starting with the Last Shadow Puppets-esque “Fireside” as well as the rousing call-and-response “Snap Out of It,” both of which wink at the earliest decades of rock music, where the genre was almost synonymous with pop. That latter track highlights Turner’s obsession with creating contrast between his music – here a mostly sunny jangle-pop track – and his lyrics, here telling an ex-lover to snap out of her delusions before life passes her by. I’ve also long admired Turner’s use of imagery where most pop lyricists rely on the same trite phrases and references to intangible feelings, from rhyming Tabasco with rascal on “Fluorescent Adolescent” to pairing “sky blue Lacoste” with “knee socks” on AM‘s penultimate track. Turner refuses to talk down to the listener regardless of the theme, an incredibly welcome attitude when so few bands, even alternative ones, seem to put the same effort into their words as they do into their sounds.
The influence of Turner’s friendship with Josh Homme – Turner appeared on Queens of the Stone Age’s 2013 album …Like Clockwork, and Homme appears on two tracks here – is evident throughout the album, as the Monkeys have borrowed a bit of QotSA’s blend of melodic sludge rock on tracks like “Arabella,” “Do I Wanna Know?,” and “One for the Road,” with Homme singing background vocals on the last one of those. The key to QotSA’s popularity has always been that Homme has the heart of a pop songwriter, and has the ability to translate that sensibility into other genres, like the stoner metal of Kyuss or the bar-blues of Eagles of Death Metal. Turner showed he could branch out with The Last Shadow Puppets, whose underappreciated album was like a lost 12-inch from the age of mono, but now he’s bringing that broader songcraft back home with an album that is heavy and slow, sinuous, and eloquent. It’s his best work yet, more mature and confident without ever seeming cocky, functioning as a complete work as well as a collection of great singles. If America doesn’t catch on to the Arctic Monkeys now, they likely never will.