The Arctic Monkeys‘ fifth LP, AM, recorded earlier this year at studios in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, California, is the first release without any evident sign of the jittery Yorkshire adolescence the band was first defined by. The Monkeys were transformed entirely amidst the dust devils and tumbleweed of Joshua Homme’s alchemy lab in the deserts of Joshua Tree, California for 2009’s Humbug, and while the output has been golden, the true voice of the young men who came out of the West renewed is only now finding its full measure, two albums later. And now, with AM, we have documentation of their firm footing in greatness.
They returned to the desert earlier this year to “brown the garlic,” as frontman Alex Turner explains, and in the process extracted a spin of nineties hip-hop, seventies dark-rock and enchanting melodic inventiveness that makes AM easily among 2013’s most enthralling releases. The results are incredible, and no stylistic accident, but rather a carefully architected construction of the strongest survivors in their creative process. “It’s like a chemical reaction,” says Turner. “If you get the wrong amount of one element, smoke comes out of the test tube. There was a lot of demo’ing and dead ends.”
There are bands who remember the power of an album. The impact of that first riff, that initial collar-pop verse and guarantee of greatness to follow, the right uppercut of a second song to take hold and pull you deeper, hijacking the hips. Opener Do I Wanna Know? is a lava-in-the-veins creeper that alternates between popped-collar confidence and the anxiety-crippling discomfort of asking “Do I wanna know if this feeling goes both ways? Sad to see you go – sorta hoping that you’d stay…” Then, as the impossibly addictive R U Mine? kicks off, it’s entirely clear that we’re dealing with a classic in the making. The band debuted the live rendition of the erotically insistent jam at the London 2012 Olympic games, and hit a grand slam with the track’s galloping romantic urgency.
Mellow and contemplative, No. 1 Party Anthem brings a parallel-universe fade through woozy dryness and an understated yet unmistakable confidence that raises the track above the dirge of its suggested impact. Surely, the uncertainty of heart tugs at the cool, resulting in a tightrope of personality. “You’re on prowl wondering if she left already or not, her leather jacket collar popped like an antenna and never knowing when to stop,” Turner drawls through a weary, ominous lounge tenor. His razor’s-edge turns of phrase have hit a new slipstream of evolution.
Among AM‘s most admirable traits is the acknowledgement of its genetic disposition without overtly biting. Influence is rich but contributory in essence rather than theft. Sabbath is the proud father on the excellent Arabella, rife with horns-up-high riffage, Matt Helders’ explosive percussion and delicious psychedelic barbs like “She’s got a Barbarella swimsuit, and when she needs to shelter from reality she takes a dip in my daydream”. It’s a flush of classic rock greatness, with a rhythm section calling back to The Black Keys.
Then there’s the impact of their mentor, their Desert Godfather, rock shaman Joshua Homme. One For The Road takes a slow-step rockabilly twang into a bridge and chorus melody that’s utterly fucking brilliant – and buoyed even further by a buttery Homme guest solo. There is no sign here of looking good on the dancefloor – the aesthetic is haunting and captivating, while the confrontational step of Snap Out Of It throws falsetto shades before a pop-creep induction into a pleading demand to rise above one’s own bullshit. Homme’s langourous, echo-rich background cameo on Knee Socks is supplemental testimony to the flavors of influence finding homes in altogether alien territory, such as the rap-talk process after the line “Never stopped you letting me get hold of the sweet spot by the scruff of your knee socks”. The Queens of The Stone Age vibrations are strongest, however, in the chopping, anxious chord progression of I Want It All, complete with a falsetto-rich breakdown before a solo right out of Homme’s playbook.
Dreamy, devoted closer I Wanna Be Yours gives a longing, nuanced sendoff that reminds us that Britain’s best rock n’ roll band haven’t gone and drowned in the cheap cool of Americana. There’s a soft sexiness to a line like “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner, breathing in your dust – I wanna be your Ford Cortina, I won’t ever rust,” indicative of the romantic undercurrent of AM. Turner has found a specific intent of the heart, and along with his Monkeys he has climbed to the very top of their mountain, in the process evolving into one of rock n’ roll’s greatest hopes.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.