When I started doing research for this album, I noticed some interesting trends as far as reviews for ‘AM’ went. Of course NME was going to give it a 10/10; their whole existence can be summed up by the sarcastic masturbatory hand motion. Other than that, it’s hard to get a consensus on how good this album is. Opinions run the gamut of absolutely middling (Drowned in Sound) to, what I predicted, above average praise for a band whose peak was their first album (Rolling Stone, Alternative Press), to some fairly glowing reviews (Entertainment Weekly, This Is Fake DIY). The range of opinion confused me at first, as albums like this tend to have a solid opinion formed about that almost right away. Given the variety of effect the album had on people, this made me more interested in the content of the music than if it got consistent 9’s out of 10’s. You see, after Arctic Monkey’s fabulous debut, ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,’ they fell into the formula most 2nd Millennium indie bands fall into, being, a pretty lackluster second album. However, unlike their peers, they really pulled it out with their third album, ‘Humbug,’ which, while not matching the sheer kineticism of their debut, was a highly respectable change in direction. They followed that remarkably quickly with ‘Suck It and See,’ which I’ll admit, I had not listened to until preparing for this review because I’d basically written off their relevance as, “huh, ‘Humbug’ was ok, but I doubt they’re going to come up with anything spectacular from now on.’ Really though, ‘Suck It and See’ wasn’t anything worth seeing after all. It didn’t suck, it was just average – the kind of album I expected they would release in place of ‘Humbug’ as their third. While their peers mostly become written off completely after their third album, however, Arctic Monkeys continue to draw buzz, partly because they’re riding what the British musical journals call the ‘cheekiness’ of their debut, partly because they’re not arty enough to be complacent, and perhaps in no small part due to mentor Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age encouraging some more adventurous studio techniques. After listening to ‘AM,’ it is easy to see why the Monkeys continue to stay relevant.
The key to their success is their willingness to experiment, while at the same time keeping their heads about them without getting self-indulgent, things that are crucial to making good albums. The Monkeys came out at the tail end of the garage rock/post-punk revival trend, sometime after the ‘Room On Fire’ backlash, a year after Franz Ferdinand squandered their genius on ‘You Could Have It So Much Better,’ and just a few months before The Killers’ fall from grace with ‘Sam’s Town.’ Being witness to the cynicism that either had destroyed or was in the process of destroying bands in a similar vein as themselves, what made ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ the success that it was is that it was a no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll album, covering simple, relatable themes in a way that didn’t seem boneheaded. And while ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ did fall into some of the same tropes as the albums mentioned above, it didn’t receive such a harsh backlash, perhaps because it was still a fun listen, with “Brainstorm” being among the best songs in the band’s catalog, its droning intro riff hinting at their later flirtations with metal, with the song proper still being rooted in the post-punk sheen they at least partially descended from, and containing the menace which characterizes the band throughout their career. ‘Humbug’ drastically altered the course of their career, and while ‘Suck It and See’ was no great leap forward stylistically, it was a necessary step, showing that the band was not content with what they had achieved with ‘Humbug.’ Clearly they were eager to see what they could do next.
So what do I make of ‘AM?’ Usually, when bands release a self-titled album (given that their debut was not self-titled), it signals a shift to a more down-to-Earth musical approach and a desire to be taken seriously – from Metallica to Blur to The Beatles to Weezer (who are now on their 3rd self-titled album, likely working on their 4th – come on guys, get it together already), while the exact approach to this newfound desire to be taken seriously varies, and with different degrees of success, it’s an agreed-upon convention if an artist wants to dispel any preconceived notions about them. ‘AM’ is a curious entry into this convention. It is hard for me to tell, as with much about them, if they wish to be taken as very serious artists, or if they don’t much care for that and are quick to dismiss any prejudicial designs about them with humor and wit – the album is sort-of self-titled, thus signaling something of a similar approach to the above-mentioned artists, but it’s also just the band’s initials, as if they couldn’t be bothered to write out their entire name. This sarcastic approach to everything without getting needlessly ironic about things is incredibly endearing about them.
