ARCTIC MONKEYS: AM (2013)
1) Do I Wanna Know; 2) R U Mine; 3) One For The Road; 4) Arabella; 5) I Want It All; 6) No. 1 Party Anthem; 7) Mad Sounds; 8) Fireside; 9) Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High; 10) Snap Out Of It; 11) Knee Socks; 12) I Wanna Be Yours.
Either I am getting dangerously used to this band, or this is not only the best Arctic Monkeys album ever, but the first real, authentic proof of why these guys did need to get together in the first place, even if took them seven years to finally whip it out. I have no idea what happened. Maybe they all sat down, took a long time to think, ponder over the responsibility that undeservedly gained fame and fortune piles upon the aspiring artist, then took a solemn vow not to leave the studio until the «no-filler» principle reached a Beatlesque level. Not that the songs are in any way Beatlesque as such. They are simply all good, and it puzzles me.
Atmosphere-wise, AM once again cuts down on aggressive rock'n'roll and returns to the moody darkness of Humbug (see ʽMy Propellerʼ and all that follows), but this time, the darkness has been shaped and beaten into a much more precise form — presuming memorable riffs and evocative choruses, not to mention some very clever use of vocal harmonies. As if to state that they no longer plant their trust in bashing the hell out of everything, ʽDo I Wanna Know?ʼ opens the record with the sound of a drum machine, which could just as easily have been a regular drum part, but the song is not about drumming — it is about a dark night setting where the protagonist, drunk, bitter, depressed, but still retaining some cool, reflects on whether there is still a chance at reconnecting with his other half, and it works astonishingly well, with the feeling perfectly expressed by the melodic hard riffage and the contrast between Turner's irritated, sarcastic solo parts in the verses and the group's choir harmonies on the "Crawling back to you..." chorus.
Pretty much the same mood permeates the rest of the tracks, so that the entire album shares this nocturnal mood — not a dreamy, romantic, candle-lit night, but a bit of a werewolfish one, exacerbated by way too many cups of coffee, cigarettes, and self-revving-up into a state of rather inexplainable nervous tension. No other tune gets this more right than ʽArabellaʼ. Starts out quietly, grim syncopated bassline against lonesome guitar howls and hoots, then rapidly switches to «Sabbath» mode for a threatening bridge where Turner's singing is performed in a call-and-response pattern with the heavy guitar riff rather than in complete tandem with it, and this helps make both sides more imposing. Technically, it's a love song, with Alex serenading a mystical lady who "got a Seventies' head, but she's a modern lover" — but arranged as a complex heavy rocker, giving a fairly brutal edge to the romance.
Another excellent example — the aptly titled ʽFiresideʼ, but, again, it's not about cuddling down by the fireside, it's about how "Isn't it hard to make up your mind / When you're losing / And your fuse is fireside?": a tense, paranoid rocker, driven mostly by acoustic guitar, which keeps ringing out like an alarm system. The devil is in the tiny details — such as, for instance, the extra alarm signal from the organ that gets turned on just as Alex switches tonality on the third line of the verse. This sudden attention to subtle detail, or, at least, to meaningful and immediately noticeable sudden detail, is really a new turn for the Monkeys, as is a penchant for cleverer, ticklier riffs — check out ʽKnee Socksʼ with its poppy melody, sounding a little like Suzanne Vega with distortion, or the martial grunt of ʽI Want It Allʼ, which echoes Sabbath's ʽChildren Of The Graveʼ, but with a psychedelic twist instead of an apocalyptic one (with falsetto choruses and colorfully tinged lead guitar melting your mind against the heavy riffage).
When they start sentimentalizing the mood and slowing things down, nothing disastrous happens, either: ʽNo. 1 Party Anthemʼ goes a bit too heavy on the "come on come on come on" refrain, but the arrangement, the singing, and the vocal resolution of the chorus all gamble on «grand» and end up winning the pot. On ʽMad Soundsʼ, they try their hand at the good old R&B formula, and, astonishingly, it also works — with a long, subtle buildup to the "ooh la la la"'s of the chorus, which they ironically play upon in the lyrics: "...you just can't figure out what went wrong / Then out of nowhere, somebodcy comes and hits you with a... / Ooh la la la, ooh la la la...".
Of course, the Arctic Monkeys had been a «midnight-oriented» band from the very start. And, of course, the Arctic Monkeys never had, and still do not have, any grand, all-penetrating artistic vision that could shake the foundations of one's existence. They started out as relatively shallow hipsters, way too bent on proving their cool to have much time left for anything else. But if AM (their best album title so far, by the way), with its one-track orientation, does not pretend to solving the problems of the universe any more than its predecessors, there is at least nothing shallowly-hipsterish about it any longer, or, at the very least, they have learned to make music that can be enjoyed by a much wider audience than «cool people for the sake of coolness». Jealous lovers, pissed-off losers, old-school power pop and hard rock fans, all of those and other categories of listeners are bound to find something in common with the spirit of these tunes.
Whether this enthusiastic thumbs up is going to be an accidental exception or the start of a new, mature band cannot be predicted, but I am fairly sure that this new «midnight rock» formula is viable and, with the appropriate effort, could be advanced to even further heights. Another album like this and I might be joining Gordon Brown on account of this band.
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