This is not the first time I’ve written about Arctic Monkeys. There’s a good chance that this will not be the last time I write about Arctic Monkeys. And there’s good reason for that.
Last time I took up the subject, I left you, reader, with a note of encouragement—something along the lines of “Fight on, brave poet. Fight on.” Was it melodramatic? Perhaps. Do I regret saying it? Not at all. I still maintain that Alex Turner, whom I once deemed the “Poet Laureate of the Web Generation,” has his finger on the pulse of this generation’s musical voice more firmly than just about anyone, and his transformation as an artist proves as much. A surprising claim, perhaps, but let’s look at the evidence.
On September 10 of this year, Arctic Monkeys’ fifth studio album, AM, hit the eager ears of American listeners like myself. My first listen was—how do I put it—not exactly conflicted, but surprising in a sort of puzzled-head-tilt way. This music was great, but not exactly what I had expected going in, even knowing beforehand that the sound of the album was inspired by their riff-rocking Record Store Day 2013 single “R U Mine?” which is also the second track on the album.
Never before have bassist Nick O’Malley and drummer Matt Helders performed their backing vocals in a falsetto reminiscent of the backup singers of some ‘70s funk-soul band. Never before have Arctic Monkeys featured a grand piano, much less a drum machine, in any of their music. And yet the album kicks off with sonically enhanced foot stomps and hand claps! Where are the angsty “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor”-singing punk rockers from a middle class industrial English town, those power chord-pounders shouting in unison, “No surrender, no chance of retreat?” That shaggy-haired 2005 Alex Turner would probably laugh at the sheer corniness of the ooh la las that ring loud throughout this album.
So it’s a totally different sound for Arctic Monkeys, who, by the way, have now debuted all five of their studio albums at the number one spot on the UK charts, a feat accomplished by no other band in history. And yet, there’s no mistaking this music for anyone’s but Arctic Monkeys. Even amid all the new sounds—Wikipedia alone lists eight different genres from which this album “draws inspiration”—Turner’s voice rings clear; the tight, simplistic interplay between guitars remains strong; and the rock-solid rhythm section of O’Malley and Helders still maintains that driving punch that completes their recognizable sound. So how do they do it? With their hands in so many cookie jars, aren’t the Monkeys sure to lose sight of themselves and their musical identities? Well, as it turns out, no. Let’s take the track “Fireside,” for example, one of the hidden gems on AM. The track opens with a single acoustic guitar chord strummed at nearly flamenco pace over a tom-heavy tribalesque drumbeat—hardly a sound one would associate with the Arctic Monkeys of old. The same can be said for the shoo-wops heard in the backing vocals of the chorus, and the bridge breakdown that features what sounds a lot like a harpsichord. Yet when Turner croons over a smooth rolling bass line, “that place on memory lane you like still looks the same but something about it’s changed,” you know exactly where you are: strolling through that syllable-heavy turn of phrase, backed by a perfect rhythmic spinal cord, touched with the accents of guitar licks that we’ve come to know and love for nearly ten years in the Arctic Monkeys arsenal.
Here’s the problem with our favorite artists. We want them to keep playing the music that made us fall in love with them in the first place, yet when they get too comfortable in that position, we get bored. On the other hand, if they try to mix up their sound too much, we clamor and cry like the reactionaries we are. It’s unfair of us, really. But, every once in a while, a band comes along that walks this line perfectly, effortlessly. They give us everything that we want, that taste of the cozy, familiar past, and the exciting vitality of a step forward. Cue AM.
Alex Turner himself said of the pervading sound on Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album, “[it’s got] like a Dr. Dre beat, but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster.” Okay, so at least the desert rock of Humbug and Suck It and See gets some love, and the punk-rock simplicity of the Fender Stratocaster is a nod to the Monkeys’ more traditional sounds. But Dr. Dre? Ike Turner? I don’t think these artists have ever been mentioned in the same breath as Arctic Monkeys, unless of course that breath uttered the sentence, “You can bet the house that Arctic Monkeys will never sound like Dr. Dre or Ike Turner.” But that’s where you’re wrong, as Alex Turner himself might say. Take a listen to “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High,” one of the lead singles off AM, and tell me you can’t taste the Matt Helders driven-Dre grooves bumping through your speakers. Then listen to “Snap Out Of It” and try to convince me there’s not a hint of Ike Turner’s boot stomping big band bravado oozing through Turner’s croon and Jamie Cook’s subtle yet piercing guitar licks. Turner has further cited Black Sabbath, Outkast, and Aaliyah as among the other influences on AM. The man knows how to cast a wide net. And yet, the opening track, a slow burning “Do I Wanna Know?”, has that infectious guitar riff that you can hum just as well as you can sing the vocals—a move Arctic Monkeys have become well known for (see “Brianstorm,” “Red Lights Indicates Doors Are Secured,” “Brick By Brick”). And the poignant, ironic verses of “No. 1 Party Anthem” showcase the masterfully poetic oddball lyricism for which Turner has become so well known (see “Cornerstone,” “Fluorescent Adolescent,” “Suck It And See,” et al). Some may not like the change of pace. Some may say they’ve spurned their roots, become too “American,” whatever that means. But the criticism at least suggests a sort of dynamism, for it would be much worse if critics were saying, “this sounds no different than the first few albums.” No, my friends, the Arctic Monkeys are alive and well, and they’ve accompanied one hell of a supporting cast to guide them further into their musical journey, which appears far from over—AM has already become the highest-charting Arctic Monkeys album in the United States, topping even their record breaking debut.
So, why should you still listen to Arctic Monkeys? Because don’t you need a band whose catalog is so diverse yet so familiar that you can listen to any song of theirs from the past eight years without the urge to skip ahead after thirty seconds? Come on, did you really expect those teenagers who crafted “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” to still be chugging out the same punk tunes at age 27? People’s tastes change. It’s part of the reason you may be sick of Coldplay putting out the same album for the past ten years. Alex Turner said of his band’s most recent studio effort, “[something] about it feels like this record is exactly where we should be right now.” So the answer is no, you’re not expected to go on ripping holes in your jeans, listening religiously to The Libertines, and writing about watching girls from the corner of a party with a red Solo cup in your hand. You’re older than that now. Wiser. More mature. You’ve experienced more of the world. But it’s probably not a bad idea to keep on being you, as best you know how. So go listen to AM, wherever you find yourself, and know that Arctic Monkeys will meet you in stride. And if you ask me, the music is damn good too.