When the album starts off with that four-on-the-floor drum and the singular guitar on “Do I Wanna Know?” my first thought was, “oh, they’re biting on The Black Keys, this is gonna be a predictable, boring album.” But then the riff meanders around in a way The Black Keys would never be adventurous enough to do. And when the song carries on, it’s apparent that this is much groovier than the overdone blues-rock that’s been in vogue, but still carries a hint of that sensibility. I was immediately reminded of The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” the classic hit that deftly blended disco and blues. And it’s all done infinitely better than Franz Ferdinand’s attempt on ‘Tonight,’ which tells me that this isn’t some phase they’re going through. This is for real, and it’s good.
Perhaps it’s just the shattering of expectations that makes me really like this album. Even on tracks like “R U Mine?” which seems at first like a throwaway commercialized treat for the radio, the song structure is played with a bit, which, though it may not be truly great on its own, it hints at possible good things to come. On the other hand, it is still rooted in a lot of clichés given to their particular brand of indie rock, in that a lot of it does seem like filler; experimental filler which shows that at least they’re trying, and that’s awesome, but filler nonetheless. “One For The Road” is a good example of this, which, if I heard it on the radio, I would not be impressed at all, but the backup vocals do tread new ground for the Monkeys. “Arabelle” shows the band playing with a downright classic-rock sound in the vein of Deep Purple, without getting mired in either the willful idiocy of a band like Deap Vally, or the silly grandiosity of Wolfmother.
“No. 1 Party Anthem” is the most talked about track on this album, and rightfully so. It stands apart from the rest of the album in its emotive quality. Channeling ‘Plastic Ono Band’ or ‘Heroes,’ it tells of a man who, when pondering his feelings for a girl, is perhaps not as cool as his image projects. A tender moment that is both out of step yet wholly appropriate for the album. It doesn’t have all the sonic heaviness and detachment of the rest of the album, however it has the same weight, which makes it right at home and elevates it above similar, earlier tracks like “Flourescent Adolescent” from their second album.
That song signals a transition, the second side of the album being a bit more melodic and subdued. “Mad Sounds” has them brilliantly evoking ‘The White Album.’ While singer Alex Turner’s lyrics have been called into question a number of times since they began their reinvention in 2009, the simplicity of this track in particular totally justifies his approach. “Fireside” takes musical inspiration from Morrissey aka “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” The single “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” has a disco-meets-Queens of the Stone Age vibe, which makes me extremely grateful that their flirtations with dance are only occasional rather than album-dominating. Not that the tracks are bad, but less is more here, and keeps them from sounding like they’re exploiting a gimmick. “Snap Out Of It” has a glam-ish dance-hall feel to it. “Knee Socks” is mostly forgettable aside from the Michael Jackson-esque bridge, and closer “I Wanna Be Yours” is kind of an unspectacular way to end what began with such promise, with lyrics “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner,” but it doesn’t necessarily detract from the potential the band has from this point on.
Is it a classic? No, but it’s definitely not something that should be passed over either, which can’t be said of most of the bands from the scene they emerged from. Arctic Monkeys have given themselves license to do whatever they want musically without feeling self-conscious, and at this point their only real rivals in this regard might be Cage The Elephant. I don’t really expect them to become the next Beatles or Radiohead, as the NME might, but I no longer expect them to churn out horribly average albums, as I unfairly have up to this point. However, I’m growing a bit impatient on them fulfilling their potential, as it feels like their last two albums were supposed to be transition records as much as this one was. I likely won’t have long to wait to hear what they’re going to do next, but, as is expected with the Arctic Monkeys, whatever they do is sure to be unexpected.
Recommended Tracks: Do I Wanna Know, No. 1 Party Anthem, Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High