After the Arctic Monkeys‘ successful foray into the desert on 2009’s Humbug, our expectations were set pretty high for a new studio effort from the group. Recorded in the Mojave Desert and produced by Josh Homme, that album was, according to the QOTSA frontman and king Vulture, designed to be the one where “they get weird, grow up and trip out”. Humbug certainly headed in that direction, finding the band changing their approach while boldly evolving as songwriters. Now that their fourth LP, Suck It And See, is finally here, the group demonstrate yet another shift, getting even further away from the sounds of I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor.
The opening chords on She’s Thunderstorms mark the first time the Arctic Monkeys don’t open an album by immediately blasting out of the speakers. Though it starts soft, and the menacing guitar eventually gives way to a great solo, the focus remains mainly on the vocal melody and the choruses. Early on, it’s clear that the band departed from Humbug‘s more sparse, psychedelic instrumental sections, and chose to give the sound of Suck It And See something of a pop-oriented aesthetic – a stated goal of theirs this time around.
On the second track, Black Treacle, the guitar goes a bit more to the front, but is still generally less prominent in the mix in comparison to the singing. That characteristic is prominent throughout most of the album, as the drums and bass carry the tune while the guitar acts as a mere background to Alex Turner’s vocals. The lead guitar eventually takes the forefront in between verses and solos, then steps back to the bottom of the mix to make more room for the singing. It’s more akin to the approach of Favorite Worst Nightmare, though lacking the energetic guitar spazz-outs from that record. Given that both albums share the same producer, James Ford, it comes as less of a surprise that this record doesn’t contain much of the sprawling, slow-building songs of Humbug.
None of this is to say that Josh Homme’s influence is unheard here, as there’s still a wealth of distorted, fuzzy guitars across the record, as on the chorus to The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala and pretty much all over Library Pictures – incidentally, two standout tracks. It’s also worth noting that Mr. Homme sings backing vocals on All My Own Stunts, though they’re barely noticeable at first.
Thanks to the prominence of vocal melodies here, Alex Turner’s compelling lyricism stands out. There’s a wide range of imagery here, sometimes within a single verse, going from the cute “I poured my aching heart into a pop song / I couldn’t get the hang of poetry” to the insane “That’s not a skirt, girl, that’s a sawn-off shotgun / And I can only hope you’ve got it aimed at me” on the romantic title track – with its not-romantic-at-all title. Even when he delivers seemingly nonsensical lyrics as “Kung fu fighting / On your rollerskates / Do the macarena in the devil’s lair / But just don’t sit down ’cause I’ve moved your chair”, or closes a track by singing “Give me an eeny meeny miny mo / Or an ip dip dog shit rock an roll,” they’re done with just enough seriousness to avoid devolving into jokes, and so off-kilter that they become some of the most memorable moments of the album.
When the group unveiled the first two songs from Suck It And See (Brick By Brick and Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair), we got a little cautious about our predictions for its sound, as the tracks were unlike anything from the previous album, and almost entirely disparate from each other. Within the actual context of the album, they still stand out, though more for their quality than their uniqueness. The first, containing the unusual inclusion of vocals from the band’s drummer, Matt Helders, remains admittedly odd in the band’s catalog, but after a few listens reveals itself to be an appealing, catchy piece of 60s-inspired pop-rock – the sort of which Beady Eye’s debut failed to to produce. The second (which made a better first impression with the audience) might very well be the band’s heaviest track to date, with a pounding bass that comes in after 40 seconds and carries on throughout the song, accompanied by thunderous guitars and drums. The track as a whole is ridiculously powerful, and perhaps it’s for the best that no other song on the album tries to emulate or come close to its sound, as it likely would result in redundancy.
Unfortunately, the tracklist position of Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair focuses a lot of the album’s energy a bit too early on. The fact that All My Own Stunts, the last truly heavy song of the record, serves as the opener for its second half, means that the last batch of of songs is more on the slow side of things. This hurts the flow of the record, as it could greatly benefit from having something a bit more uptempo towards the end. It’s also a disadvantage that the album shows so much of the softer side of the band in such little time: the songs Piledriver Waltz, Love Is a Laserquest and Suck It And See while amongst the group’s finest ballads to date, are far too mellow to be played in sucession. Luckily, album closer That’s Where You’re Wrong, channeling the best aspects of The Stone Roses’ sound, cheers up the ending just enough to kill a temptation to skip the last 4 tracks on repeated listens, and sends the record off with a good impression.
Like Humbug before it, Suck It And See is certainly a grower. The rockers are instantly approachable (as they usually tend to be), but the majority of the record, pop-oriented as it might be, is tough to digest at first. Part of this is certainly due to the band defying expectations, but it’s to be attributed mainly to melodies that are rich beyond a surface level. Though the band shows off their songwriting skills with pride (especially Alex Turner), and they deserve credit for doing so with elegance, the record as a whole misses a bit of that “grab you by the gut” element that was so ubiquitous on their previous LPs. They have found a strength in not needing to hit the listener over the head to get the point across, but if they did just that a bit more often on this record, no one would hold it against the band.
Suck It And See is yet another strong collection of songs from the Arctic Monkeys, but one that doesn’t come close enough to the high standard set by its predecessor. It will likely alienate some fans on a first listen – though, to be fair, the band has been constantly changing with every record of theirs, so it was only reasonable to expect them to do the same here. The reliance on pop crafting is welcome, though it’s for everyone’s benefit that the band aren’t ready to let go of their pounding rockers just yet. While pacing of the album could be improved, it doesn’t alter the quality of the songs here.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.