It’s been 8 long years since The Arctic Monkeys first smashed their way onto the indie rock scene. They sure came out swinging, brandishing the adrenaline fuelled foot stomper “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” and its parent album ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ which both went straight to number one on the UK charts.
Despite having a predilection for inconveniently long titles, they knew how to write a damn good rock song and deliver it in no uncertain terms.! However since that initial burst of energy and creativity, the band hasn’t been able to reach the bar they set so high early in their career.
Enter ‘AM’. The title’s short… good start, but does it fulfil expectations? Initial sales figures say yes, but that’s never any real indication. Stew says….
You get a pretty good idea of the overall sound of this album from the opening track “Do I Wanna Know?”, its stomp & clap beat accompanied by dark guitar tones and plaintive falsettos. To be honest it’s a slightly underwhelming introduction, but the cobwebs are quickly blown away by its successor “R U Mine?”. This track is MUCH more like it! The guitars are chunky and fuzzy (with a dash of surfy vibrato thrown in for good measure) and the band have clearly been taking in a fair bit of Queens of the Stone Age et al (Josh Homme even contributes guest vocals on a couple of tracks, but more on that later). Despite the song’s title being written in txt speak, it’s a cracker. Big riffs, pounding drums, impassioned vocals, a genuine crescendo… yup, txt msg 2 is a winner. As is typical of most of the tracks. It’s not especially variable in terms of sonic exploration, but the band has deliberately headed in a particular direction and it’s certainly consistent. Compared with other Arctic Monkeys material, it’s fairly dark and despondent. If one were to experience visual synesthesia while listening… grey is most definitely the colour.
Besides the instantly recognizable vocals of Alex Turner, the band is barely distinguishable as the one which spat out “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor’ back in 2005. The riffs are bleak and akin to early Sabbath, there’s maudlin piano & Hammond organ (“Number 1 Party Anthem” and the very Nick Cave-ish “Mad Sounds”) and some sultry shoo-wop, shoo-wops in “Fireside” and “I Want it All”.
In keeping with its reasonably focussed stylistic direction, the record churns along with a cantering momentum that (while far from frantic) prevents the mood from becoming mired down in bleak apprehensiveness.
When broken down into its composite parts, AM essentially resembles a blues album. Minor keys and pentatonics form the basis of all the songs (bar the melancholy countrified swing of “Number 1 Party Anthem”), only they’re mixed with some disco-esque beats and nicely executed octave falsetto vocals.
Josh Homme’s contribution is fairly limited in terms of what’s been committed to disc (a couple of backing vocals), but his mere presence in the studio seems to have motivated the band considerably and despite his fleeting appearance, he’s all over this album in terms of influence… and a good thing it is too, as though the album isn’t a masterpiece, it’s still pretty good, and surprisingly sinister in parts.
Standout tracks are the epic “R U Mine” which is probably the most QOTSA-ish moment on the album, but it’s kinda loose and features flurries of drums, monolithic riffs and a great instrumental pause while Turner rants unaccompanied: “She’s a silver lining lone ranger riding through an open space in my mind when she’s not right there beside me and I go crazy cause here isn’t where I wanna be!!” before the riffs come crashing back in to build the track to its conclusion.
Despite the rest of the album being a bit spartan in comparison, “Number 1 Party Anthem” is one of the most interesting tracks as its delightfully slow tempo and countrified sheen make for a nice respite from the dusky mood of the rest of the album and being plonked right in the centre, it breaks up the album nicely.
“Fireside”, “I Wanna Be Yours” (despite containing the lyric “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner, breathin’ in your dust. I wanna be your Ford Cortina, but I will never rust.”), the lead up single “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and “Mad Sounds” are all good without being spectacular.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a good album… probably the best since their debut and I admire (and quite enjoyed) the gloomy and slightly heavy direction they’ve taken, but despite its spectacular sales figures, it’s no masterpiece. It’s fairly derivative, some of the song arrangements are quite obtuse and the quality of the lyrics is strangely inconsistent.
The band may have seemingly set forth in uncharted territory, but they’re hiding a map drawn by other pioneering musical cartographers behind their backs.